GANGNEUNG, South Korea (Reuters) - Canada opened their defense of their Olympic men’s ice hockey gold medal with a workmanlike 5-1 win over Switzerland on Thursday in a muted contest that failed to fill the Kwandong Hockey Centre.
What would have been one of the hottest tickets at any of the five previous Olympics featuring a Canadian team loaded with National Hockey League stars playing in their tournament opener was treated with disinterest as the world’s best players sat these Games out.
With the NHL deciding to end its Olympic involvement Canada was forced to assemble a roster of mostly anonymous journeymen and minor leaguers, the absence of marquee names having a bigger impact on attendance than on the ice as Canada rolled to a confidence-boosting win.
“You didn’t really know what to expect it’s been a long process we knew the Swiss would have a good and that they would play hard,” Canada coach Willie Desjardins told reporters.
“It was good for us to get out and get a couple of goals early.
“I think it let everybody see on our team where we are at and what we can do. We’ve still got lots of tough hockey ahead of us.”
Canada would usually be the main attraction packing the largest venue but on Thursday the gold medalists were relegated to the smaller arena used primarily for women’s hockey while the host South Koreans took on the Czech Republic across town at the main arena.
Large swathes of empty seats and just 2,802 spectators added up to a flat atmosphere inside the arena that a day earlier had been rattling with excitement for a women’s hockey game between a united Korean team and Japan.
The Canadian team that stepped on to the Kwandong Hockey Centre ice on Thursday could not have been more different than the one that claimed gold four years ago in Sochi.
That was a team of future Hockey Hall of Famers, NHL most valuable players and scoring champions like Sidney Crosby and Jonathan Toews.
The roster that opened defense of that gold was one cobbled together from NHL spare parts and castoffs. A team of mostly unknowns earning a pay cheque playing in remote hockey outposts.
“You try to just treat it like any other game as cliche as that sounds, if you start focusing on magnitude you kind of get lost in the forest,” said Canada netminder Ben Scrivens, who plays in the Russian KHL for Salavat Yulaev Ufa. “You take one game at a time.”
Fans or no fans Canada got their bid for a third consecutive gold off to an inspired start with Rene Bourque redirecting Chris Lee’s shot from the blueline past Leonardo Genoni to open the scoring and Maxim Noreau adding a powerplay tally for a 2-0 first period lead.
Bourque found the back of the net again in the second which was followed 52 seconds later with another powerplay goal from Wojtek Wolski that pushed the lead out to 4-0.
Simon Moser’s third period powerplay goal accounted for all the Swiss scoring and Wolski answered with an empty netter for Canada.
Editing by Ed Osmond