Mark Scheifele would gladly accept any job assigned to him by the brain trust of Canada’s Olympic hockey program — yet, another lesson imparted to him by his mentor, the late Dale Hawerchuk.
He’d slide into his familiar spot at centre or skate on the wing. He’d take the 24 shifts he routinely plays nightly with the Winnipeg Jets or would welcome just a handful from Jon Cooper, who will grip the coaching reins of Canada’s Olympic squad for the monumental February tournament in Beijing.
“I would do absolutely anything. Any position, any role they want me to play, that’s what Canadian hockey’s about. It’s all about the team,” Scheifele said Friday, in a chat with the Free Press. He’s been back in the Manitoba capital for a couple of weeks, skating almost daily. “There are so many fantastic players from our beautiful country, so there’s lots of competition. I definitely would play anywhere.”
In 1987, Hawerchuk was the undisputed on- and off-ice leader of the Jets 1.0 and a bona fide NHL all-star, however, he was no slam dunk to crack the Canadian roster for the prestigious Canada Cup tournament. A Mount Rushmore of hockey’s great centres, Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux and Mark Messier, were ahead of him on the depth chart, and he was up against other uber-talented middle-men such as Steve Yzerman, Doug Gilmour and Dave Poulin.
But bench boss Mike Keenan elected keep Hawerchuk and Gilmour, using them along the wall. They began as third- and fourth-line guys, chipping in when called upon. Inevitably, Hawerchuk’s brilliant play earned him more responsibility, and, as most will undoubtedly recall, he scored a goal, added an assist and won a key defensive-zone faceoff that sent Gretzky and Lemieux on a dash to the eventual Cup-winning tally by the Pittsburgh Penguins’ legend.
“I heard all those stories and had many conversations with Dale when I played for him in Barrie (Ont.) about what happens on teams like that, what you have to be prepared to do in the game of hockey. You work hard every time out and try to work your way up the lineup,” said Scheifele. “You learn what it means to come together as a team. Guys that are all-stars on their own team and then have to play more of a limited role, a checking role, have to kill penalties.
“That’s what comes with playing for your country. It’s not playing for the name on your back, it’s playing for Canada. It’s one of those things you learn during a hockey career, and it’s another experience I’d love to hopefully learn from again.”
Indeed, the 28-year-old Kitchener, Ont., product needs to earn an invitation first, and he refuses to bank entirely on past success as a means to sway a management team led by St. Louis Blues general manager Doug Armstrong and aided by Edmonton Oilers GM Ken Holland and a cast of high-level advisors.
He was a likely candidate to make Canada’s team for the Winter Games in 2018, until the NHL announced it would not send its athletes to Pyeongchang, South Korea, depriving fans of the world’s best players in a showcase sport.
Nearly four years later, Scheifele has been afforded a second chance, now that the NHL, the players’ union, the International Olympic Committee and the International Ice Hockey Federation struck a deal Friday to approve NHL player participation in Beijing.
“It means work extra hard,” said Scheifele. “All summer, it’s kind of been on my mind. Obviously, it’s a goal of mine to make that team, and I’m a very goal-oriented person. So, when the news came through that the NHL’s going, my mind instantly goes to working that much harder to make that team,” he said. “I definitely want to have a great start to the season. It’s that extra bit of motivation to push me.
“You never know when you’ll get another chance. It’s one of those once-in-a-lifetime opportunities.”
Many NHL pundits have Scheifele pencilled in on Canada’s roster as a depth forward this time around; perhaps, as a bottom centre behind Connor McDavid, Sidney Crosby and Nathan McKinnon, or as a right-winger opposite Brad Marchand, Jonathan Huberdeau or John Tavares.
The permutations and combinations are endless for the program.
“I haven’t played around with roster but I definitely take note of other Canadian players who had a good year or a good playoffs, all that kind of stuff. You take that as a mental note, and when you play that guy (this season) you want to give a little more or have the upper hand,” he said. “I look at the tiny competitions you can have within a game.”
Several of his Jets teammates — Kyle Connor and Connor Hellebuyck (U.S.), Nikolaj Ehlers (Denmark) and Winnipeg defensive prospect Leon Gawanke (Germany) — are likely candidates to represent their countries.
Scheifele is coming off another solid campaign (21G, 42A in 56 games) in 2021 — the eighth NHL season for the first-ever draft pick of the Jets 2.0 — and sparking the club to great heights in the Central Division with a highly productive individual performance through the first four months of the 2021-22 regular-season schedule would help cinch a roster spot on Team Canada.
“It’s all about what you do on the ice, putting your best foot forward for your team, the Winnipeg Jets, giving them the best chance of winning. That’s how I look at it. That’s what I think leadership is, the guys that go out every single practice, every single game, and give their team the best chance of winning,” he said.
Winnipeg won’t have their No.1 centre for the season-opener in Anaheim against the Ducks on Thursday, Oct. 14 as he serves the last game of a four-game suspension he received for his hit on Jake Evans in Game 1 of the Jets’ playoff series with the Canadiens.
It is what it is, Scheifele said.
“Missing that first game will suck. I’ve put in a lot of hard work this summer to be the best player for my team,” he said. “Our team’s gotten a lot better this off-season, so I think it will be a long season and a great season, and I’m just looking forward to getting going.”
Assistant sports editor
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