Manitoban amateur and professional hockey players look to become Olympic heroes

With no National Hockey League players going to the Olympics for the first time since 1994, amateur and professional hockey players from other leagues will be vying for a chance to represent Canada on the Olympic stage.

Team Canada heads to a pre-Olympic tournament next week in Finland and 3 Manitobans are on the team

Zach Whitecloud of Brandon, Man., plays for Bemidji State University in Minnesota. He is one of the players with a shot at making Team Canada at the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics in 2018. (CBC)

Hockey Canada unveiled its new Olympic jerseys on Wednesday. But what we don't know yet is who will put on those new-look red, white and black sweaters for the men's team at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea.

With no National Hockey League players going to the Olympics for the first time since 1994, amateur and professional hockey players from other leagues will vie for a chance to represent Canada on the Olympic stage.

Zach Whitecloud, 20, who plays at Bemidji State University in Minnesota, is one of those hopeful players. The defenceman, born in Brandon, Man., said he couldn't believe it when Hockey Canada called.

"It just popped out of the woodworks," said Whitecloud, who remembered being almost speechless.

"It took a few seconds to think about something to say. I probably said 'thanks' about 20 times. I didn't know what to say. You're extremely grateful for the opportunity to represent your country for anything that you do."

Along with Quinton Howden and Chay Genoway, Whitecloud is among the three players from Manitoba who will be in Finland next week for the Karjala Cup. The pre-Olympic tournament is a much-needed opportunity for Team Canada brass to get potential Olympic players together for evaluations and team building.

Getting to know players

Sean Burke, the general manager of Team Canada, said the biggest challenge is just getting to know the players. 

"Obviously, there is a lot of good Canadians playing in other places in the world and it's just been a case of making sure we put in the time as a management group and as a coaching staff to really get to know our players. Give everybody an opportunity to make the team," said Burke.

Morden, Man., native Chay Genoway is in his fourth season in the Kontinental Hockey League. The 30-year-old defenceman is currently playing for HC Lada in Tolyatti, Russia. That follows his four seasons at the University of North Dakota and another four seasons in the American Hockey League, which included one game with the Minnesota Wild in the 2011-12 season. 

From a hotel room in Magnitogorsk, Russia, Genoway said it's a rare chance for him and others who have made a living playing hockey outside the NHL.

"I guess in the last bunch of years, I never even thought it could be a reality, and now to just even be considered in the picture is pretty incredible."

Genoway said players overseas who are in the mix are talking about the potential of heading to the Olympics. 

I just want to make everyone proud.- Zach Whitecloud

"When you play against another team and there's a Canadian guy or two on there, you know, maybe something might be said here or there.

"It's something definitely in the back of your mind. You can't help it, it's the Olympics. I think everyone knows how big of a situation it is," said Genoway.

Genoway knows being invited to the pre-Olympic tournaments is only the first step, and there's a lot of work to do to earn a chance to put on the Canadian jersey. With Hockey Canada looking at hundreds of players and leaving no stones unturned, Genoway chuckles at the the thought of having to pick who gets to represent Canada.

"I don't know if I would like that job.… I don't know how they even go about comparing them from league to league, never mind player to player [and] positions.… I couldn't even imagine being in that staff and having to pick this team, or even narrow it down."

Amateur and professional hockey players have a shot at making Team Canada at the 2018 Winter Olympics after the NHL announced its players won't participate. 1:53

Final roster in January

Burke said the final roster doesn't need to be announced until mid-January and there will be two more tournaments in December — the Channel One Cup in Moscow and the Spengler Cup in Davos, Switzerland — to evaluate players.

"It's November and we still have some events after. We're going to be careful not to rush into it and say, 'This is the bulk of our team,'" said Burke.

"There's still some things that can happen between now and February. We haven't got to the junior players yet. We're just going to use our first two college players in this tournament so there's still a number of things we want to do to evaluate." 

The Olympics were not on Whitecloud's radar before, but now it's a dream he wants to chase down.

"It's still an early process, but all the family and friends back home is pushing for me to win that roster spot," Whitecloud said.

"They know that is what I am going to do. I want to rep my town and Bemidji State University. I just want to make everyone proud."

About the Author

Brett Purdy

CBC National Field Producer

Before becoming the field producer for The National in Winnipeg, Brett was a video journalist with CBC Manitoba, filing for TV, online and radio. Brett has been in broadcasting since 2004, spending time with CTV and Global Winnipeg. Brett also worked as a producer in the Northwest Territories for two years, where he produced documentaries for national broadcasts about the Inuvialuit people in Canada's western Arctic.

With files from Cameron MacIntosh