CHARLOTTETOWN, P.E.I. – A pair of P.E.I. Rocket alumni will team up again, this time in hopes of bringing Olympic gold back to Canada.
Maxim Lapierre and Marc-Andre Gragnani will wear the Maple Leaf in Pyeongchang, South Korea, in men’s hockey. The opening ceremonies for the Olympics are today while the multi-sport competition runs through Feb. 25.
“We played together in P.E.I., we played together in Vancouver and now we’ll play together in the Olympics,” Gragnani said during a recent interview. “It’s a special moment, and I’m really happy we’re going to live it together.”
Gragnani patrolled the Rocket blue-line from 2003-04 to 2006-07 while Lapierre, a forward, moved with the team from Montreal to Charlottetown and wore the Rocket colours for the final two years (2003-04 and 2004-05) of his junior career.
Lapierre said the two have stayed in touch with each other and have trained during some off-seasons.
“He came in as rookie when I was captain in P.E.I. We took care of him,” he said of Gragnani. “It’s a really, really fun feeling to share something like (the Olympics) with somebody you played with in junior.”
Both players acknowledged they grew up dreaming of winning the Stanley Cup, expecting Olympic gold might not be feasible.
“If I’m honest with myself, I always dreamed of playing in the NHL, but, I think, the Olympics is another step,” Lapierre said. “When you look at Team Canada’s lineup, when the NHL guys are there, it’s all all-stars and unreal players, so obviously you know you don't have a chance.”
That changed this time around when the NHL decided not to allow its players to attend the Olympics. It opened the door for players like Lapierre and Gragnani.
“It was kind of a mixed emotion kind of day because I think it’s kind of sad for the sport the best players don't get to go, but at the same time it’s a great opportunity for guys like me that are overseas and obviously wouldn't get the chance if the NHL was planning to go,” Gragnani said.
Now they want to make the most of the opportunity that has presented itself.
“It’s obviously probably the biggest honour of my hockey career,” Gragnani said.
Lapierre is in his third season with HC Lugano of the Swiss A league, while Gragnani is playing for the KHL’s Minsk Dynamo, coached by Stratford resident and former Rocket bench boss Gordie Dwyer.
“It's a great story and a great story for the Rocket and that franchise,” Dwyer said. “I think the people remember those players very well. They were players that certainly had an impact on the team when they were known as the Rocket.”
Dwyer noted two of his other Minsk Dynamo players, forward Quinton Howden (Canada) and goalie Jonas Enroth (Sweden), will also play at the Olympics.
Both Lapierre and Gragnani spoke fondly of their time in Prince Edward Island and try to get back for a visit when possible.
“Without P.E.I. in my life, who knows what would have happened,” Gragnani said. “It was a huge stepping stone in my career and I’m really thankful for it.”
He said he was lucky to have a supportive billet family in David and Kim Cudmore.
“They were like a second family to me and they made my time in P.E.I. really enjoyable.”
Lapierre was also appreciative of his billets, Neil and Christine Gallant.
“They’ve always been there for me when I was there in junior. They took great care of me,” he said. “They’ve done so much for me that we’ve become friends and we stay in touch.”
Gragnani played internationally for Canada during the past couple of season while Lapierre got the call as a late replacement for one of the players for the Spengler Cup and brought his solid defensive play, faceoff acumen and penalty killing ability to the squad. It earned him a spot to play in the biggest multi-sport event in the world.
“You don't want to believe it until they call your name and they say you’re on the team. I think everybody is going to go there with a lot of pride, and we know what people are expecting of us and we're going to be up to the challenge,” Lapierre said of the gold medal quest.
“Everybody realizes the chance we have to play at the Olympics. I’m sure everybody is going to play with a lot of energy and play hard.”
He’s looking forward to today’s opening ceremonies – and something else.
“The ultimate thing (is) when you wear the jersey for the first game, when you put it on for the first time, it’s going to be an unbelievable feeling.”
Gragnani reflected back as he thought about what playing in the Olympics would be like.
“When you look back when I was 16 through 19, I would have never guessed I would represent Canada at the Olympics,” he said. “For sure, it’s a dream come true.”
Need to know
A look at former P.E.I. Rockets Marc-Andre Gragnai and Maxim Lapierre:
Hometown – Brossard, Que.
Age – 32
Position – Forward
Height/weight – Six foot, 216 pounds.
Club team – HC Lugano (Switzerland)
P.E.I. Rocket seasons – 2003-04 and 2004-05.
Pro career – 614 NHL games with Montreal, Anaheim, Vancouver, St. Louis and Pittsburgh. He also played in Hamilton (AHL), MODO (Sweden) and three seasons with HC Lugano in the Switzerland A league.
Hometown – L’ile-Bizard, Que.
Age – 30.
Position – Defence
Height/weight – Six-foot-three, 205 pounds.
Club team – HC Dinamo Minsk (KHL)
P.E.I. Rocket seasons – 2003-04 to 2006-07.
Pro career – 78 NHL games with Buffalo, Vancouver, Carolina and New Jersey. He also played in Rochester, Portland Charlotte and Albany (AHL), Prague (KHL), Bern SC (Switzerland) and the last two seasons with Minsk Dynamo (KHL).
At a glance
A look at Team Canada at the Olympics.
The Canadian Olympic Committee says there are 225 athletes and 87 coaches competing for Canada at the Pyeongchang Olympics. Here are other details provided on the team:
By the numbers
225 Total number of athletes
Oldest male athlete – Lascelles Brown, 43 (Oct. 12, 1974)
Oldest female athlete – Cheryl Bernard, 51 (June 30, 1966)*
*Will be Canada’s oldest Winter Olympic team member ever
Youngest male athlete – Eliot Grondin, 16 (April 19, 2001)*
Youngest female athlete – Elizabeth Hosking, 16 (July 22, 2001)*
*Canada’s first Winter Olympic team members born in the 2000s
Children of Olympians:
Brianne Tutt (father Brian Tutt)
Provincial and territorial breakdown:
British Columbia: 30
New Brunswick: 0
Newfoundland and Labrador: 1
Northwest Territories: 2
Nova Scotia: 2
Prince Edward Island: 1 (Heather Moyse)
Athletes born outside Canada: 15
Athletes who previously attended a Games:
By type of Games:
Olympic Winter Games: 104
Winter Youth Olympic Games: 8
Olympic Summer Games: 3
By Olympic Winter Games:
Sochi 2014: 99
Vancouver 2010: 45
Turin 2006: 12
Salt Lake City 2002: 1
Nagano 1998: 1
By Winter Youth Olympic Games:
Lillehammer 2016: 2
Nanjing 2014: 6
By Olympic Summer Games:
Rio 2016: 1
London 2012: 2
Beijing 2008: 1
Summer/Winter Olympic team members:
Bryan Barnett (Beijing 2008 – athletics; Sochi 2014 – bobsleigh)
Phylicia George (London 2012 and Rio 2016 – athletics)
Seyi Smith (London 2012 – athletics)
Olympic rookies: 119
Olympic medallists: 46
Most Olympic appearances: 6 (Jasey-Jay Anderson is making his sixth appearance, the most ever by a Canadian at the Olympic Winter Games)
Time difference – Pyeongchang is 13 hours ahead of Atlantic time