Canada simply not good enough at WJHC

Finland's Aleksi Mustonen goes in on Canadian goalie Zachary Fucale in the WJHC semifinal. Finland beat Canada 5-1 and would go on to win the gold medal. (Ludvig Thunman/AP)
January 6, 2014, 12:05 PM

There’s no need for a summit. It’s not the end of the world. The sun will shine tomorrow.

For some, especially Hockey Canada, a fourth-place finish at the 2014 IIHF World Junior Hockey Championship will feel like a colossal failure. It’s not. It’s OK that other nations are better. It’s OK that Canada failed to bring home a medal in consecutive years for the first time in 30 years. It’s OK that every once in a while you get into a cycle where you’re simply not good enough. That’s where Canada is right now.

The notion that Canada should feel ashamed for not winning a medal is a result of pure arrogance. I’ve said it a million times: it’s not Canada’s birthright to win gold, or for that matter a medal, every year. For years, Canadians lamented the competition wasn’t stiff enough or that Canada could’ve sent two teams to the tournament. That isn’t the case anymore. And believe it or not, that’s a good thing. From 1993-2012, Canada medalled in all but 1998. That stretch included two five-year, gold-medal runs and a streak of 14 straight years with at least a bronze medal. That success raised the expectations of a nation while also making other countries take notice.

The Swedes went back to the drawing board; the Finns started from the goaltender position on out; the Czechs encouraged players to stay home; the Swiss leaned on Canadians to develop coaches; the Russians created the second-best professional league in the world; and after last year, Canada was forced to re-evaluate its program.

Hockey Canada also made necessary changes. A new head scout, Ryan Jankowski, was hired. It created a management group to aid Jankowski. Canada participated in a five-team tournament hosted by USA Hockey in August as part of its summer development camp. Hockey Canada went back to Brent Sutter, its most successful world junior coach ever. The selection camp was limited to 25 players, with age becoming less of a factor for selection. There were even initiatives made to streamline the Program of Excellence beginning with the U-17’s to aid future U-20 teams.

One area that may have to be readdressed is the inclusion of NCAA players. Throughout the course of this current five-year, gold-medal drought, only two players from the NCAA have been included on the U-20 roster: Jaden Schwartz (2011, 2012) and Dylan Olsen (2011). There’s no question the CHL is hyper-sensitive on this issue. And there’s no question Hockey Canada and the CHL are bedfellows. The recruiting battle between the CHL and NCAA has been well documented, and has intensified increasingly in recent years. The CHL’s involvement in the world juniors was driven home several times throughout each broadcast.

It’s almost become a pre-requisite that you have to be a member of a CHL team for inclusion in the U-18 or U-20 programs. Think back to the run of five straight gold medals from 2005 to 2009 and recall names such as Jonathan Toews (2006, 2007), Kyle Turris (2008), Andrew Cogliano (2006, 2007), Daniel Bertram (2006-07) and Cody Goloubef (2009) — all of whom played significant roles on gold-medal teams.

For the 2014 team, one name that could’ve helped the team was Florida first-rounder Michael Matheson, a ’94-born defenceman currently playing for Boston College. He attended the summer development camp but wasn’t included on the 25-man selection camp roster for a position that desperately lacked depth on this Canadian team.

For years, the Americans omitted some of their top players as punishment for playing in the CHL, and only when they removed that unwritten rule did the US start winning.

No doubt the CHL has provided the vast majority of players to the U-20 team since the inception of the Program of Excellence in 1982, and it will continue to be that way for the foreseeable future and rightfully so. But a five-year gold medal drought coupled with back-to-back fourth-place finishes may make Hockey Canada think twice before giving the Heisman to NCAA players in the future. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying the roster should be full of NCAA players, but that door should not be closed.

Canada has the potential to return 11 players next year. The 1995-born group is really strong in this country and younger stars such as Connor McDavid and Aaron Ekblad will only be better next year. The event will return to home ice (Montreal and Toronto) and Canada will play in Group A with defending champion Finland, USA, Slovakia and Germany.

So when you’re discussing Canada’s plight at the 2014 world juniors, don’t look at the coaching staff, don’t look at the omissions, don’t blame NHL teams for not releasing players, don’t blame the goalies and don’t think it’s all about what Canada couldn’t do. Instead, take a look at the tournament’s newfound parity, give respect to other nations’ programs and relent that Canada’s second-youngest team ever simply wasn’t good enough this time around.

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