Playing for your home country is a special honor. For some, it’s a chance to prove that they’re one of the greatest players in the world. For others, it’s the best moment of their life, and something that only a select few individuals will ever have a chance to enjoy.
Cole Harbour, N.S.’s Logan Delaney was fortunate enough to be a part of a truly special event. Home to a guy you’re probably very familiar with on the Pittsburgh Penguins, Cole Harbour has turned out to be a solid location for Team Canada hopefuls in the past. With Sidney Crosby winning on pretty much every stage, as well as Nathan MacKinnon recently winning gold at the World Championships, Canada’s connection to the Nova Scotian’ community has been immense.
So how does Delaney, a little known hockey player, fit into the equation?
Usually, players who get named to Team Canada events are participating in a major professional league somewhere in the world. But for Delaney, whose short junior hockey career saw him play two games with the Cobourg Cougars of the Ontario Junior Hockey League, that wasn’t the case.
At the age of 16, Delaney, who was living in Barrie, Ont. at the time, was forced to miss a year of hockey after receiving a skull fracture from a hit from behind. He would eventually return to the game, despite medical advice urging him to stop, to try out for the QMJHL’s Moncton Wildcats. He’d eventually try another comeback in Junior A, but after a short period of time, the budding young player would have to quit for the time being due to post-concussion symptoms.
Fast forward to 2014. Delaney, 31-years-old at the time, received an email that would make anyone suspicious. Hockey Canada was looking to put a team together for the upcoming Pan-American Ice Hockey Tournament in Mexico City, a new event aimed at helping the development of countries with limited hockey resources.
You could imagine the confusion when asked to join a high profile team in such an obscure event.
“Getting asked to play was a confusing whirlwind of events to say the least,” Delaney said. “We were all contacted predominantly by email, which the majority of us thought was fake. We had to be reassured by Hockey Canada staff that it was in fact real. After doing a lot of research online into this event, clearly we jumped on it.”
Many Canadians are familiar with the Pan-Am Games, an event heading to Toronto this coming summer. But ice hockey isn’t involved with that type of event, so what exactly was this newfangled tournament? To most of the players asked, it seemed more like spam. When you take a look at the players involved, with many not making past the college or junior ranks, it’s understandable that there may have been a little bit of skepticism involved.
“I was coaching Atom “AAA” hockey. I was at a game in the dressing room and my email went off. My old buddy Matt Keer is good buddies with Ross MacLean, who is a development coordinator with Hockey Canada. Kerrsy sends this email to several of us in Nova Scotia. It says “boys, your one and only chance to play for Team Canada, read the info below and get back to me ASAP.
“I (was) confused. And excited. I went home and gave my six-month pregnant wife my phone and told her to read it. She’s says “what the &$!k”, so I spent the next two hours Googling the hell out of it. Info was scarce. I didn’t care. I jumped on it. I thought it was a joke, but I didn’t take the chance. I texted Kerrsy the next day cause I was skeptical. He didn’t know what else he could do to convince us it was real. The email was from Hockey Canada, signature and everything. All the other guys felt the same way. Guys from Hockey Canada were literally calling us and identifying themselves to try to prove it wasn’t a joke.
“A couple other buddies here were asked and said no because they thought it was a joke,” mentioned Delaney, who was familiar with other players that received invitations. “In the email thread I wrote back “am I the only one seriously considering this?” Geoff Sanford replied “yes, you idiot.”
As you can imagine, the feeling was surreal for Delaney. Here he is, a hockey coach in Nova Scotia, now getting asked to represent his country in a brand new, unique tournament.
“It was so shocking in the beginning. As a kid you watch world juniors every year. Seeing that jersey is a staple of everyone’s home, and then all of a sudden, three weeks from receiving the invite, you are going to be wearing the exact same one in a country that no hockey player from Canada has ever been.”
On March 3, 2014, Canada’s adventure to become the first-ever Pan-Am hockey champions started in the most positive way possible. Taking on Colombia just a day after their opponents grabbed their inaugural hockey win against Argentina, former SJHL Player of the Year Kyle Reed led the way by scoring a hat-trick for Canada in an eventual 9-3 victory.
But it wasn’t the victory that really stood out for Delaney.
“We tapped our sticks on the ice out of respect (a IIHF pre-game tradition) and to be honest we never thought much of it. It’s just what “we” do. Later that night, while enjoying some club sodas in the hotel lounge bar, two of their players came up to us. They told us that seeing all of us lined up on the blue line, in the famous Team Canada uniforms, tapping our sticks and cheering for them, Columbia, was the most surreal moment of their lives. One player said he had tears in his eyes.
“We couldn’t believe it. And I think at that moment after he told us that, we realized us being here meant a lot more than we ever could of thought.”
Canada’s tournament was as dominant as it could be. With former AHLer James Reid putting up a solid performance in net, Canada would go on to finish with a perfect 4-0 record, scoring 49 goals and allowing just six in that time span. The good results weren’t to be unexpected in a tournament that, on paper, was expected to be very one-sided, but again, it wasn’t about the hockey. It was about the experience.
“I remember our first practice. Putting on the gear in the room, we all looked at each other and said “we’re really doing this?”. Then you step on the ice and (see) the big Mexico logo at center. It was crazy simply thinking about it.”
Playing at the brand new Ice Dome in Mexico City was surely a challenge. In fact, the arena was still not even completely built by the time the tournament was hosted. In Canada, you don’t need to drive very far to find a few arenas within a two mile radius. But in Mexico, just getting a single ice surface ready proved to be a tough task.
“A couple drills into practice, we cut the ice so bad our skates were hitting the concrete. The rink guys were still learning about ice maintenance. Here we are after practice in tracksuits on the ice helping them repair it. The rink guys loved it. We were having a blast. One morning we came in for practice and I’ll be damned if the ice was melted. It looked like a lake. We sat there scratching our heads. No big deal, we went out for a good meal instead.”
Hockey is filled with rivalries. Typically, Canada hates the Russians, Sweden dislikes the Finns and Latvia and Switzerland tend to have some pretty interesting battles on the ice. So when you stories about teams staying together for a week of hockey competition, that would probably stand out as something that seems rather strange.
Not at the Pan-American Ice Hockey Tournament.
“All the countries, except Mexico, stayed in the same hotel,” Delaney said. “Our accommodations were absolutely fantastic. So we were around Columbia, Argentina, and Brazil quite often. They were all really great guys. Constantly chatting with us, wanting to hear stories about Canadian hockey. However, we were more interested in hearing about hockey at home for them! It was fascinating listening to them talk about the game at home. We all had our story of where we came from, and how we ended up there, but hearing theirs was incredible. The cultural difference was really interesting.
“We shared a bus home with the Colombian team once. They had a stereo with them blaring Colombian dance music and singing. We didn’t know what to do so we started dancing at the back of the bus. It was absolutely hysterical and awesome. The boys loved it. I can honestly say that they loved having us there. We would invite them places, and made sure that if a cold one was around, they would get one too.”
Once the tournament came to a close, it wasn’t a Canadian player on top of the scoring charts. In fact, Mexican scoring stars Carlos Gomez and Adrian Cervantes, as well as American college player Daniel Echeverri, took home the top three spots after five games. Initially, you would assume that Canada, with all their hockey resources, would come out and dominate the scoring department, but when you get players out there, knowing that it’s the opportunity of a lifetime, you see incredible performances from players you’ll likely never hear from again.
“I think they (the other teams) were nervous to a degree, figuring we would go out and run them over through the glass,” said Delaney. “Once they recognized our character, I think that aspect disappeared. Playing them was a lot of fun. We had some good laughs with them, and don’t kid yourself, there was some excellent hockey players floating around those teams. Mexico could play, and arguably the best player in the whole tourney was from Colombia.”
Off the ice, however, was where the real story was.
“I watched one of our players, Mike Sullivan, give a kid in the crowd his stick after a game,” recalled Delaney, who scored two goals for Canada during the tournament. “The kids parents ran down to Sully and hugged him. I listened to a guy from Argentina tell me he spent his families life savings to build a hockey rink, and he lives in it. All of it was truly amazing, and incredible. People back home think that we just went there to steamroll these countries. They could never understand, it meant so much more.
“It’s humbling to know that a Brazilian hockey player goes home to his two kids and tells them all about how their dad played hockey against Team Canada, and made history. (That same player went out of his way to congratulate me on the birth of my daughter two months later). Hockey is Canada’s game. But we want to share it with the world. And seeing these countries play the game purely for the love of it, it’s what makes it special. Us playing against Mexico while 3000 people watched, maybe 500 of them became hockey fans for life. And that’s special. Knowing that we might have had a part in that.”
Back on the ice, Canada still had a job to do. While their main objective was to help support smaller hockey nations, Canada still went to Mexico with one task in mind: winning a gold medal. Just a few weeks prior, the top national team, featuring stars such as Sidney Crosby and Carey Price, went on to win the gold medal at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, giving Canada their third Olympic title in the past four tournaments.
Over in Mexico, a lesser known Canadian team found themselves battling for a gold medal of their own.
On March 9th, Canada and Mexico took to the ice for the gold medal game, their second meeting of the tournament Earlier in the event, Canada went on to beat the Mexicans 6-3, proving to be Canada’s toughest test at the end of the tournament. With the hosts coming in with a lot to prove, the team entered the finals with hopes of somehow finding a way of putting Canada’s gold medal hopes to sleep.
That wouldn’t be the case, unfortunately. Michael Sullivan did the most damage for the Canadians, scoring two goals in an eventual 7-0 victory to secure the gold medal. It was their lowest scoring shutout of the tournament, thanks to big victories over Argentina and Brazil, but it was easily their most important victory. For most of the players involved, it was the greatest moment of their hockey lives.
Even for some people not involved with the team.
“The Canadian embassy hosted us one morning,” recounted Delaney. “Pretty cool stuff. (We) met the ambassador and the staff. Afterwards we had lunch at a nice spot. Were all sitting there and an older fella walked in, probably in his late 50’s. His name was Marco and he flips out, “Oh my god you’re Team Canada!” So were shooting the breeze with him, and he tells us to stay and that he will be right back. He runs to his office and grabs a picture off the wall and runs back. It’s a picture of him and his beer league hockey team, 20 years ago, in Mexico City. He was so proud to tell us that he plays hockey. You couldn’t have believed it unless you saw it.
“So, we beat Mexico in the final. Rink is packed solid. We’re on the ice celebrating and getting pictures and whatnot. I look up and hear this guy yelling wearing a (Doug) Gilmour Maple Leafs jersey. It’s Marco! I skate over and tell the security guard to get him and bring him on the ice. This guy was on cloud nine. How cool is that?”
Looking back at the tournament over a year later still brings back great memories for Logan Delaney. Playing for the Canadian national team tends to be reserved for players on top of the hockey world. Crosby. Gretzky. Lemieux. Eberle. Iginla. Sakic. And yet, a little known player from Nova Scotia would become a gold medalist for the most iconic nation in hockey.
“Did I ever think I would have the chance to win a gold medal for my country? No, never,” said Delaney, whose Canadian team will not be returning to Mexico City this year.
“Now I have a ring, and that jersey I once dreamed of wearing I have at home forever to keep. It’s a hockey fairy tale. I couldn’t describe it any other way.
Did Canada need to go to a smaller event like the Pan-Am games? They were surely not obligated to. What’s another medal to the country that lives and breathes the sport every single day?
It wasn’t about the medal. It was about creating a much more global presence for the sport we all love.
“Leaving there winning gold was one thing,” Delaney pointed out. “But in all truthfulness, leaving knowing that we made such a positive lasting impression on the hockey community in other countries was what left the biggest impact. And the lasting impression those other countries left on us was even greater.
“I know our trainer, Chuck Dufton, has been working with the Mexican federation over the past year, really working hard on hockey safety initiatives,” said Delaney. “Tom Renney has been working with Deigo De La Garma, the president of hockey in Mexico, mentoring the development. Dicky Haiek, the Argentinian president, has been working on skill development models through our coach Corey McNabb. And I know some of our players, myself included, have been in conversations of possibly going to these countries to work with minor hockey development as well. It’s been extremely positive, and the opportunities to continue the relationships we earned are great.”
When the 2015 edition of the tournament begins in June, the Pan-American Ice Hockey Tournament will feature six teams, one more than last year. But despite the added team, the event will move on without a Canadian team, giving a chance for someone different to grab the title. Surely, the impact of Canada’s participation last year helped the developing nations in a big way, including the Mexicans, who went on to grab a bronze medal at the D2B World Championships. The support in Argentina helped lead to a second team in the tournament, a big step in the right direction for a team with very little hockey experience.
While the tournament begins a new chapter back in Mexico, Delaney and the rest of the Canadians can kick back and reminisce in an opportunity of a lifetime for a group of unsuspecting candidates. They could end up being the only Canadians to ever participate in the tournament, an event that will hopefully live on for years to come.
And yet, it all started with one sketchy looking email.
“It was a fairytale, and it still is.”
Follow me on Twitter, @StevenEllisNHL.
This story was originally published in 2015 on TheHockeyHouse.net.