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This article was published 7/11/2017 (1051 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Zach Whitecloud is a 20-year-old, second-year business student at Bemidji State University who you almost certainly have never heard of.
Had things unfolded in the normal way this winter, that’s probably the way it would have stayed.
But we live in strange times, on and off the ice.
So it is that the Brandon-born blue-liner donned a Maple Leaf for the first time in his life this week and took to the ice in Switzerland as part of a rag-tag bunch of Canadians who are over in Europe right now auditioning to become Canada’s Olympic men’s hockey team.
Surprised? You don’t know the half of it.
"Surprised doesn’t begin to describe it," Whitecloud told me this week in a phone interview from Biel, Switzerland, where Hockey Canada is using something called the Karjala Cup as a dress rehearsal for a little thing called the 2018 Winter Olympics.
"When I got the call from Mr. Burke a couple weeks ago, it took me a few minutes just to gather my wits. I probably said thank you... I don’t even know how many times."
"Mr. Burke" is, of course, Sean Burke, the man entrusted with the unenviable task of putting together a competitive men’s hockey team for the Olympics in a winter in which the NHL has forbidden the country’s best players from participating.
Burke is GM of the 2018 national men’s team, while former Vancouver Canucks head coach Willie Desjardins will be behind the bench in Pyeongchang, South Korea.
Together, the two men are trying to weave together a cast of wanna-be’s, almost-were’s and, let’s face it, a few has-been’s into a team the most demanding hockey fans in the world can be proud of.
You thought you had a tough job.
What, exactly, that team will look like had been the best-kept secret in hockey until last week’s unveiling of Canada’s roster for the Karjala Cup, a six-team round-robin tournament that includes, with the exception of the Americans, all of hockey’s major powerhouses: Canada, Russia, Sweden, Finland, Czech Republic and Switzerland.
In announcing the roster, Burke made it clear anyone looking for an early glimpse of what Canada’s Olympic team might look like should take a long, hard look at the 26-man roster in Switzerland.
"We are bringing together a group of players who are on our radar for the upcoming Olympic Winter Games as part of our ongoing evaluation process, with the goal of fielding the best possible team next February," Burke said in a statement.
So what can Canadians expect in Pyeongchang? Well, in a lot of ways, the three Manitobans on the Canadian roster in Switzerland — Whitecloud, one-time Winnipeg Jets centre Quinton Howden, from Oakbank, and Morden-born journeyman defenceman Chay Genoway — offer a pretty representative cross-section of the players Burke will have available to him.
Whitecloud — just two years removed from junior hockey (he played three seasons for the Virden Oil Capitals) — is exactly the kind of young American college player Burke is going to need if Hockey Canada cannot work out a deal with the CHL that would allow Canadian major-junior players to take part in the Olympics.
Believe it or not, those discussions are still ongoing and Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman reported recently the talks have not exactly been friendly, with many junior team owners expressing reservations about losing their star players to the Olympics for a couple of weeks in the middle of their season.
If cooler heads prevail and the junior players go, a player such as Whitecloud will almost certainly be on the outside looking in when they light the cauldron.
But if the WHL, OHL and QMJL join the NHL and stay home, it’s all hands on deck and a guy such as Whitecloud becomes a bona fide Olympic prospect.
Then there’s Howden, who got a brief taste of the NHL last season — the Winnipegger suited up for five games with his hometown Jets — but is these days toiling in the KHL.
Howden was selected 25th overall in the 2010 NHL draft by the Florida Panthers and is one of a few former first-round blue-chip prospects on Burke’s roster in Switzerland — Simon Depres (Pittsburgh Penguins, 30th overall, 2009) is another — looking to try to parlay the chance at an Olympic spotlight into a rebirth of their NHL careers.
Howden has carved out a spot for himself in the KHL with 10 goals and six assists in 29 games with Minsk Dynamo this season, but he told me this week his dream of returning to the big show, by whatever path necessary, still burns bright.
"Every kid wants to play in the NHL," said the 25-year-old Howden. "I’m just trying to prove myself here this week."
Then there’s Genoway, who is — quite literally — a one-time NHLer: his NHL resumé consists of the single game he suited up for the Minnesota Wild in the 2011-12 season and the one assist he recorded in that game.
A career point-per-game guy in the NHL? Of course Canada could use a guy like that.
Look, at age 30, even Genoway readily admits his NHL days are probably behind him. But with some solid contributions in the KHL the last four seasons — he had seven goals and 18 assists in 52 games last season with Jokerit Helsinki — he thinks he might still have something to contribute to his country in its hour of need.
Burke obviously doesn’t disagree. More than half of the players on Canada’s Karjala Cup roster are over the age of 30 — longtime AHLer and current KHL defenceman Chris Lee clocks in at a spry 37 — suggesting it’s aging veterans such as Genoway who could ultimately make up the bulk of Canada’s lineup.
"I’m excited to even have an opportunity to put on that Canada jersey in February," Genoway told me this week.
But whether Genoway and Howden get that chance isn’t entirely up to Burke. There was a report earlier this week the KHL is now threatening to forbid players from competing in the Olympics if the International Olympic Committee decides to ban Russia from participating as a nation in South Korea as punishment for the elaborate state-sponsored doping scheme we now know the Russians set up for themselves in Sochi in 2014.
The IOC is expected to announce early next month what, if anything, they’re going to do to punish the Russians, and they’re getting pushed hard by countries such as Canada and the U.S. to, at a minimum, ban Russia from the Games but allow their clean athletes to participate under a neutral flag.
If that happens, the KHL says it will keep its players from participating in the Olympics, and that would create a situation for Genoway and Howden, among others, where an unexpected Olympic opportunity created by the NHL boycott would, in turn, be taken away by a KHL boycott.
While that would create even further headaches for Burke, I wonder if a KHL boycott might also be the best thing that could happen to Canadian hockey in this unusual OIympics cycle.
The biggest loser if the KHL also stays home would be, of course, the Russians. If the men’s hockey event in Pyeongchang were to then come down to a simple matter of which hockey nation has the deepest grassroots to draw upon, I think Canada wins all day long.
So, too, would the game of hockey. Because while it has undeniably been a blast to have the very best hockey pros taking part in the last five Winter Olympics, my most enduring Olympic hockey memory isn’t Sakic in Salt Lake City, Utah, or Crosby’s golden goal, but rather the rag-tag bunch of American amateurs who authored 1980’s Miracle on Ice.
You can watch millionaires play hockey any night of the week, nine months a year. But if hockey is to truly represent who we are as Canadians, what’s so bad about a bunch of ordinary ones strapping on the blades and a Maple Leaf for a couple weeks and reflecting who we really are?
They might surprise you. Ordinary Canadians thrust into extraordinary circumstances? From the field of battle to the field of play, that’s been a winning combination for generations.
email@example.com Twitter: @PaulWiecek
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.
Updated on Wednesday, November 8, 2017 at 7:21 AM CST: Added placements
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