Olympic journey begins for Canadian men's hockey team — in Latvia

Team plays exhibition in Riga before heading to Pyeongchang

Olympic journey begins for Canadian men's hockey team — in Latvia
Andrew Ebbett and the rest of Canada's men's hockey team will play a series of exhibition games in Latvia in preparation for the Olympic tournament in Pyeongchang. © Melanie Duchene/Keystone via AP

By Tim Wharnsby, CBC Sports

RIGA, LATVIA — From the youngest player, 25-year-old Christian Thomas, to the oldest, a pair of 37-somethings in Chris Lee and Chris Kelly, the dream has begun in earnest for the journeymen of the Canadian men's Olympic hockey team.

Most of the 25-player roster gathered here on Monday and has been put through paces by head coach Willie Desjardins and his staff this week.

But as the group has grown in numbers, there still are nine players missing. Rene Bourque, Stefan Elliott and Derek Roy have been playing with their respective teams in Sweden. Andrew Ebbett, Mason Raymond, Maxim Noreau, Max Lapierre, Linden Vey and goalie Kevin Poulin have just finished up their pre-Olympic schedule in Switzerland.

All eight are expected to join their new Canadian teammates in time for an exhibition game against the Latvian national team on Sunday.

Desjardins has preached an up-tempo, physical game to his group. He wants the Canadians to play hard and be hard to play against.

"We really have the sense that we're going to play a high-tempo game," defenceman Chay Genoway said. "Everyone in the lineup will be leaned on. We want to do things by committee. We want to bring a lot of energy and not play the trap style or flow style that a lot of the European teams do.

"It will be a fun style, a style that we're all going to have to feel good and taking short shifts. We really will be going after them."

Unorthodox locale? Not for GM Burke

Canadian general manager Sean Burke chose to hold the nine-day training camp in Riga because he immediately fell for the city on his scouting trips to Europe last fall. Geographically, the capital city of Latvia is a central locale for the players in Russia, Sweden, Germany and Switzerland to travel to before the team flies to South Korea on Tuesday after its exhibition game against Belarus.

Hockey Canada has a strong relationship with the Latvian Ice Hockey Federation. Tickets for the Latvia-Canada game at the 10,300-seat Arena Riga on Sunday swiftly sold out.

About 100 curious observers, from young hockey players to senior citizens, showed up to watch practice at a suburban rink on Friday. There also were a handful of local minor hockey coaches in attendance, so Canadian assistant Dave King donned a microphone to explain some of the drills.

Burke, who worked with goalies Ben Scrivens and Justin Peters on the ice prior to practice, hopes his Canadian players leave here with a solid foundation of team chemistry on and off the ice.

There have been team dinners, team meetings and time together in morning fitness sessions as well as on-ice practice sessions. There even may be a subdued Super Bowl party organized to watch the first half of the New England-Philadelphia game on Sunday.

Yes, the big game starts at 1:30 a.m. local time, but Canada's game against Latvia doesn't begin until 9 p.m. So some of the players will still be awake.

Timing is everything

Burke and his team have thought about everything. For example, puck drop for Canada's first game here is 9 p.m. because that's the same local start time for its opener in Pyeongchang against Switzerland on Feb. 15.

The Canadians' second game of the Olympic tournament is against the Czech Republic two days later at noon in South Korea. So Canada will play against Belarus at noon in Riga on Tuesday.

It will be interesting to see how quickly the Canadians come together.

"The most important thing is we build an identity here and get to know each other because we want to be a family and create the sort of environment in playing for each other," Genoway said. "Every guy here wants to win and are willing to do take on any role, whether you're filling up water bottles to playing on the first power-play unit. We're all here for one reason.

"Who would have thought the NHL players weren't going to be part of the Olympics. I remember last year being invited to play for Canada at the Deutschland Cup, a team Sean Burke was involved with. That was the first time I put on a Canadian sweater and then I was back with Canada at the [2016] Spengler Cup and now this. It's the opportunity of a lifetime for most of us."