Canadian players in Russia are looking to form nucleus of Team Canada
Moscow tournament offers first look at Canada's potential lineup for the Winter Games in Pyeongchang
Eight years ago, as a 26-year-old member of the Buffalo Sabres, with three strong offensive seasons behind him, centre Derek Roy took a crack at getting to the Vancouver Olympics by trying out for a talent-laden Team Canada.
Up against the likes of Sidney Crosby, his audition fell short.
"I mean you dream about it — this is the highest level of hockey you can play," said Roy, before adding, "I didn't make the team. This time it's different."
Roy — now a veteran playing for Linkoping of the Swedish Hockey League — has found his unlikely path to the Olympics cleared by the NHL's decision to keep its top talent away from the upcoming Winter Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea in February.
Roy is among 25 Canadians chosen by Hockey Canada for this week's "Channel One Cup" tournament in Moscow, which general manager Sean Burke and head coach Willie Desjardins are using to size up the talent pool for Pyeongchang.
"We want to try to win this tournament," Burke told CBC News, as he watched an afternoon practice at the VTB Arena just south of Moscow's downtown.
"This is the first time this year we've put a team together with [winning] in mind, and I think this team is capable."
Nineteen of 25 players on the roster play in Russia's Kontinental Hockey League, widely seen as the second-best league after the NHL.
Born in Poland and raised in Toronto, Wojtek Wolski is one of the strongest contenders for a spot on Team Canada with 27 points so far this season, playing for Kunlan Red Star of the KHL.
He says once the Olympic hockey tournament starts, Canadians will quickly forget that many of the superstars stayed home.
"We've got Linden Vey — he's one of our big players, leading the league in KHL points," said Wolski. "[Matt] Frattin is playing well. We've got lots of big names who have played in the NHL."
Wolski, who skated in over 400 NHL games with six different teams before leaving North America after the 2012 lockout season, suffered a horrific injury just over a year ago, when he crashed into the boards. He fractured two vertebrae in his neck, suffered a concussion and ended up in intensive care.
His recovery was slow and painful, and he admits there were many times over the last year when he thought he would never get back on the ice.
"I think I would have been working somewhere, not playing hockey, so this is a pretty great thing to do and try out for the team," he told CBC News last week after practice.
"Just thinking about it makes me emotional, and making this [Olympic] team would be one of the greatest accomplishments of my life."
The Channel One tournament — featuring teams from Europe, Canada, Russia and Olympic-host South Korea — comes as Russia attempts to regroup after facing sanctions from the International Olympic Committee for widespread drug cheating at the last games in Sochi four years ago. No players from the men's hockey team were implicated.
Clean Russian athletes will be allowed to compete in Pyeongchang, but not under the auspices of Team Russia. Nor will they wear Russian uniforms.
A spokesperson for Russia's hockey federation told CBC News that Russians will definitely be going to South Korea, although the KHL has yet to confirm that. Russian President Vladimir Putin had previously said his country would boycott the Olympics if sanctions were imposed.
Burke acknowledges the possibility of a boycott was a distraction, but it hasn't been detrimental.
"We really did not spend a lot of time thinking about it," he said. "Obviously, we have a job to do. Our coaching staff was trying to put a team together."
Burke and Desjardins have until Jan. 21 to name a final roster for the Olympics, which begin Feb. 9.
Of their first scrimmage together as a group, Desjardins admitted there's a lot of work ahead.
"It was a little bit disjointed," he told CBC News, before quickly adding, "If you bring passion and heart, you can cover up for some mistakes."
Burke — a goalie from Team Canada's silver-medal performance at the 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer, Norway — said the absence of NHL players will affect the talent pool for every team, but Canada will be hurt more than most, tightening up the competition.
"I really believe there are a lot countries going into this event now that feel they have a chance to compete for a medal."
"You look at the scores for the last Olympics and they were really tight, even with the best players in the world playing. They (Canada) are beating teams like Latvia 2-1 and Norway, so those countries now I am sure feel like they have a better chance," said Burke.
Another Team Canada hopeful in Moscow this week is Rene Bourque, of Rockland, Ont., who is also playing in Sweden.
Once a rising offensive star in the NHL for the Calgary Flames, he found injuries hampered his effectiveness. He went to Europe hoping to re-energize his career, and at the age of 36 has found himself on the verge of going to the Olympics.
"I think there's going to be some heroes in this tournament for some teams," he said.
"Hopefully it's our team."