HELSINKI – The Karjala Cup, a national team event Hockey Canada is employing to fine-tune its roster for the Winter Games in Pyeongchang, has been around since 1992.

NHL scouts always have kept a watchful eye on the tournament, trying to unearth a free agent or two ready to make the move to North America.

But this year, in particular, there are more scouts than usual. As Finland opened its tournament against rival Russia in Helsinki at Hartwall Arena on Thursday (yes, it's true some of the luxury suites house a sauna), you could turn one way and run into Colorado Avalanche general manager Joe Sakic or Los Angeles Kings assistant GM Mike Futa or Craig MacTavish of the Edmonton Oilers. The list goes on and on.

The Karjala Cup has taken on more importance this fall because it's an Olympic year and NHL commissioner Gary Bettman made his foolish decision months ago to stop the game's best from competing.

As a result, tournament organizers made a smart decision to expand from its usual foursome of the Czech Republic, Finland, Russia and Sweden to include Canada and Switzerland.

Canada rallies for opening win

The latter two countries opened the five-day tournament Wednesday in Biel, Switzerland, with Canada scoring a 3-2 win. After falling behind 1-0 early in the second period, Canada received goals from Gilbert Brule, Eric O'Dell and Matt Ellison in a span of eight minutes and 23 seconds and then hung on for the win. Canadian goaltender Ben Scrivens made 19 saves.

Switzerland Canada Icehockey

Switzerland's Lino Martschini, center, fights for the puck against Canada's goaltender Ben Scrivens, left, and Canada's Karl Stollery on Wednesday in Biel, Switzerland. Canada won the game 3-2. (Peter Schneider/The Associated Press)

Here were the forward line combinations for Canada:

  • LW Wojtek Wolski –  C Gilbert Brule – RW Linden Vey
  • LW Rob Klinkhammer – C Matt Ellison – RW Brandon Kozun
  • LW Nick Spaling – C Quinton Howden – RW Ted Purcell
  • LW Christian Thomas – C Eric O'Dell – RW Rene Bourque

The Canadian defence pairings included: Karl Stollery with captain Chris Lee; Chay Genoway and Simon Despres; Geoff Kinrade and Jesse Blacker. Undrafted Zach Whitecloud, 20, of Bemidji State, was the seventh defenceman.

Spaling and Purcell were late additions to the Canadian roster. They replaced a trio of injured players in Derek Roy, Matt Frattin and Northeastern University forward Dylan Sikura of Aurora, Ont. The Chicago Blackhawks' 22-year-old prospect has six goals and 14 points in eight games this season.

'A lot of new faces'

After the game, the Canadian team chartered a flight for Finland and took Thursday off to rest up for its final two games, facing Sweden on Friday and Finland on Sunday.

Canadian head coach Willie Desjardins and the coaching staff had two days of practice in Switzerland before the tournament opener to work on some systems and chemistry, but these still are early days for the national team.

"It was good to get the win," Lee said. "We've got a lot of new faces and we're trying to get used to one another. But we battled. We played Canadian hockey. We weren't giving up, made some big blocks at the end. We worked hard. Once they got one, we got one right back, and we took off from there."

Many of the scouts I chatted with here on Thursday were in Orebro, Sweden, to watch Sweden's 5-3 win against the Czech Republic and raved about the exciting contest that saw Sweden bust open a 3-3 draw with two goals in the third period.

Russia Putin

KHL president Dmitry Chernyshenko is shown at left in this 2014 file photo alongside Russian president Vladimir Putin, centre, and former KHL President Alexander Medvedev, right. (File/The Associated Press)

I also wondered what the scouts made of Russia's threat to pull all KHL players from the Pyeongchang Games in protest over International Olympic Committee doping investigations into Russian athletes as KHL president Dmitry Chernyshenko suggested in a statement on Saturday.

"I don't what to think when it comes to Russia," a scout said. "It's anybody's guess. But I do know that while a boycott would cost countries like Canada some pretty good hockey players, Russia wouldn't have many players left to play."