Ed Willes: Desjardins proud to be a part of golden pursuit at Olympics

 

 
 
 
 
Hockey Canada's head coach Willie Desjardins and Team Canada chef de mission Isabelle Charest hold a jersey after announcing Canada's national men's team in Calgary on Jan. 11, 2018.
 

Hockey Canada's head coach Willie Desjardins and Team Canada chef de mission Isabelle Charest hold a jersey after announcing Canada's national men's team in Calgary on Jan. 11, 2018.

Photograph by: Jeff McIntosh, The Province

More on This Story

 

As he prepares for the games of his life, Willie Desjardins thinks about a lot of things.

He thinks about 30 years ago when, as a young assistant at the University of Calgary, he sat in the rafters of Father Bauer Arena and watched the Canadian Olympic team practise under Dave King.

He thinks about those times in his career when he’s stood on the bench and watched the Canadian flag raised in triumph, what that meant to him and his players.

And he thinks about the awesome responsibility he feels as the coach of the Canadian Olympic men’s team; a responsibility that connects him to King, who’s now on his staff, to Tom Renney, to Andy Murray, to every player who’s represented Canada and every Canadian who’s supported them.

Maybe this isn’t the tournament hockey fans want and maybe they aren’t the players they want to see in Pyeongchang, but that doesn’t diminish Desjardins’ passion for his job or his investment in the program.

When he coached the Vancouver Canucks, the 60-year-old hockey lifer wasn’t exactly an open book but, with the Olympics now less than three weeks away, he’s all in for the role of Captain Canada.

Just ask him.

“What I think it captures is the Canadian spirit,” Desjardins says of his team. “There’s so many things I’m impressed by. How they won’t quit. How they keep finding ways. To me that’s the story of this group.

“All of them want to play in the NHL and they all want to be there in the long term. But right now, this very minute, I think this is where they want to be and they wouldn’t trade this two weeks for anything.”

Neither, come to think of it, would the coach.

“I get excited,” he continues. “I’ve stood on the bench, watching the flag raised (at other international competitions). That’s pretty amazing and I’ve never had that experience at the Olympics. To share the hopes and dreams of these athletes is something special. You’re fortunate if you can do that.”

On this day, Desjardins is driving down the Trans-Canada from the Olympic training centre in Calgary to his home in Medicine Hat where he coached the WHL Tigers through the aughts. Of course he kept his house in The Hat. But Friday, the career coach left for Latvia and a weeklong camp — “It will be great, no distractions,” he says — that will serve as the final tune-up for the Olympic hockey tournament.

For Canada, that begins on Feb. 15 playing against Switzerland. If everything goes according to script, it ends on Feb. 25 with the gold-medal game and that moment Desjardins and his players dream about.

“I have two passions,” Desjardins says. “One is hockey, the other is Canada. I think they’re both pretty special.”

This group is all of that. Again, every hockey fan is aware the NHL has pulled out of South Korea and the Olympic tournament, which had become the game’s defining event through five Olympic cycles, has now become a glorified Spengler Cup.

But if the story of Team Canada 2018 lacks the epic, big-budget quality provided by the NHLers, it makes up for it in the powerful personal story each player represents.

“They’ve all made sacrifices to be here,” Desjardins says. “There are guys who wouldn’t have played this year if it weren’t for the Olympics. Guys who’ve taken their families over to Europe. But we all have the same goal and whenever you have a group this focused, it’s an easier team to coach.”

Desjardins, in fact, loves that dynamic with his group. So would most coaches. It’s a veteran, hard-working team with limited star power but one that understands its mission.

The average age of the team is 31. Most have had a taste of the NHL. All have experienced the ups and downs of the game.

They won’t overwhelm the opposition — especially a stacked Russian team which, through the grace of the IOC, will feature Ilya Kovalchuk, Pavel Datsyuk and old friend Nikita Tryamkin. But they’ll play smart, they’ll play fast and they’ll play with a laser focus.

Desjardins is asked if the coaching staff knows what it has with this team.

“We think we do,” he answers. “We have a mobile back end and our goaltending (former NHLer Ben Scrivens figures to be the starter) has been good. We have some depth up front.”

Which is a polite way of saying they’ll have to score by committee. The frontliners don’t exactly jump off the page at you but players such as Wojtek Wolski, Derek Roy, Mason Raymond, René Bourque, Chris Kelly, Linden Vey and Gilbert Brulé have been offensive players, sort of, at points in their career.

“We don’t want to sit back,” says Desjardins. “I don’t think you have any choice on the big ice surface.”

As it happens, there are six former Canucks on the Team Canada roster that was also the last team Desjardins coached before he was unceremoniously fired at the end of last season.

He waited a long time for his first NHL posting and, with 28th- and 29th-place finishes his final two years it didn’t end well. That record, in truth, had more do with the Canucks’ personnel than Desjardins’ abilities. If he’s bitter about the experience, he does a good job of hiding it.

“Would I do things differently?” he says. “Sure. But not based on the information I had at the time.

“I have a lot of respect for (team president Trevor Linden and GM Jim Benning). There’s stuff they had to do they didn’t want to do. I don’t think Trevor enjoyed any part of (firing Desjardins) but it was something he had to do. Always for me it’s what can you learn from it.”

And everything he’s learned over five decades in the game has prepared him for this moment. Like his players, he wouldn’t trade it for anything.

Ewilles@postmedia.com

Twitter.com/willesonsports

CLICK HERE to report a typo.

Is there more to this story? We’d like to hear from you about this or any other stories you think we should know about. Email vantips@postmedia.com

 
 
 
Font:
 
 
 
 
Hockey Canada's head coach Willie Desjardins and Team Canada chef de mission Isabelle Charest hold a jersey after announcing Canada's national men's team in Calgary on Jan. 11, 2018.
 

Hockey Canada's head coach Willie Desjardins and Team Canada chef de mission Isabelle Charest hold a jersey after announcing Canada's national men's team in Calgary on Jan. 11, 2018.

Photograph by: Jeff McIntosh, The Province

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
We encourage all readers to share their views on our articles and blog posts. We are committed to maintaining a lively but civil forum for discussion, so we ask you to avoid personal attacks, and please keep your comments relevant and respectful. If you encounter a comment that is abusive, click the "X" in the upper right corner of the comment box to report spam or abuse. We are using Facebook commenting. Visit our FAQ page for more information.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Your voice