HELSINKI — Let it sink in: three out-of-the-medals showings in the last four years at the world juniors, a tournament Canadians had over the course of a generation come to look at as proof that we do hockey better than everyone else.
Hockey Canada will try to get out in front of the criticism in the immediate wake of the 2016 team’s exit from the tournament after a loss in the quarterfinals to the host Finns.
If there’s anything that Hockey Canada is setting the standard for these days, it’s damage control. Companies selling poisoned meat or spilling oil at sea could really go to school on the fine work Hockey Canada will do in the coming days to spin this as Not a Big Thing, Nothing to Worry About and Just an Aberration (if seemingly an annual one).
To the credit of past management, Hockey Canada didn’t take that attitude on their junior squad’s last really disastrous trip to Finland for the world under-20s.
I speak not of the tournament here in 2004, when Canada blew a third-period lead against the U.S. in the final, an errant clearing attempt by Marc-Andre Fleury taking a goofy carom on what turned out to be both the gold medal-winning goal and evergreen blooper-reel material. That was more misfortunate than disastrous. You could mount the case that the ’04 team won or even dominated every period of the tournament save the last 20 minutes. Sometimes good teams don’t win.
No, the disaster I’m talking about was the ’98 tournament, when Canada won two games in the first round and lost five overall, including a 6-3 drubbing by Kazakhstan in the seventh-place game. (Sportsnet magazine put together a graphic-novel account of the debacle in the current issue.)
As bad as the 2016 tournament has been, it couldn’t spiral down quite like the ’98 team. No credit to management or the players on that count, though. No, that’s simply a function of the tournament design. Back in ’98, teams knocked out in the quarterfinals dropped down into a consolation round. I’d like to think that this Canada team would win one of the two games against teams that lost in the quarterfinals but I’d never bet on it. Still, not quitting like the ’98 team would require the 2016 squad to find a modicum of pride after the loss to Finland and I’d believe it was there if I saw it. It would also require some discipline that was conspicuously missing against the Finns in time of greatest need.
Back in ’98, Hockey Canada took a good hard look at its programs in the wake of disappointments. I use the plural because ’98 was really the annus horribilis. The stupefaction that followed the worst-ever showing at the under-20s was compounded by disappointments at the Nagano Olympics. Everything was on the table and up for reconsideration. Not to say that Hockey Canada never cited the five consecutive golds at the world juniors leading up to the 1998 tournament. Still, eighth place was eighth place and Kazakhstan was still a foggy notion in Sacha Baron Cohen's mind.
I’d argue that things are worse now than in ’98 and I’m not an alarmist by nature. On balance, five gold medals and one eighth-place finish look a lot better than one gold and three finishes off the podium. Even the ’98 team’s performance looks better against this year’s team: 1998, two shutout victories in regulation; 2016, one victory in regulation and a second in a shootout.
Here follows a set of random recommendations that I’d have, sure to be ignored.
Let’s drop the bad-cop approach
Maybe “just work harder” worked well as an ethos for Dave Lowry over his playing career. He certainly stuck around a long time in the NHL on will rather than skill. In the biggest games of his career, the Florida Panthers’ run to the final 20 years back, he played his best hockey, scoring 10 goals in 22 games. Still, that was strictly Lowry digging down and pushing himself rather than being pushed.
Maybe he played the bad cop with the Calgary Hitmen when they almost ran the table in the WHL and maybe he’s playing the role with Victoria, a program that’s done pretty well under his direction. No matter, the world junior team isn’t like those WHL squads. In the first skate of the tryouts he called a halt to practice and reamed out the team for not being serious enough or not focusing or some other violation of his vision of the game the way it should be. He might as well have told them, "Squeeze your sticks tigther."
Message to coach: these guys are different and you have to handle them that way. Many have NHL contracts in their pockets. The futures of many are, hard as this is to process, brighter than yours. You don’t have to coddle or enable them, but push too hard and they’ll tune you out. Which is what the ’98 team did when Réal Paiement played the tough guy and which is sort of what Jake Virtanen and Mitch Marner did late against the Finns when they took minor penalties. Look at Benoit Groulx last year—he’s the ultimate bad cop in Gatineau but he knew enough not to try to dump on Connor McDavid and Max Domi.
Have an honest competition for goaltenders in the tryouts
Hockey Canada was only going to invite Mackenzie Blackwood and Mason McDonald to the camp in December until the OHL suspended Blackwood for a stick-swinging incident. And really management had its mind set on Blackwood as the No. 1, a point not lost on McDonald, who was called into the breach at the start of the tournament, or on Samuel Montembeault, who was added to the list after invitations were already sent out.
Canada won a lot of medals with the play-your-way-in approach (even if some were favoured on opening day of tryouts). It's rare that a guy would play his way in from the margins to be a star, but still a legit tryout process would get all the netminders’ attention from the get-go and maybe, in the case of Blackwood anyway, have them mindful of acting out in a way that would put their availability for the tournament at risk.
After the game Blackwood went back and forth on whether his suspension and games missed at the start of the tournament had anything to do with a nightmare outing against the Finns—he began by denying it outright and then allowed he just couldn’t know. If he had gone side-to-side that well in the game it would have either have gone to overtime or Canada would have won in regulation.
Don’t be afraid of benching with cause
If anyone should have ever been benched, it was Virtanen in the last shifts of the quarterfinals after he had taken two minors on one power-play shift. He was on the ice when Canada had its last, best chance to win and by petulance and frustration turned it into advantage Finland. So when Canada needed a goal in the last minute, he was back out there like Paul Henderson without a compass.
I don’t know that anyone on the bench would have scored a goal to tie it and send the game to overtime, but a bunch of them had to feel sick to their stomachs seeing Virtanen on the ice. Maybe Lowry felt like he couldn’t piss off the Canucks, who loaned Virtanen to the program (I presume the Canucks would get it).