From 1984 to 2002, the Winter Olympics featured a Victoria Cougar alumnus. These four Olympians represented three countries, won two silver medals, and part of two historical firsts. In this post, we look at these Cougar Olympians and others who came close to participating.
RUSS COURTNALL (1984 Sarajevo)
The former Cougars captain accumulated many frequent flyer miles in 1983/84 by playing in the WHL, World Juniors, Olympics and the NHL.
As a rookie with the Cougars in 1982/83, Courtnall made an immediate impact scoring 97 points playing alongside his older brother Geoff. That summer, Russ Courtnall was the first WHL player selected at the NHL entry draft when Toronto picked him ninth overall.
Courtnall’s wild 1983/84 campaign began in the summer when he participated in the Canadian National Team World Junior evaluation camp in Belleville, Ontario. After attending the 1983/84 Maple Leafs training camp in September, Courtnall returned to Victoria for the start of the Cougars season. When he joined the Canadian team at the World Juniors in December, he was Victoria’s leading scorer with 64 points. Courtnall was named the Canadian captain and went on to lead the team in scoring with 13 points in 7 games. Although Courtnall had individual success, Canada finished the World Junior tournament with a disappointing fourth-place finish.
His strong play at the World Juniors caught the attention of the Olympic coach Dave King. Courtnall and two other junior team members (Dave Gagner and Kirk Muller) joined the Canadian team for the 1984 Olympics in Sarajevo, Yugoslavia.
At the Olympics, Canada started strong winning their first four games by a combined score of 24-5. In an 8-1 win over Norway, Courtnall tallied three points playing on a line with world junior teammate Dave Gagner. As the tournament moved into the medal round, Canada’s offence dried up. They were shut out in their next two match-ups versus Czechoslovakia (4-0) and the Soviet Union (4-0).
The Canadians still had a chance for a medal as they faced Sweden for the bronze. For the third straight game, Canada’s offensive struggles continued as Sweden won 2-0. Courtnall had Canada’s best chance when he split the defense in the first period and hit the crossbar. (1) Sweden took the bronze as Canada settled for a fourth place finish.
When the Olympics concluded, Courtnall returned to the Cougars. This reunion only lasted one game. On February 26, 1984, he joined the Toronto Maple Leafs and made his NHL debut against the Canucks in Vancouver.
He spent the remainder of the year with the Leafs and went on to a 16-year career, appearing in 1,029 career NHL games.
Russ Courtnall’s 1983/84 journey is significant as he became the first person in history to play in the World Juniors, the Olympics and the NHL in the same season. (Read more about the Cougars 1983/84 season)
DEREK HAAS (1988 Calgary)
In his one season for the Cougars in 1973/74, Haas put up 57 points. Two years later, he appeared in thirty games for the Calgary Cowboys of the World Hockey Association. He bounced around the minors before relocating to France in 1982. For the next thirteen years, Haas played for various teams in France. During this time, he became a French citizen, which allowed him to play for their national team. Haas participated in two World Championships for France before joining their 1988 Olympic team.
France struggled at the 1988 games as they finished with only one win in five games, giving up more goals than any other team in the tournament. Although it was a disappointing result, France made Olympic history.
In their final game, France faced Norway to determine 11th place. The two teams were tied 6-6 after regulation. After a scoreless overtime, they took part in the first shootout in Olympic history. Haas scored once in the shootout as France won their only game of the tournament.
FABIAN JOSEPH (1992 Albertville - 1994 Lillehammer)
The only Cougar alumnus to take home an Olympic medal. The Cape Breton native joined the Cougars in 1982 along with his childhood friend Jack Mackeigan. Joseph made an impact in his rookie season, scoring 90 points and selected by the Toronto Maple Leafs at the 1983 NHL entry draft. Next season, he led the 1983/84 Cougars in scoring and was named the team co-MVP (along with Jack Mackeigan). For his last year of junior, Joseph and Mackeigan left Victoria to play for the Toronto Marlboros of the Ontario Hockey League.
In 1992, Joseph joined the national team and became the first person from Nova Scotia to play Olympic hockey for Canada.
At the 1992 games, Canada finished the opening round at the top of their Group with a 4-1 record. Their only defeat was a 5-4 loss to the Unified Team. A few months before the Olympics, the Soviet Union was dissolved and participated as the Unified Team.
In the medal round, Canada defeated Germany and Czechoslovakia to set up a rematch with the Unified team for the gold medal.
The gold medal game was a tight contest. Going into the third period, the game was scoreless. In the final frame, Unified scored three times and took the gold with a 3-1 victory. In defeat, Canada took the silver medal, its first hockey medal since 1968.
Joseph played in all eight games for Canada, picking up three points (2 goals and 1 assist)
Two years later, he rejoined the national team at the 1994 Olympics. For these games, Joseph was named team captain by coach Tom Renney. Although he only scored two points in the tournament, Joseph excelled in a defensive role.
Canada finished the preliminary round in second place with a 3-1-1 record.
In the playoff round, Canada won their first game on a Paul Kariya overtime goal to defeat the Czech Republic 4-3. Canada took the semi-final game, coming back from a 2-0 deficit to eliminate Finland 5-3. For the second straight Olympics, Canada advanced to the gold medal game. This time they faced Sweden.
In the battle for gold, Canada had a 2-1 lead, but Sweden scored late to force overtime. After a scoreless OT, the two teams went to a shootout. Canada scored on its first two shootout attempts, but goaltender Tommy Salo stoned Canada the rest of the way as Sweden won 3-2. For the second Olympics in a row, Canada and Joseph settled for a silver medal.
As time goes by, it was a big accomplishment for our group. It was unreal. The bonds you form playing on an Olympic team, especially those national teams, travelling around together, representing your country throughout North America and Europe, the bonds last forever. A lot of people call it white gold as opposed to silver because it was decided in a shootout. – Fabian Joseph (2)
Joseph ended his playing career with the Milwaukee Admirals in 1996. After his playing days, Joseph coached Dalhousie University from 2000 to 2007. In 2002, he was inducted into the Nova Scotia Sport Hall of Fame. Joseph is currently an assistant coach with the Amhurst Ramblers of the Maritime Hockey League.
SIMON WHEELDON (1998 Nagano – 2002 Salt Lake)
One of the all-time Cougar greats, Wheeldon holds the franchise record for 157 points in a season (1984/85). As a pro, the Edmonton Oilers draft pick continued to put up big numbers but could not break into an NHL lineup. After appearing in 15 NHL games over four years, Wheeldon moved to Europe in 1989 to continue his playing career.
Just before the 1997 Olympics, Wheeldon became a citizen of Austria. Similar to the Derek Haas story, his new citizenship allowed him to play for Austria at the 1998 Olympics.
Austria failed to win a game at the 1998 games, finishing the 14 team tournament in last place. They opened with ties against Slovakia and Kazakhstan and a loss to Italy. In their final game to determine 13th place, they dropped a 4-3 shootout to host Japan. Wheeldon had an assist (his only point in the tournament) and missed both his shootout attempts.
Four years later, the 36-year-old Wheeldon returned for the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake. After two opening losses, Austria bounced back with a 3-2 victory against Slovakia. Wheeldon led the Austrians to victory with two points while centering their top line.
In the consolation round, they lost 4-1 to Switzerland. The Austrians played their best game of the Olympics, but Swiss goaltender Martin Gerber was the star of the game with 54 saves. Austria finished the fourteen-team tournament in twelfth place.
Wheeldon retired in 2004 and settled in Nelson, BC where he is an investment advisor for Wood Gundy.
ALMOST AN OLYMPIAN
MARK MORRISON (1984 Sarajevo)
It’s a disgrace how Mark Morrison was treated at the 1984 Olympics. The Cougars' all-time franchise leader in games and points was originally named to the 1984 Canadian Olympic team. Just before the games began, the United States Olympic Committee filed a protest. They claimed Morrison and three other Canadians should be ruled ineligible because of their amateur status. At that time, professionals were not allowed to play in the Olympics. Morrison had a contract with the New York Rangers and appeared in nine NHL games. Canadian rules at the time allowed players who have been in fewer than ten NHL games to retain Olympic eligibility.
I‘m just happy to be here; I just want to play in the Olympics. It’s been a long haul and I’ve known for a while the rule might not go through. We are being used as bait in this but it’s for the betterment of hockey in Canada.- Mark Morrison (3)
On the day before the Games began, Morrison received the bad news. The IOC ruled Mark Morrison and Don Dietrich ineligible. (4) They were disqualified because of their National Hockey League experience. Two other Canadians (Mario Gosselin and Dan Wood) had pro contracts but were allowed to play because they never participated in an NHL game. It was a bizarre ruling considering Finland’s Lauri Mononen appeared in 142 World Hockey Association games and was deemed eligible to play.
After the heartbreaking news, Morrison returned to North America for one game with the Rangers. He finished the season with Tulsa Oilers, the Rangers minor league affiliate. Morrison and Tulsa went on the capture the 1984 Adams Cup Championship.
Morrison returned to Vancouver Island in 2006 and coached the Victoria Salmon Kings until 2011. He is currently the head coach of the AHL’s Manitoba Moose.
MAYBE AN OLYMPIAN?
ALEXANDRE VASILEVSKI (2002 Salt Lake) - The Ukrainian-born forward was one of the first European players recruited to play in the WHL. He played with the Cougars from 1992-94 and was drafted by St. Louis in 1993. In 1996, he played in four games with the Blues. Vasilevski is the last Victoria Cougar draft pick to appear in an NHL game.
On February 10, 2002, the following headline appeared in the Times-Colonist, “Ex-Victoria Cougar plays for Ukraine in Games”. It goes on to say that Vasilevski, “…skated for Ukraine on Saturday in its 1-0 preliminary-round loss to Belarus at the 2002 Salt Lake Winter Games.” The report also quotes his brother, “Alex phoned me from Salt Lake City to say what a thrill it is to be in the Olympics.” (5)
This is where the story gets strange. I looked up his Olympic stats, and contrary to the newspaper report, there is no record of Vasilevski being on the 2002 Ukraine team. There is one more mention of him in the February 12, 2002, Times-Colonist, but nothing after that. It’s only 2002, so I would assume the International Ice Hockey Federation, Hockey DB, or Elite Prospects would have accurate records. My guess is that he was on the team but never appeared in any games.
Cougars Connections - technically you could also include Craig Redmond (1984), Kent Manderville (1992), Rod Brind’amour (1998) and Paul Kariya (1994 and 2002) as Cougar Olympians. At various times, Victoria held the WHL rights to these top prospects. Instead of joining the Cougars, they attended college in the United States and went on to successful NHL careers.
(1) “Soviet gold harvest below quota “ February 20, 1984 (Page 13 of 46). Times Colonist (1980-2010)
(3) “Canada itching for eligibility showdown” February 4, 1984 (Page 9 of 61). Times Colonist (1980-2010)
(4) “Canada gets semi-victory in puck war” February 7, 1984 (Page 6 of 44). Times Colonist (1980-2010)
(5) “Ex-Victoria Cougar plays for Ukraine in Games” Cleve Dheensaw February 10, 2002 (Page 16 of 48). Times Colonist (1980-2010)