Team Canada still a work in progress as Olympic hockey tournament opens

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Willie Desjardins

Canada head coach Willie Desjardins watches his players at practice during the Olympic Winter Games in Gangneung, South Korea, on Saturday, February 10, 2018. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette)

GANGNEUNG, Korea, Republic Of — More than a few Canadians are wondering what the NHL-less Team Canada will be like at the Pyeongchang Olympics.

Head coach Willie Desjardins may be one of them.

Asked whether the Canadian team has been what he expected, Desjardins offered a somewhat unexpected answer on the eve of its tournament opener Thursday against Switzerland.

“I don’t know if it’s been quite what I expected,” the former Vancouver Canucks coach told reporters after practice Wednesday at the Gangneung Hockey Centre. “I think when the guys were trying to make the team, they were playing harder. Then once they made it, they were worried about getting injured. So I think there was a bit of a lull.

“So I’m hoping we’re getting back to the team that’s ready to go and play hard again.”

Desjardins was also candid about the support they can expect back home given the lack of marquee names.

“It’s hard to say. I think they’re some fans in Canada that are disappointed the NHL players aren’t playing,” he said. “I think it’s up to us. If we play hard, then I think they’ll support us. If we’re a team that doesn’t play hard, then we won’t get the support. I think it’s in our hands.”

Desjardins acknowledged that the Canadian men, drawn from the European leagues with the exception of three players from the North American minors, will have to rely on everyone for scoring.

“We have some balance but I think we’re going to have to score by committee,” he said. “I think we’re going to have to be good on special teams.”

Both coaches were talking up the other team Wednesday.

“The Canadians, there’s no surprise,” said Swiss coach Patrick Fischer. “They always come full-on. Big heart and a lot of drive and straight-line hockey. And we play similar.”

Desjardins pointed to Switzerland’s recent record against Canada. The smooth-skating Swiss have won two out of the last three meetings and are 4-5-0 in their last nine at the Olympics and IIHF world championships.

“We expect them to play well. They’re a good team. Lots of speed,” he said.

While other teams have players with international experience, it will be a first foray on the world stage for some of the Canadians. Desjardins noted his veterans have NHL experience, but added the Olympics will be “a challenge, for sure.”

“The first 10 minutes will be interesting. But I think our guys should settle in.”

Captain Chris Kelly, a Stanley Cup winner with the Boston Bruins, says the team is ready to play. He said look for a “hard-working determined team.”

“Once you put on that Canadian jersey, there’s a sense of pride and determination and commitment that you want to represent not only your teammates well but your country well. We have a lot of proud guys in here.”

Goaltender Ben Scrivens says the players understand what’s at stake.

“It’s huge. Your get an opportunity to represent your country,” said the former Maple Leaf, King, Oiler, Canadien and current KHL player. “You think about your friends back home. All the guys you played with growing up in minor hockey and in juniors and then college. The guys that you get to represent.

“It’s a huge honour but huge responsibility too. There’s so many guys who would — I don’t want to say kill but do anything to be in this position. So you owe to them to make sure you’re ready and you’re going to give it your best effort and try to make it your best performance.”

While Scrivens has seen the most action in goal in pre-tournament play, Desjardins declined to reveal his starter — saying he prefers to wait on that to make sure everyone is healthy.

“He looks healthy,” said a reporter, pointing to Scrivens who was being interviewed nearby.

“He does look healthy,” Desjardins said with a smile.

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