Hockey Canada officially introduced Willie Desjardins as their men’s Olympic hockey team head coach on Tuesday. The former Vancouver Canucks head coach will lead the defending two-time Olympic gold medalists at the 2018 PyeongChang Olympic Winter Games, but who will skate for Canada in South Korea remains the biggest unanswered question of all.
Former NHL goaltender and 1992 Olympic silver medalist for Canada, Sean Burke, was also formally appointed as Hockey Canada’s Olympic general manager. The pair now face the task of building an Olympic-caliber team without plucking athletes from the NHL player pool. Despite swirling online rumors last week regarding an alternate NHL schedule, which suggested players like Sidney Crosby, Jonathan Toews and Carey Price could possibly reprise their roles for the Maple Leaf in 2018, NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly came out this week saying, unequivocally, no such schedule exists.
Desjardins’ Team Canada hiring comes after a cringeworthy conclusion to his third year as head coach of the Canucks, which ultimately ended with his firing. The Canucks wound up finishing the season 29th overall. After the All-Star break, the Canucks finished their season winning just seven games and losing 22, three of those losses coming in overtime. In his three seasons, Desjardins’ overall coaching record for the Canucks ended at 109-110-27.
Calling the opportunity to stand behind the bench for Canada “amazing,” Desjardins promised his coaching staff would “go hard at it everyday.” The challege, as with any Olympic hockey roster, is getting players unfamiliar with one another to gel with limited prep time.
“We’re gonna have to bring this team together quickly, and they’re gonna have to have buy-in, and I think Willie’s the perfect guy to get our players to buy in,” Burke said.
As Canada moves down the path without their NHL stars, Desjardins and Burke are expected to build a roster comprised of players with past-NHL experience, some currently playing in professional leagues like the AHL, Russia’s KHL, plus other European leagues in Sweden, Switzerland and Finland.
Canada’s first incarnation of the new national men’s team is scheduled to play back-to-back tournaments in Russia in August – the Sochi Hockey Open Aug. 6-9, and the Tournament of Nikolai Puchkov in St. Petersburg, Aug. 14-17.
“These first two events allow us to continue a player evaluation process that began last season with our Deutschland Cup and Spengler Cup teams,” vice-president of Canada’s hockey operations and national men’s teams, Scott Salmond said. “We will continue to look at the best available players to us – these two tournaments being the next opportunity to see some of the talent we can select from.”
Hockey Canada announced their men’s team will play five tournaments in seven months in all, along with potential exhibitions in South Korea days before the start of the Olympic Games.
Team Canada assistant coaches Dave King, Scott Walker and Craig Woodcroft were also introduced at Tuesday’s event, along with three-time Stanley Cup champion and two-time Olympic gold medalist goalie, Martin Brodeur. Brodeur is listed as a management group member for Hockey Canada and will offer his expertise and opinions to assist in player selection Burke revealed to Canada’s SportsNet after the ceremony.