Canada's potential Olympic starting goalie is half a world away
Former NHLer Ben Scrivens playing on the edge of Russia's Ural mountains
As the NHL opened its season, Canada's potential Olympic starting goaltender was half a world away.
On the edge of Russia's Ural mountains, Ben Scrivens suited up for Salavat Yulaev Ufa in the Kontinental Hockey League, taking on Pavel Datsyuk and Ilya Kovalchuk's SKA St. Petersburg. Scrivens was pulled after giving up four goals to SKA, which started its season 18-0. It was an off night for Scrivens, who has otherwise been solid in the KHL, posting a .918 save percentage last season with Dinamo Minsk of Belarus.
With the NHL skipping the Pyeongchang Olympics in February, he could star for Canada.
Scrivens has been in contact with Hockey Canada and he played pre-season games on a roster assembled from KHL players. The Canadians played six games across two tournaments, with three goaltenders each playing two games. Of those three, Scrivens has the most NHL experience (144 NHL games for four teams between 2011 and 2016).
"As a Canadian you just want Canada to win," he told The Associated Press. "Obviously you want to be part of it."
Without the NHL, the United States and reigning Olympic champion Canada will have to make do with scratch squads of minor leaguers, college players and the many ex-NHL players looking for new opportunities abroad — particularly in the Russia-based KHL, widely considered the best league outside the NHL. The KHL is taking a massive 33-day break for the Feb. 9-25 Olympics while the NHL soldiers on.
Claim to fame
Scrivens was mostly a backup goaltender in the NHL, where he set the league record for saves in a regular-season shutout with 59 for the Edmonton Oilers against the San Jose Sharks in 2014. After being bounced between the NHL and farm teams in 2015-16 and admittedly outspoken with coaches, he looked abroad. Now 31, a KHL salary offers Scrivens the chance to "give my family a foundation for the rest of our lives."
Located just west of the Urals that divide Europe from Asia, Ufa is a city of 1 million known for its oil industry and traditionally liberal brand of Islam. Hockey games in the city's 8,000-capacity arena feature a passionate section of hardcore fans who roar their way through the game, plus a heavy emphasis on scantily clad cheerleaders as entertainment.
Scrivens admits adapting to Russia hasn't been easy. It's meant a "significant decrease" in his social life and he speaks mostly in a kind of simplified English with his Russian and Scandinavian teammates — so much so that friends and family sometimes tease him for bizarre or ungrammatical speech on calls home.
"We don't have time to do [Russian] lessons, so it's more what you pick up from the rink. Guys teach you how to swear, that's about it," Scrivens said.
Scrivens' wife, Jen, is in North America after spending time with him in Belarus last year. His wife and family are holding off visiting him in Europe because they don't want to burn vacation time and miss him at the Olympics — if he goes.
Elephant in the room
"The elephant in the room is what's going to happen with the Olympics," Scrivens says. "They're tentatively holding that window open."
USA Hockey has been tracking Europe-based players like former Tampa Bay Lightning defenceman Mike Lundin, one of four Americans at Finnish KHL club Jokerit, and making sure they're Olympic-eligible.
"They've been prepared, getting the ball rolling and letting us to know be available for dates, setting us up with the drug testing," Lundin said.
The team to beat in Pyeongchang will likely be Russia, thanks to its many ex-NHL players now playing back home. KHL players can hit the ground running in Pyeongchang with experience on international-size ice and the experience of facing players of Kovalchuk and Datsyuk's calibre.
The KHL's vast geographic reach, from Slovakia in Central Europe to Vladivostok and Beijing on the Pacific coast, imposes a brutal travel schedule on its players, who can cross up to eight time zones between games.
"If you can't get used to the travel, you're going to have to stop playing in this league," says Brian O'Neill, a former New Jersey Devils wing who plays with Lundin at Jokerit and has also been contacted by USA Hockey. "When you come home, you get a 12-hour flight back, your body feels the negative side-effects for a week or two."
Still, the first Olympic tournament without the NHL since 1994 feels different somehow.
"It's kind of a strange situation, obviously, knowing if you do make it you're kind of replacements," Lundin says. "At the same time, the Olympics, it's an honour to play for your country on such a big stage. It'll be exciting to try and make the team and see how it unfolds."
Even though the NHL says its decision is final, Scrivens refuses to believe it's a done deal.
"I'm still anticipating that something's going to happen with the NHL, that they're going to be able to come," he says. "Nothing is certain until it's already going on. Until they announce final rosters, or until it really is done, all I can do is try and play my game here and make sure that if I do get the opportunity to go, that I'm ready."