A Shot at Glory

For the first time in 24 years, there are no NHL players at the Olympics, offering a rare opportunity for a group of journeymen from a nation that claims hockey as its game.

Sam Riches | Longreads | February 2018 | 12 minutes (3,309 words)

Peter Forsberg skates in slow, tense circles and waits for his chance at history. It’s the 1994 Olympics and the men’s gold medal hockey game has come down to a shootout. Dressed in Sweden’s vivid gold Tre Kronor, with the matching blue helmet and gloves, Forsberg is a burst of color atop the cold sheet of ice, an interruption to the routine. He has one shot to keep Sweden’s hockey hopes alive.

At the other end of the rink, as Canada’s Corey Hirsch bends forward at the knees, he momentarily drops his head. Then he reaches back with his right arm and knocks the barrel of his goalie stick against the crossbar, twice. The sound of heavy wood on hollow steel rings out and up and fills the arena.

The whistle blows. Forsberg’s skates dig in. Hirsch taps his stick against the crossbar again, confirms this is really happening, and then pushes out of his crease to meet Forsberg. The space between them shrinks.

Forsberg accelerates. He pushes past his own blue line, then over the center line, now he’s in the attack zone. He comes in wide. Hirsch angles to cut him off. Forsberg is out of position. He has no room to shoot.

But he does. He waits until the last possible second, then he reaches back, one glove on his stick, and slips a backhander past Hirsch, who watches helplessly as his momentum carries him in the opposite direction, out of the crease, out of the picture. The puck slides into the back of the net.

It is Sweden’s first Olympic hockey gold. It is their greatest hockey goal. It is a moment commemorated on a postage stamp. But not yet.

On the ice, Canada has one more shot.

Paul Kariya, all of 19 years old, takes a deep breath. His teammates lean forward in anticipation. Among them is Ken Lovsin, who helped anchor Canada’s blue line in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s and played in more than 200 international games. He doesn’t know it yet, but this will be his last Olympic match.

The whistle blows again. Kariya makes his move and a nation watches as his attempt is turned away by Sweden’s Tommy Salo, who celebrates by throwing his stick into the air before he’s gleefully mobbed by his teammates. The Canadians look on from the bench but they are not watching. Their gazes are fixed on the distance. On a moment that’s already gone.

* * *

This time, the first Winter Games in 24 years without National Hockey League players, Canada will take a different approach. The NHL didn’t want to interrupt its regular season schedule, and the International Olympic Committee wasn’t interested in a compromise so Canada has sent a veteran group of players to Pyeongchang, players who are closer to the end of their careers than the beginning. Players plucked from small leagues across Europe and Asia and North America, from Kazakhstan to Pennsylvania, Belarus to Belleville. There is no Sidney Crosby or Connor McDavid or Carey Price on this team, but there are 25 Canadians, players raised in a nation that evangelizes this game. That counts for something.

It won’t be easy. There is a weight to this moment, an expectation, Canada has won gold in three of the last four Winter Olympics, but there is also the transformative potential a good Olympic performance could offer. For some, another shot at the NHL could follow. And for every one of them, there is the chance to be part of Canadian hockey lore.

“You look at all these players, this is going to give them an opportunity,” says Lovsin. “That’s just what happens. Sometimes you just need a little bit of an opportunity to show someone what you’ve got.”

The Canadian players will rightfully be touted as examples of perseverance and commitment during game broadcasts, but they have also benefited from familial lifting and encouragement and relocation and chance. They are a reminder that despite our choices, we are not in control. Our lives are shaped by randomness and incalculable events and for these athletes, whose lives are lived and redeemed in public, this is a pivot, a deviation from what they’ve known.

“All of our players, at somewhere along the line, they’ve been told ‘No,”’ head coach Willie Desjardins said when Canada’s roster was revealed in early January. “That’s what our team is about. It’s about guys who have received a no but found a way to make a yes.”

They are not stars but they could soon be heroes. For the next ten days of their lives, they carry the collective hopes of the greatest hockey nation on earth.

* * *

Fate waits inside a binder. Reams of paper filled mostly with scribbles, stats, analysis, items that appear indecipherable to the uninitiated but mean an opportunity, a chance. If you’ve spent time in a hockey arena, you’ve seen one of these binders. They are carried by men in suits and they chart the course of a life. Hockey Canada has been working on their binder, this Olympic roster, for 15 months. They played seven international tournaments, with seven different teams. The players did everything they could to stand out, pushed themselves to their physical and mental limits, and then they waited. And waited.

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Willie Desjardins knows this feeling, how it slows and stretches time, the vulnerability that arises in wait. He knows it not only because he delivered the calls, along with Hockey Canada staff, but because he’s lived it before. He’s played in small towns across the country and waited for a call in Moose Jaw, Swift Current, and Lethbridge. He’s made a life in hockey, including three seasons coaching the Vancouver Canucks.

Still, the gravity of making those Team Canada calls surprised him. “Those were emotional moments,” he says, speaking from the Toronto airport at the end of January, a few hours before departing for Latvia for Canada’s final pre-Olympic camp. “Just kinda the impact the call had on people. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity in a lot of ways.”

Fate waits inside a binder. Reams of paper filled mostly with scribbles, stats, analysis, items that appear indecipherable to the uninitiated but mean an opportunity, a chance.
They are carried by men in suits and they chart the course of a life.

The oldest player to get the call was Chris Kelly, 37, who won a Stanley Cup with the Boston Bruins in 2011. He tried out for the Edmonton Oilers at the start of the season but didn’t make the final roster. In November, he was contemplating retirement. Then he got offered a tryout with the Belleville Senators of the American Hockey League. It led to an Olympic spot. In early February he was named Canada’s captain.

“It still hasn’t really sunk in,” he says, speaking on a Thursday afternoon after practice in Belleville. “To actually get this opportunity is a once-in-a-lifetime chance…I’m extremely fortunate to be where I am and to have had so many good people along the way throughout my hockey career — they are just as much a part of this.”

In Manitoba, the call was a family event. Brett Howden, 19, had spent the holidays helping Canada win gold at the world junior hockey championships while his older brother, Quinton, 26, was vying for a spot on the Olympic team at the Channel One Cup in Moscow. The day before the team was announced, Quinton got a call from Brett, who, alongside Hockey Canada staff, had some important news for him. “When you pick up a call from your brother you don’t think that’s what’s going to happen,” he says, speaking from Belarus, where he plays for HC Dinamo Minsk. “It was pretty crazy.”

Andrew Ebbett, Mason Raymond, and Maxim Noreau, who combined have played nearly 800 games in the NHL, have spent this season with SC Bern in Switzerland, in the top tier of the Swiss hockey league. Along the way, they’ve been trying to crack the Canadian roster.

“We were all pretty nervous before the team was picked,” Ebbett says. “We didn’t know how we should tell each other because we weren’t sure if we were all going to make it.”

They found a contemporary solution. “I think Mason decided we were just going to throw up a thumbs up emoji on the text if you made it,” Ebbett says. Within a 10-minute span, they got the news. “I hung up the phone and looked at it and Mason had just texted me three thumbs ups, then Max did the same thing about five minutes later, so it was a pretty cool feeling.”

“You anticipate that call and hope for good news, but when they tell you you made the team…I remember just having goosebumps,” says Raymond, who played six seasons with the Vancouver Canucks, and also had stops in Toronto, Calgary, and Anaheim. “You’re so excited, anticipating what they are going to say, and then there’s the thrill of getting the nod.”

The youngest player to get that call was Christian Thomas, 25. His Dad, Steve Thomas, an NHLer of 20 years, delivered it. “I was at the rink and I stepped out after practice. I had a couple missed calls, I called back and it was Team Canada staff and my Dad and my Dad broke the news,” he says, speaking from Pennsylvania, where he plays for the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins of the American Hockey League.

“To get that call was unbelievable. It still feels like a dream.”

* * *

Ken Lovsin walked away from hockey at age 26. The choice was easy. He had an out.

“I had an opportunity and a family business,” he says. “It seemed to be the right time.”

While his athletic peers were entering their primes, Lovsin entered the grocery industry. The family business is Freson Bros, which started as a butcher shop in Alberta in 1955. It’s evolved and adapted since then and the family now has 16 stores throughout the province that employ nearly a thousand people. “It was an opportunity that I had and I decided to take it,” Lovsin says. “I don’t have any regrets.”

Now a father of seven, Lovsin coached his kids, in various sports, for 20 years. In the past, this time of year, he would bring his Olympic medal to practice so the young athletes could pass it around.

“I was very fortunate,” he says. “Having the maple leaf on your chest and playing for your country and listening to your anthem in foreign countries…that’s something I wish everyone could experience.”

Matt Dalton is about to experience that from the other side. Originally from the Southern Ontario town of Clinton, pop. 3000, Dalton signed with the Boston Bruins as a free agent in 2009 but never played a game with the team. After three seasons in Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League, he joined the Asia League, where he’s been playing for the last four years, winning two championships and numerous individual awards.

When South Korea plays their first game at the Olympics, on February 15, Dalton will not only be their starting goalie but one of the team leaders.

“It’s been a good experience,” he says, speaking from a suburb outside of Seoul, on a Saturday morning in early January. “I probably never would have been able to see this part of the world otherwise and I’ve made some amazing friendships and relationships that I’ll have for the rest of my life.”

The South Korean hockey team, which has never previously qualified for the Olympics, will play Canada on February 18. Thankfully, for Dalton, this won’t be the first time he’s faced his home nation. South Korea lost 4-2 to Canada in a pre-Olympic game at the Channel One Cup in December. Dalton kept his team in the game, stopping 45 shots.

“I’m glad I got it out of the way,” Dalton says, explaining that being on the other side of the national anthem is a strange feeling. “I didn’t sleep very good the night before. It was a really weird feeling. It’s a feeling that I don’t think you can really describe to someone unless they went through it.”

What makes it worth it, he says, is having the chance to inspire a new generation of hockey-playing kids in South Korea.

“That’s something I take pride in,” he says. “It’s something that’s a little bit bigger than the game.”

* * *

When Canada won gold at the Vancouver Olympics in 2010 — the game-winner authored by Sidney Crosby seven minutes and forty seconds into overtime — Derek Roy was almost there.

He was invited to tryout for Team Canada in the summer of 2009, a year removed from the season of his life, where he put up 81 points for the Buffalo Sabres in 2007-2008. He didn’t make the final roster and back into the NHL and his production began to decline after that peak season. Eventually, he was traded from Buffalo and made detours to five other teams on his way out of the league.

“To play in Vancouver would have been amazing,” he says, “but obviously that didn’t work out. I had a great opportunity. I was in my prime, but eight years later this works out. It’s funny how life comes around.”

Two years ago, Andrew Ebbett thought his career was over. He had traveled to Switzerland to play for SC Bern, along with his former NHL teammate, Chuck Kobasew. In the same game that Kobasew received the concussion that ended his career, Ebbett broke his tibial plateau, the bone just below his left knee.

“The doctors said I was done for the year, maybe done for my career, too,” he says. “I said, ‘I’m not going back to Canada with my tail between my legs, I’m going to tough it out and see if I can rehab this and help the team.’”

Toughing it out meant Ebbett, 35, after 12 weeks on crutches, embarked on a four-month rehabilitation process. As part of that recovery, each Tuesday and Thursday morning at 7 a.m., Ebbett was at the pool, doing water aerobics at a local hospital “with five or six older ladies.” Afterward, Ebbett would go to the arena, and work with the team’s physio and strength coaches.

“Whatever I could do, to first get back to walking normal again, and if I could skate and play I was going to do it.” To be in the position he’s in now still hasn’t sunk in.

“I just keep saying it’s crazy. I’m still pinching myself. People always say it’s like a dream come true but for me, I don’t think it was ever really a dream. I didn’t think it was possible for me.”

For many of these players, it would be easy to talk about being overlooked, doubted, unfairly treated. But they are past that, says Brandon Kozun, who played 20 NHL games for Toronto in during the 2014-15 NHL season.

“For me, growing up, I always had a big chip on my shoulder,” he says. “I’m a smaller guy. I always wanted to prove to everyone, ‘Hey, I can do it. I can make it.’” Canada will look to Kozun for scoring and speed, two things he excels at, but he insists he’s not looking beyond this moment. “I feel like I’ve done enough in my career now that I don’t need to prove to people what kind of player I am,” he says, speaking from Yaroslavl, Russia, about 150 miles northeast of Moscow, on a Friday night in January.

“I’m going to play in the Olympics for my country and my teammates. It’s not as much about trying to prove to everyone that I should be in the NHL as submitting to something that’s bigger than myself and trying to bring a gold medal home to Canada.”

* * *

Ken Lovsin got a shot in the NHL. Two, actually.

He was called up from the AHL’s Baltimore Skipjacks in December 1990, and played one game for the Washington Capitals. The Capitals won, 7-3, and Lovsin got two shots on net.

“Every kid in Canada wants to have the opportunity to play in the NHL and I had my cup of coffee,” he says. “There are thousands of great hockey players out there. You just need an opportunity, and if you play enough, you can stick.”

It was, he says, a matter of being at the right place at the right time. A few months later, that would prove to be true once again.

“I played one game then I got sent back down and then some time later, a bunch of the guys on my team, I was in the American Hockey League, they said, ‘Hey Ken, you’re in Sports Illustrated.’”

In the February 25, 1990, edition of Sports Illustrated, with Rocket Ismail on the cover, the certification of Lovsin’s presence in the NHL is in the bottom left corner of page 42. The magazine had been working on a story about Jaromir Jagr, who was then in his rookie season, and Lovsin just happened to be there when they were shooting it, the right place at the right time, his one moment in the NHL captured in a photo and reproduced hundreds of thousands of times.

In Camera Lucida, Roland Barthes writes, “When we define the Photograph as a motionless image, this does not mean only that the figures it represents do not move; it means that they do not (i)emerge(i), do not (i)leave(i): they are anesthetized and fastened down, like butterflies.”

In that issue of Sports Illustrated, Lovsin forever occupies a place in the NHL next to Jagr, who went on to score the third most goals in league history. The photo is a reminder that time is singular and unrepeatable. That we can’t re-enter the past, only sweep it with a glance, but if you look at the photo for just a moment, the details emerge.

Jagr, rushing toward the puck, his future, and a hall of fame career, is going one direction and Lovsin — behind Jagr, his back turned, his body angled away, headed out of the frame and out of view — is going another.

* * *

So what does it add up to? What’s the calculus on a life lived out of a suitcase, changed by a moment?

“The thing with hockey is you make all these plans, this is how this is going to go, this is how this is going to go, and two days later you get traded,” says Ben Scrivens, one of Canada’s goalies, who had NHL stops in Los Angeles, Toronto, Edmonton, and Montréal before heading to the KHL.”I learned a long time ago there’s no point in planning ahead. Everything moves so quickly. It sounds callous, but it’s the way it works. You are a cog in the machine and those cogs can be moved, replaced, swapped in and out at a moment’s notice.”

So what does it add up to? What’s the calculus on a life lived out of a suitcase, changed by a moment?

The ones who built a career on being told no, not good enough, the ones who have been traded and waived and disposed of, are now Olympians. A title that implies the best in the world. And though Olympians are no more human than anyone else, it’s quite an extraordinary gift to give a nation joy, to occupy a space in its collective memory, even for a moment. For these 25 Canadians, that could soon happen.

After the Olympics, they will rejoin their clubs, they will return to chilly outposts in Russia, Sweden, Switzerland, and they will continue to do what they’ve always done. Play hockey.

“It’s one of those things, once that’s done you’re right back to work,” Roy says.

They will resume their lives, altered by the experience, in ways that are not yet apparent or comprehensible. Maybe, in the days that follow, whether it’s Derek Roy or Andrew Ebbett or Willie Desjardins, or anyone else on the roster, the only thing that will be different will be a feeling of lightness, and the sound of an Olympic medal knocking in their suitcase.

* * *

Sam Riches is a writer and journalist based in Toronto.

* * *

Editor: Krista Stevens
Fact-checker: Ethan Chiel

Illustrator: J.O. Applegate