Analysis

Gutsy Canadian men's hockey team was easy to cheer for

The resolve of this journeyman-laden Canadian men’s Olympic hockey team was on full display with its bounce-back game to win bronze against the Czech Republic on Saturday.

Group of journeymen shows its heart by rebounding for bronze medal

Team Canada shook off the disappointment of its semifinal loss to Germany to win bronze with a decisive victory over the Czech Republic. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images)

By Tim Wharnsby, CBC Sports

The resolve of this Canadian men's Olympic hockey team was on full display with its bounce-back game to win bronze against the Czech Republic on Saturday.

A day after the Canadians took full blame for their timid effort in a semifinal defeat to Germany, they got up off the mat to defeat the Czechs 6-4 for a spot on the podium in Pyeongchang, South Korea.

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"Last night was one of the toughest nights I have been through, but this definitely helps it a little bit," said Canadian forward Andrew Ebbett, who scored twice against the Czechs.

"It would have been fun to play Russia for the gold medal, what every Canadian dreams of, but we are going to be happy and we are really excited to get this bronze medal, and we'll look back at this for a long time and be thankful for it."

As individual stories surfaced about this Canadian team, it was evident this was a special bunch of journeymen hockey players who persevered to prolong their careers in Europe or the AHL.

They were appreciative of the chance to perform in the Olympics with the NHLers staying at home and this group wanted to make the most of the opportunity to keep Canada's golden streak going. 

But those dreams were dashed with a jittery 4-3 loss to Germany. The Canadians were rightly criticized for their poor outing. Nevertheless, they should take a bow for their bronze-medal showing.

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Sure, it wasn't 2014 or 2010 or 2002, when Canada's best won gold. But bronze in 2018 was certainly better than the fourth-place finish in 1998 and the disastrous seventh-place showing in 2006, both by Canada's best NHLers.

"I hope [Canadians] are proud," Ebbett said. "I think that is the Canadian way. You could see a bunch of the athletes that we have been hanging out with at the game tonight, still showing support and leaning over the glass."

No regrets

The differences between the games Canada played against Germany and the Czech Republic were vast. Against Germany, Canada was tight and, as a result, played slow and sloppy. Against the Czechs, Canada played free. They skated. They hustled. They played fast, with pinpoint passes to move quickly up the ice. They executed and followed head coach Willie Desjardins's up-tempo game plan to near perfection.

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"After that emotional loss last night, we came out to battle and we get to go home with a medal and we are really proud of that," Canadian defenceman Chris Lee said.

"You don't want to leave these events with any regret. We were not thrilled with the way we started the last game but we were thrilled with the way we ended it. We carried that momentum into tonight. I don't know what the guys did last night to prepare for today's game but we came out hungry and it's tough to do that after a loss like that."

Maybe this bunch simply wasn't accustomed to performing under the massive microscope of Olympic hockey. They also were tight in the opening period against Finland in the quarter-finals, but were able to rally to play much better in the second and third periods to squeak out a 1-0 victory.

This team, however, left its imprint. Many will remember the story of the undrafted Ebbett, who has played for 14 different professional teams since he left the University of Michigan in 2006. Nine games into his stay with his current team in Switzerland, SC Bern, a couple of years ago, he suffered a serious broken left leg. A doctor told him his playing days were over, but he was going to do everything he could to help Ebbett walk normally again. It's a good thing the Canadian Olympian didn't listen.

There's also Wojtek Wolski, who defeated depression to find a new hockey home in Russia and overcame a broken neck in October 2016 to earn a spot on this team.

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Or how about the only two players on the team who haven't played an NHL game, defence partners Chris Lee and Mat Robinson?

The 37-year-old Lee gets better with age. He played so well in Russia last season, he earned a spot on Team Canada for the world championship last spring and his play at that tournament earned him an invite to the Los Angeles Kings' training camp.

Robinson is a lot smaller than the 5-foot-10, 185-pound measurements provided by Hockey Canada. But he can skate like the wind and has a hard, accurate shot that any NHL defenceman would like to have.

You can go on and on about this bronze-medal bunch. They were easy to cheer for and it was nice to see them provide a memorable ending to this part of their remarkable journeys.