So it begins this weekend, at the same venue where the 2014 Canadian Olympic men's hockey team won gold in such dominant fashion.

In Sochi, Russia at the Bolshoi Sport Palace on Sunday, auditions will commence for the 2018 Canadian Olympic squad.

There will be no Carey Price, Sidney Crosby, Jonathan Toews, Drew Doughty or any of the country's best hockey players performing for Canada in six months at the Pyeongchang Games. NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and his shortsightedness put an end to another chapter of the Olympic dream for NHLers by deciding to halt their participation.

Instead, a former Stanley Cup hero in Maxime Talbot, a former can't-miss first-round pick who did miss in Gilbert Brulé and a former ditch digger in Rob Klinkhammer will strut their stuff for Canadian Olympic team general manager Sean Burke and the coaching staff.

Instead of Crosby and company gathering in Calgary for Mike Babcock's ball-hockey strategy sessions, a bunch of Canadian hopefuls will play in the Sochi Hockey Open, a tournament that is part of the Kontinental Hockey League's pre-season schedule.

Canada will open against HC Sochi on Sunday and then play an early version of the Russian national team on Monday. The Canadian hopefuls will assemble again later this month for a similar tournament in St. Petersburg, Russia.


A former sixth-overall pick by Columbus, Gilbert Brulé later played for Edmonton during his ultimately underwhelming NHL career. (Dale MacMillan/Getty Images)

Chance of a lifetime

The two Canadian teams will be comprised of professionals who currently play in Russia, Sweden, Switzerland and Germany.

The oldest Canadian player this weekend is 34-year-old forward Andrew Ebbett of Vernon, B.C. He's a few weeks away from beginning his third season for SC Bern in Switzerland after 243 NHL regular-season and playoff games and another 365 AHL outings. Ebbett had quite a season last year, winning a league championship with Bern and the Spengler Cup with Canada.

The youngest player auditioning this weekend is 26-year-old defenceman Jesse Blacker of Toronto. He won the 2008-09 Memorial Cup with the Windsor Spitfires and was selected in the second round by the Toronto Maple Leafs in the 2009 NHL draft, but played in only one NHL game for the Anaheim Ducks, on Nov. 28, 2014.

Blacker played in Germany last year and has moved to China to play for HC Kunlan Red Star of the KHL this season.

This is a chance of a lifetime for these Canadian pros. It's so 1994, when a bunch of underdogs like Todd Hlushko, Dwayne Norris, Derek Mayer and goalie Corey Hirsch came oh-so-close to winning Olympic gold in Lillehammer, Norway.

Sweden's Peter Forsberg spoiled that potential party with his shootout-clinching goal in the gold-medal final on Hirsch, who had made 40 saves in regulation and overtime.

This time around, Canadian head coach Willie Desjardins and his assistants Dave King, Scott Walker and Craig Woodcroft have plenty of experience on their team.


Rob Klinkhammer nearly ate himself out of hockey, then dug ditches for a natural gas company before realizing his NHL dream. (Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

Digging deep

The personable Talbot, 33, who plays in Russia these days, stands out because of his Stanley Cup exploits. He scored twice in the Pittsburgh Penguins' 2-1 victory against the Detroit Red Wings in Game 7 of the 2009 championship final. He is a close friend of Crosby's and is married to former Canadian figure skating champ Cynthia Phaneuf.

Brulé, 30, also will be one to watch. A talented teenager, he won the Ed Chynoweth Cup with the 2005-06 Vancouver Giants as well as playoff MVP honours. He was selected sixth overall in the 2005 NHL draft by the Columbus Blue Jackets and made the NHL as a 19-year-old.

Brulé's development appeared to be stunted in 2006-07 because he wasn't physically mature enough to play in the NHL. He also later revealed a strained relationship with his father.

Brulé became better known for his off-ice activities. He donated $10,000 for an Edmonton toddler to have a rare facial surgery in New York, and he picked up a hitchhiker in North Vancouver who turned out to be U2 frontman Bono.

After bouncing from the Blue Jackets to the Edmonton Oilers and Arizona Coyotes organizations, he has played in Russia the past three seasons.

Brulé and Klinkhammer briefly were teammates with the Coyotes four years ago.

Klinkhammer, 30, is an inspirational character. He once confessed that his love of ice cream and the Golden Arches of McDonald's in junior almost cost him his hockey career.

He also had an off-season job wearing coveralls while making four-foot wide, six-feet deep trenches for a natural gas company in the heat of the Southern Alberta summer to help pay for his hockey.

He later made the most of a tryout with the Tampa Bay Lightning but had to play in 234 AHL games and move to the Chicago Blackhawks organization before he suited up for his first of 193 NHL games with the Blackhawks, Ottawa Senators, Coyotes and Oilers.

Now Klinkhammer and others begin an opportunity to make the most of this unique situation.