Canada Finds Itself in an Unusual Role: A Hockey Underdog

Wojtek Wolski was lying in a hospital bed with a broken neck after having crashed headfirst into the boards early in the 2016-17 hockey season.

He did not know whether he would heal or what his life would look like. He certainly did not expect to be on skates, at the Winter Olympics, 13 months later.

On Jan. 11, when he was named to the Canadian Olympic men’s hockey team, Wolski said he looked back at a photo of himself wearing a neck brace “and cried like a baby.”

“For a lot of us, this wasn’t even a possibility a couple of months ago, a couple of years ago,” said Wolski, 31, who plays for Metallurg Magnitogorsk in the Russia-based Kontinental Hockey League. “The whole team is filled with these stories that I think people are going to love.”

With N.H.L. players staying on the sideline for the first time since 1994, Canada had to do something unfamiliar — scour hockey’s international scrap heap to fill its roster. Also unfamiliar, the Canadians are not the favorite to win their third straight gold medal when they open the Olympic tournament against Switzerland on Thursday.

That honor goes to the Russians, or the “Olympic Athletes From Russia,” as they are being called during Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea. Although they have been notorious underperformers at recent Olympic tournaments, they are the most skilled team, with the former N.H.L. stars Ilya Kovalchuk and Pavel Datsyuk.

The Canadian team, on the other hand, is made up of long shots. Forward Eric O’Dell, 27, who plays with HC Sochi in the K.H.L., was considered the longest shot.

In 2010, he was having heart palpitations, and doctors discovered he had a small hole in his heart, which had been there since birth. O’Dell underwent surgery and spent six months on the sidelines recovering.

When he showed up for a training camp in August, nobody thought he had a chance. The coaches thought he looked more like a biker than a hockey player, full of tattoos and his hair tied back in a…

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