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September 04, 2017

New Hockey Heroes Coming to Pyeongchang and GreatestHockeyLegends.com

Canada's Olympic gold medal hockey hopes lie in the hands of Sean Burke.

It's not the first time.

Burke, of course, was a really good NHL goaltender with a number of really average-at-best teams over 18 seasons and 820 games. He was a regular workhorse for Canada on the international scene, representing Canada at the 1988 Olympics in Calgary and the '92 games in France, winning silver. He played another 130 games for Canada in various international tourneys, including World Championship teams in 1997 and 2003. He also was a back up goalie at the 1991 Canada Cup.

This summer Burke was named as General Manager of the Canadian Olympic team. A dream job, right? Well, yes, and I'm sure Burke - an up and coming star on the hockey management scene - certainly thinks so. But, in case you have not heard, he will not have NHL pros to choose from. He won't even have most AHL players available. And no, no junior stars. NCAA players and pros playing in European leagues are what we have to look forward to.

Burke was hired by Tom Renney. Renney, a junior coaching sensation with the Kamloops Blazers, joined hockey Canada shortly after the 1992 Olympics. Two years later he guided the team to another silver medal, losing to Sweden in a heart breaking shootout.

Renney would graduate to the NHL and coach in Vancouver, New York and Edmonton, and worked alongside Mike Babcock in Detroit. He remained close to Hockey Canada, serving in a number of capacities in 10 world championships, winning three gold. That included the 2004 tournament when he was head coach.

Fast forward to today.

Renney replaced Bob Nicholson as President and CEO of Hockey Canada in 2014.  Coming off of Nicholson's long string of many successes on and off the ice, it was always going to be a difficult challenge for Renney or for anyone else, for that matter. And Renney's job got significantly tougher in 2016 when the NHL opted out of sending it's talent to the Olympics.

Nicholson had it relatively easy. Hire the likes of Wayne Gretzky, Steve Yzerman, Pat Quinn and Mike Babcock and bring the NHL's best. Renney has to hire guys more-or-less unaffiliated with the NHL and bring in players that fall into two categories - has-beens and never-heard-ofs - to participate at the 2018 Olympics in Pyeongchang, Korea.

Renney allowed Burke to name his management team, which is full of some interesting connections.

Burke has brought aboard fellow goaltending legend Martin Brodeur, an assistant manager in St. Louis. The two time gold medalist's role is not quite as clear as everyone else's. One report suggest Brodeur would not be part of the European league scouting once the NHL season starts due to duties with the Blues. He's relatively new to the management scene, but he knows how to win - including memorable Olympic gold medals in 2002 and 2010.

The next hire was coach Willie Desjardins. Coach Willie has a fantastic coaching record in junior and the minor leagues, but struggled as time went on in his only NHL assignment with the rebuilding Vancouver Canucks. Before that he was a Memorial Cup champion in Medicine Hat, a Calder Cup champion in Texas (AHL), and World Junior Champion as Pat Quinn's associate coach in 2010.

Desjardins' coaching staff features up-and-comers Scott Walker (three time player at World Championships) and Craig Woodcroft (who played with the Canadian national team throughout his career but missed the 1994 Olympics as one of the last cuts), along with Hockey Canada legend Dave King.

Desjardins and King go back a long way.  Following a junior career in Moose Jaw, Swift Current and Lethbridge that did not lead to the pro ranks, Desjardins enrolled at the University of Saskatchewan where he continued to play under a mostly unknown head coach named Dave King. After graduating King helped to land him a spot with Vissers Nijmegen in the Netherlands. Desjardins became team captain and led the team to the Dutch championship. It was what Dave King did best - gave young players opportunities.

A good case could be built that King, an Olympic and IIHF Hall of Famer, could be head coach, as he was under very similar situations throughout the 1980s and early 1990s. King had a true national team to work with as he battled the not-so-amateur Soviet juggernauts at the 1984, 1988 and 1992 Olympics, as well as at five world championships. He rejuvenated the beloved Canadian national team program that Father David Bauer started in the 1960s.

Those national teams were generally built around something that Tom Renney, Sean Burke, and Dave King know all to well. Youth. Names like Glenn Anderson, Randy Gregg,  Jim Nill, Paul MacLean, Russ Courtnall, Kevin Dineen, Patrick Flatley, Dave Tippett, Kirk Muller, James Patrick, Dave Gagner, Doug Lidster, Bruce Driver, Brian Bradley, Zarley Zalapski, Trent Yawney, Tim Watters, Paul Kariya, Eric Lindros, Joe Juneau, and of course Burke himself.

Yet while they know youth was a real key for their relative success in the pre-NHL Olympic era, they are either unable to or unwilling to find a similar path for the 2018 games.

A look at Canada's list of invitees (all playing in Europe) to a couple of tournaments in Russia is kind of uninspiring. Kevin Poulin, Justin Peters and Ben Scrivens in net? Carlo Coliacovo could be Canada's number one defenseman? Mason Raymond still plays? Same goes for Gilbert Brule, Rob Klinkhammer, Derek Roy, Cam Barker, Max Talbot and Andrew Ebbett. But at least we have heard of these players. Who knows who Paul Szczechura is? How about Brandon Buck? Eric O'Dell? Chay Genoway? No offense, fellas.

I suspect a few of the invitees will actually make the team. Maybe we will see some NCAA talent?

While the 2018 Olympic tournament pales in comparison to the NHL-era games, new heroes will emerge. Just like they did King's days in the 1980s and 1990s, or Father Bauer's era back in the 1960s.

Remembering past Olympic heroes will be a major focus of GreatestHockeyLegends.com through out this season. I will focus a lot on Canadian players, but will look at international players, too.

Because every hockey player has a story worth telling.

I can tell you this has reinvigorated me a great deal. Stay tuned for some great hockey stories this season. Just like you will find great stories coming out of the NHL-less Olympics in 2018.

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