Before the National Hockey League (NHL) began sending players to the Winter Olympic Games, it was the best opportunity for amateur players to represent their country. In 2018, that opportunity exists again for male amateurs and former NHL players to compete for their country on the global level.

Will Cochrane Have An Olympian?

Mason Raymond is training to join Team Canada for the 2018 Olympics. Photo Courtesy of Calgary Flames.

With the NHL’s decision to skip the 2018 Winter Games in South Korea, the door is open for Canadian amateur and non-NHL professional players to step into the spotlight and suit up for Team Canada men’s team.

32-year-old former Calgary Flames player Mason Raymond, originally from Cochrane, Alta. is one of the players hoping to be part of that team.

“I’ve been playing hockey since I was about five years old,” says Raymond, though the thought of playing professionally didn’t really come into view until he started playing Junior A hockey in Camrose.

Drafted by the Vancouver Canucks in 2005 while still playing for the University of Minnesota Duluth team, his career brought him to the Toronto Maple Leafs, the Calgary Flames and finally the Anaheim Ducks. He stepped away from the NHL after a total of 546 games played professionally.

After terminating his contract with the Anaheim Ducks in the 2016-2017 season for personal reasons outside of hockey, Raymond moved to Switzerland where he currently plays in the National League in Bern, Switzerland for the SC Bern.

“It’s nice out here. I can go home to my family every night,” he says.

The sport has given Raymond opportunities that wouldn’t be possible in any other career path.

Those opportunities have allowed him to wear a Team Canada jersey when he played in the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) World Championships in 2010. The team placed seventh.

Once again, he donned the Team Canada jersey while competing in the Spengler Cup in 2016 and won the tournament.

“The thought of being able to put a Team Canada jersey on and represent my country in the Olympics is just insane to me,” he says.

Sean Burke, the general manager for Team Canada, says that Raymond is one of those players that people cheer for because he is not only a good player, but he’s also a good person off the ice as well.

Burke is confident about the new Team Canada. Photo Courtesy of Hockey Canada.

“He’s getting hot at the right time,” says Burke. Raymond scored consecutive hat tricks while playing for the SC Bern this year.

For Raymond, it’s nerve-racking waiting for the announcement of the Olympic Team roster.

“I don’t even know when the team is being announced and so it’s just a waiting game.”

Whoever is chosen, the Canadian bench will look different without the participation of the NHL, whose players have attended since 1995. Before that, the Canadian men’s hockey team was exclusively the domain of amateur players.

Experiencing the sport on an international level is something very few players have been able to do. The competition for a spot on the Olympic Team is always steep.

For the last five Olympic Games, NHL players have dominated; filling up most of the roster for all countries. The Olympic 2014 Canadian team was completely derived from NHL players, as just under 50 per cent of NHL players are Canadians.

As a result of this, Hockey Canada has had to change the whole line-up of who’s coaching, managing and playing on this year’s Olympic Team. Coaches and managers in the NHL are affected as well and can’t participate with the Olympic Team in 2018.

Calgary-based Hockey Canada will select the roster of players through scouting over the past season and the current one. It’s a lengthy process to evaluate the potential candidates.

“We’ve been watching players over the last year and looking at lot of guys playing in Europe,” says Sean Burke, general manager for Team Canada for 2018, and a former NHL player and Olympian. In 2016 Burke professionally scouted for the Montreal Canadiens.

He has high hopes for Team Canada.

“The NHL is the best league in the world without a doubt and so picking from the NHL you will have the best, but we also have a lot of depth with Canadian players not playing in the NHL,” says Burke.

The tournaments scouted this year include the Karjala Cup, the Sochi Open and the Spengler Cup; which, along with training camps, will determine who will be making the team and go to Pyeongchang County, South Korea for the Olympic Games.

“I think that we are going to have a pretty good handle on the players,” says Burke.

The men’s Olympic team will be announced closer to the start of the Games, but management has not announced a specific date to do so. The women’s team is not affected by the NHL decision to not participate.

To see if Mason Raymond makes the team, and the others selected to form Team Canada, please visit hockeycanada.ca

Canadian Identity

Not having NHL players competing for a spot will allow amateur and former NHL stars to have a spot on the team. Photo Courtesy of Calgary Flames.

Hockey has been played in Canada since the mid-1800s. Whether you watch, play the sport or know someone that does, it is a cultural force that resonates with Canadians on a national basis.

Although the NHL was formed in 1917, the league’s players weren’t allowed to play in the Olympic Games until 1995 as the International Olympic Committee (IOC) founder, Pierre de Coubertin stated that using professional players was the equivalent of cheating in the Games.

As a result, the Games used to feature the best amateur players against other amateurs. There was always a debate on what classified an athlete as professional.

For hockey, the IOC deemed any player with a NHL contract was a professional and was not allowed to represent their respective country until 1986. But it wasn’t until 1995 that the NHL and IOC reached an agreement that finally allowed NHL players from all countries to go to the Games.

Although the IOC allowed professional athletes to compete in the Olympics in 1986, it was up to the individual federations to approve the athletes to go. As for the NHL, the league did not want to stop the season midway for the games and risk a potential injury for their top players.

Before the NHL players were allowed in the Olympics, there were only amateur players in the Games. From the 1920s until 1962, most of the teams that represented Canada were club teams from all over the country.

The Lethbridge Maple Leafs, Toronto National Sea Fleas, Winnipeg Falcons, Edmonton Mercurys and Trail Smoke Eaters were some of the clubs that achieved the goal of competing before the 1964 Olympic Games. Following this, there were changes made to the selection process as proposed in 1961 by Father David Bauer.

After the 1964 Olympic Games, Canada was represented by a national team instead of a club team.

The Future of NHL and Olympics

Gliding into the New Year will allow new opportunities for non-professional players to make the team. Photo Courtesy of Calgary Flames.

Marty Clark is an associate professor at Mount Royal University, where he teaches sport history, philosophy and sports sociology. He believes that in the future, the NHL will be back at the Olympics.

The main focus of the professional sport is money-driven, says Clark. The NHL will always look to benefit from every event that it’s participating in.

“The next Games are in China and there’s a big market over there that the NHL is interested in expanding into,” says Clark. “If you follow the money, that’s where the answer will be.”

In September of 2017, the NHL sent the Los Angeles Kings and the Vancouver Canucks to play two games of preseason hockey in China. It was supposed to showcase NHL hockey there, and hockey has been played in China for sometime. With a population of 1.3 billion, China’s potential for a strong market in hockey is clear.

The NHL is a business and Clark believes that the NHL was completely fair in denying the players a spot on the team.

The Olympics previously have had some players experience season-ending injuries while competing. A star player could get hurt in the Games, adding to the fact the highly physical commitment for players could affect an NHL team’s performance towards the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Hockey is a staple of national sport in Canada, and many Canadians look forward to watching it in the Games.

“I think that the viewership in Canada is going to go down,” says Clark. “I think there’s potential that [the IOC] will start to reconsider the regulations with the NHL after the Games and seeing the viewership go down.”

In the 2010 Games, the gold medal final between Canada and the United States was the most watched final in Canadian broadcasting history.

“Outside of Canada, the viewership might not go down and so [the IOC] might not care,” says Clark.

Canadian hockey players have created a unique fan base and many people want to watch those players play for their country, he adds.

“The individuals within the sport, they themselves are brands. Sidney Crosby is a brand. Fans really consume the individuals just as much as the sport now,” says Clark. “When you think of Canadian hockey players, you think of Sidney Crosby and now Connor McDavid.”

“Not having the biggest branded players, like Sidney Crosby or Alexander Ovechkin, I don’t think the fans are going to enjoy it that much because that’s a big part of sport now.”

Not only are those players brands for the sport but they are currently the best at the game.

“Having the best hockey players all under one team, it would seem unfair to the hockey fans,” says Clark.

Many players currently are reaching their prime and the next Games might not be reachable for some.

“You look at a player like Brad Marchand that plays for the Boston Bruins, he’s playing so well right now and he might not be like that by the time the next Games come around,” says Clark.

Time will tell whether or not the NHL will be in the next Games. Until then, hockey fans can still watch Team Canada compete in the Olympics and World Championships in both women’s and men’s hockey in the upcoming year.

The goals may be less golden, but the players’ passion for the game is no different from those at the NHL level.

For the full schedule and team information, head over to hockeycanada.ca.

 cpaton@cjournal.ca

Editor: Mason Benning | mbenning@cjournal.ca