April 21, 2019

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Opinion

Scrappy blue-collar Team Canada making unlikely trip to medal round

Canada players celebrate after the quarterfinal round of the men's hockey game against Finland at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Gangneung, South Korea, Wednesday, Feb. 21, 2018. Canada won 1-0. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)</p>

Canada players celebrate after the quarterfinal round of the men's hockey game against Finland at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Gangneung, South Korea, Wednesday, Feb. 21, 2018. Canada won 1-0. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 21/2/2018 (424 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

GANGNEUNG — The question here was never whether Canada could put together a team to win a best-on-best hockey tournament.

That question was taken off the table the moment the NHL decided — for a lot of reasons, some of which even made sense — to pass on these 2018 Winter Olympics.

Would the likes of Connor McDavid, Sidney Crosby and Mark Scheifele have had their way with the rest of the hockey world here? They’d have been the favourite, for sure.

Canada won the last two OIympic golds and, more recently, ran the table at that quirky World Cup of Hockey in September 2016 — and this year’s team would have been at least as good, and probably better, than any of those squads.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 21/2/2018 (424 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

GANGNEUNG — The question here was never whether Canada could put together a team to win a best-on-best hockey tournament.

That question was taken off the table the moment the NHL decided — for a lot of reasons, some of which even made sense — to pass on these 2018 Winter Olympics.

Would the likes of Connor McDavid, Sidney Crosby and Mark Scheifele have had their way with the rest of the hockey world here? They’d have been the favourite, for sure.

Canada won the last two OIympic golds and, more recently, ran the table at that quirky World Cup of Hockey in September 2016 — and this year’s team would have been at least as good, and probably better, than any of those squads.

But we’ll never know for sure.

And so with that question out of the way, this year’s Olympic men’s hockey event instead became about settling a very different, but also intriguing, question: Could Canada duct-tape together a next-best team out of spare parts, castoffs, passed-overs, has-beens and never-weres and go on a run in a 10-day Olympic tournament?

That answer came here Wednesday less than a minute into the third period when former Winnipeg Jets forward Eric O’Dell snapped a faceoff back to the point and defenceman Maxim Noreau let rip with a one-timer that beat Finnish netminder Mikko Koskinen for the only goal Canada would need in a 1-0 quarter-final victory over Finland

It tells you all you need to know about the blue-collar brand of this Team Canada that the two offensive heroes on this night were a guy whose 41-game Jets career was memorable only for being so forgettable and an undrafted 30-year-old defenceman with six games of NHL experience who was last seen toiling in the German league.

And the defensive hero? Well, that was backup Canada netminder Kevin Poulin, a fifth-rounder for the Islanders way back in 2008 who had to come into this game four minutes into the second period after Canada starter Ben Scrivens was injured.

Poulin was fantastic, making a huge stop immediately upon entering the game and then settling in nicely for the long haul, turning away all 15 shots he faced.

It made you wonder why he wasn’t Canada’s starter all along. It also made you wonder why he’s not the Islanders' starter.

The win over Finland advanced Team Canada to Friday’s semifinal (6 a.m-, CBC) when they will face Germany for a trip to the gold medal final. Yes, seriously — Germany.

The Germans stunned the entire hockey world with a 4-3 overtime victory over Sweden in another quarter-final Wednesday to advance to face Canada.

How unlikely is that story? Well, the last time Germany won a medal in men’s hockey they were still called West Germany, the year was 1976 and the Olympic city was Innsbruck. The Germans won bronze.

How excited were the Canadians to learn that the only thing now standing between them and the gold medal game is Germany?

True story: O’Dell was doing media interviews when word came in that Germany had just scored in overtime to defeat the Swedes. A reporter leaned in to tell O’Dell that Canada would be playing the Germans in the semifinal.

O’Dell’s face brightened and he couldn’t contain his enthusiasm. "Perfect," he answered.

That is not the perfect answer, of course — unless you are deliberately trying to create fodder for the bulletin board in the German dressing room.

O’Dell realized what he had done immediately, quickly walking back his honest enthusiasm for playing Germans in hockey with a mumbled, "It doesn’t matter."

Of course it matters. Ask the Czechs — whose prize for eliminating the Americans in their quarter-final on Wednesday is a date with a powerful Not Russian team in Friday’s other semifinal — if they’d rather be playing the Germans.

Heck, ask the Germans if they’d rather be playing the Germans.

It is worth noting at this point that Russia advanced to the semis with a shellacking of Norway in their quarter-final Wednesday and are still the betting favourite to win gold here this weekend at 2-3. Canada is the second favourite at 2-1, followed by the Czechs at 7-1 and the Germans at 25-1.

Still, a Team Canada that stumbled its way through the preliminary round — losing in a shootout to the Czechs and getting a scare from Korea — is now guaranteed to be playing for a medal here, the colour of which is yet to be determined.

A win over Germany would send Canada to the gold-medal final for the third-straight OIympics against either a Czech team that memorably eliminated Canada in a shootout at the 1998 Nagano Games or against the Russians, with all the attendant history that would entail.

A loss to Germany — hey, they just beat a very good Swedish team, so anything is possible — would send Canada to the bronze-medal game.

Now, in a normal Olympics, playing for bronze in men’s hockey would be a slap in the face for Canada and Canadians. Crosby doesn’t get out of bed for bronze and neither would most Canadians.

But these guys? You got the impression watching them mob each other on the ice after that quarter-final win over Finland that they would play their hearts out again if bronze is what it comes down to.

It was weird to see a Team Canada get so excited over a win in the quarter-finals, but again, this isn’t a normal Team Canada.

"It’s a very emotional time for all of us," said 31-year-old defenceman and Morden native Chay Genoway. "Just playing in the Olympics, playing for our country, and we knew all of Canada was maybe watching this one."

It’s worth remembering how much pressure was on Canada and how easily this game could have ended in a very different result. Canada was outplayed badly by the Finns in the first period and with Scrivens lifted for injury, this one had the makings of a Canadian hockey disaster that we’d be talking about for years to come.

But instead, the Canadians battled back, taking the play to the Finns for the entire second period and staying patient even as Koskinen stymied their every effort.

Their reward finally came early in the third period on a faceoff in the Finnish zone that O’Dell said after the game was a play designed for him to draw the puck back to Noreau.

"We had a set play there and, fortunately, I got it right on Maxy’s stick and we know what kind of shot he has and it was in the back of the net," said O’Dell.

O’Dell was one of the last players to make this Team Canada squad but he’s made a huge contribution, both as the centre of a very effective fourth "energy" line and also offensively, with a goal and an assist in Canada’s last two games.

Eric O’Dell is as unlikely a hockey hero as this country has ever had on a stage like this. They all are, for that matter.

Are they the best? No, the best are playing back home this week.

But they took a huge step here Wednesday towards proving they’re the best here. And that’s all any Canadian can ask.

paul.wiecek@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @PaulWiecek

Paul Wiecek

Paul Wiecek
Reporter

Paul Wiecek was born and raised in Winnipeg’s North End and delivered the Free Press -- 53 papers, Machray Avenue, between Main and Salter Streets -- long before he was first hired as a Free Press reporter in 1989.

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