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Canada's hockey teams double down
Men Past Olympic teams have all been demonstrably great - although perhaps a bit dull - Cathal Kelly writes, but this year's motley crew brings a sense of fun

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Friday, February 16, 2018 – Page B15

GANGNEUNG, SOUTH KOREA -- If anyone defines the Replacement Killers nature of the Canadian men's hockey team here in South Korea, it's Wojtek Wolski.

An NHL journeyman for eight seasons, he's spent the past several years bouncing around the KHL.

A year-and-a-half ago, Wolski went head first into the boards during a game and broke his neck. Immediately afterward, he believed he was paralyzed.

His first target was getting the feeling back in his extremities. His second was walking. His third was being able to play with his kids.

Not so long ago, putting on skates was Wolski's Olympics. Now he's in the Olympics.

On Thursday, he scored the fourth and fifth goals in Canada's 5-1 opening-game rout of the Swiss.

It's one thing when Sidney Crosby scores this kind of goal. It's just one of many.

For Wolski, however, it's one in a million. Not the goal, but the chance of it happening.

One game in and he was already ruminating about what it all meant, especially in regards to his injury.

"I always think about it. Sometimes maybe a little too much," he said. "There's so many times when you look at it and think, 'Is this worth it? Is this what life's all about?' I'm just so grateful."

While Wolski spoke, assistant captain Chris Lee - a 37-year-old who has played in Sweden, Germany and Russia, but never the NHL - was over in another corner of the room giving everyone that, "And you may ask yourself, well, how did I get here?" look.

"The dream continues," Lee said. "I hope I don't pinch myself and it's gone."

When the NHL decided to take a pass on Pyeongchang, no team expected a greater relative decline in quality than Canada.

The Russians still have a few names. The Swedes, Finns and Czechs were all raised on international ice.

Canada's roster is full of men who've reached the stage of just hanging on. Most are far from home, in secondary hockey markets even by European standards. Places such as Linkoping, Kazan and Lugano. Places it's possible you've never even heard of.

They aren't the secondary stars. They aren't stars at all.

They are the guys who were either never meant to succeed at the highest level or, at some point, failed to.

The question going into Thursday's game was "How good are they?" which is another way of asking "How bad are they?" On the evidence of one evening - and compared with a Swiss team that is often described as "dangerous" (a euphemism for so-so) - they are not bad at all.

This team has had very little time together, but that's the case for everyone here. There is a widespread belief that whatever Europeans lack in skill, they compensate for in graft and teamwork. It's a sort of benign Canadian hockey chauvinism.

We believe everyone else is not good enough, but geez, they do try hard.

In Vancouver in 2010, a collection of Swiss irregulars took Canada's best to overtime in the opening round. Though no one's bothered to check in on them lately, it was assumed they would provide that sort of test again.

Afterward, Canadian coach Willie Desjardins seemed to suggest that he half expected to drop it: "... Win or lose, this game's behind us."

But it was the Swiss who were infected by the problems everyone suspected Canada might have - a lack of cohesion and understanding. For long stretches, they could not escape their own end. Even their line changes were ragged.

Canada had no issues in that regard. The team looked like a team. This iteration is, as you would expect, a bit more grinding, a bit chippier, a little prone to attention drift.

But, for one night at least, there was no decline in performance output from the previous Winter Games to these. Canada dominated the first two periods.

The Canadians went pearshaped in the third, but not so much that you'd notice. All in all, they put in a good shift down at the hockey mill.

The one moment of NHLesque brilliance was Wolski's first goal - skating the length of the rink, turning two Swiss defenders inside out and wristing it into the corner.

If he'd tried it in the NHL, he'd have had his neck broken again at the blueline. But at this level, against this competition, there will be such opportunities. Canada gave up a few of them themselves, which they will eventually be punished for. But there isn't enough time for this thing to get past being a work in progress, so who knows.

Result aside, the transition from what it was like four years ago to what it's like now is stark.

They put Canada in the smaller of two hockey arenas here in Pyeongchang. Though tiny, it wasn't full. None of the names on the backs of jerseys rang out.

Instead, it was a lot of: "Oh yeah, that guy. He's still playing?" There were no saucer passes.

Aside from Wolski's moment of inspiration, no one dropped a shoulder on anyone else. You could tell several Canadians were suppressing the urge to really rub someone out, because that's what a lot of them do for a living.

And the result was ... fun?

Canada's past few NHL-based Olympic teams were demonstrably great.

But they were, dare one say it, a trifle dull. Since they didn't need to take many risks, they didn't.

As a result, watching Canada play men's hockey in Sochi was like watching a python swallow a rabbit - it took forever and you knew from the beginning how it was going to end.

Not any more. It could go any which way (although at least we know it won't end in utter disaster).

This Team Canada may not be anywhere near as good as the previous iteration. But on Thursday, the Canadians proved they are good enough to make this interesting.

Associated Graphic

Canada's René Bourque, right, scores on Swiss goalie Leonardo Genoni as Dominik Schlumpf tries to defend during the second period of their preliminary-round matchup on Thursday.


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