Team Canada has once in a lifetime opportunity for glory

February 14, 2018 6:36 PM

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'You never get it back,' says Sean Burke of shot at Olympic gold.

PYEONGCHANG, SOUTH KOREA–Playing for Canada at the 1992 Olympics was, for Sean Burke, an incomparable career highlight.

Not that his 18 seasons in the NHL didn’t come with memorable moments and impressive achievements. Burke, the Toronto-raised goaltender, was nominated for a Vezina Trophy as a member of the Phoenix Coyotes. And another time, playing with the New Jersey Devils, he came within a game of the Stanley Cup final.

Still, he never played 20 more consequential minutes than he did in Albertville 26 years ago, when Canada and the Unified Team carried a 0-0 tie into a crucial third period.

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All that was at stake was an Olympic gold medal. And more than a quarter century later, Burke — who played for that non-NHL version of Team Canada during a contract-related impasse with the New Jersey Devils — still winces a little when he thinks about the opportunity with which he and his teammates were gifted.

“I never watched the game again. I’ve never been able to bring myself to watch the game,” Burke was saying the other day. “I mean, you go into a gold-medal game and you’re tied after two periods and that’s once in a lifetime. It’s hard to go back and watch the game. You never get it back.”

You never get it back. That’s a hard truth that classifies Olympic moments as rarer than almost every other athletic opportunity in existence. Given the once-every-four-years scarcity of the five-ringed operation — given the odds against cracking a roster — Olympic chances are either seized or forever lamented.

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Which brings us to the 10 days of Olympic hockey on the Korean peninsula. Just like in 1992, this is an NHL-excluded event. Just like in 1992, and beginning Thursday against Switzerland, Canada’s roster, largely made up of not-so-familiar names, will introduce itself to its country one game at a time.

Who knows how it’ll go? It’s easy to imagine this Canadian forward group could have trouble scoring. But then, outside the Russians, headlined by Ilya Kovalchuk and Pavel Datsyuk, the rest of the field is likely in the same boat. It’s easy to imagine this Canadian defensive corps, which is mobile but small, could have trouble clearing the goalmouth and containing bigger attackers. But if, on the other hand, they’re moving the puck with speed, those problems won’t be glaring.

And certainly it’s a little bit alarming that head coach Willie Desjardins, even on Wednesday, continued to point out that his players have been approaching its pre-Olympic games as though they’re playing to not get hurt. In other words: They haven’t been playing hard the full 60. Which is something he’d like to see soon. Not that Burke is worried.

“Because it’s a short tournament, the focus will be there. There’s not the worry about a letdown or, ‘It’s a long year.’ I think that’ll be an advantage for us,” Burke said.

Burke, for his part, has done his work. He spent months scouting the best Canadians not in the NHL, which meant he got to know parts of Russia he never knew existed.

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