HELSINKI — I was shooting the breeze with a veteran NHL scout Sunday and trying to break down Canada’s disappointing performance at the 2016 world junior championship. We took turns citing stuff: goaltending that was at best ordinary and when needed most inadequate; a shaky blueline; designated scorers who, for the most part, struggled to generate much against quality opponents for most of the tournament; and the lack of a player who led his teammates by setting an example.
The last point was one cause that I floated out there. The scout ran with it.
“The problem against Finland wasn’t that they lack leaders,” he said. “The problem is that the guys who were supposed to lead led them in the wrong direction.”
The more I thought about it, the more it rang true.
I know, I know, time of puck possession, territorial advantage and all the latest metrics are the measure of the hard reality of what happened. The anecdotal has been discredited. If this is what you want to believe to the exclusion of anything else, fine. Move along to other content on this site.
What the scout said hit home for me when I thought of what played out on the ice for the Canadian teens in their 6-5 loss to the Finns in the semifinal: bad decisions, impulsive, selfish behaviour and other stuff you wouldn’t tolerate if you coached a peewee team.
And what the scout said was thoroughly validated in the aftermath. I watched Canadian teams lose at this tournament several times over the years. None of those teams exited with bone-dry eyes, but this group did. No, this team alone looked for excuses rather than accepting responsibility for their losses. All the other teams seemed to take their losses a hell of a lot harder than the 2016 group.
Amazingly, Jake Virtanen expressed zero remorse for two minor penalties he took late in a tie game. He admitted that the second one, a slash after he had turned the puck over, was just his acting out of frustration. And he made it sound like no big deal. That’s hockey. Maybe those on the bench who watched him fritter away a chance to win the game wouldn’t see it that way, but that didn’t dawn on him.
Mitch Marner and Dylan Strome were no better, really.
Marner took a retaliatory penalty late when he was in a position to skate away. Afterward he lamely offered that he was trying to push his way clear of a Finnish player but somehow magically the push turned into a punch.
Strome put the loss down to a screw job by the refs. This was simply carrying over a theme from the game—at the end Strome chased a ref all over the ice, bitching and moaning. Hopefully that official won’t be working next year’s tournament.
Look, I get that these are teenagers, but you can hold teenagers to some standards of near-adult behaviour.
I felt for Brayden Point after the game. No doubt he took the loss harder than anyone else who was trotted out to talk to the media. Maybe it goes with wearing the 'C'. Maybe it’s the idea that blame will fall more on the designated leader than the others. I suspect, though, it’s just his make-up. He was the exception: the one who owned the loss, who didn’t look to blame, who didn’t reach for excuses.
At the start of the tournament here, American coach Ron Wilson suggested that the Canadian media places far too much pressure on the teenagers who give up their holidays to play for their nation. Of course Wilson is speaking from his most recent experience in his long and varied coaching career, namely his time behind the bench and in the media’s crosshairs in Toronto. And not for the first time he has things absolutely wrong.
Look, if a lack of media-stoked pressure was a requisite for victory at the world juniors, then the U.S. should win the event every year, given the American program’s negligible profile in the sport's landscape. Wilson’s list of keys to victory would be topped by, "Be ignored by media and public alike."
Understandable, I suppose, that Wilson would find invisibility a desired state after the Leafs let him go—ever since he has avoided the spotlight with the exception of a few parting shots at Phil Kessel.
But back to the idea that the media is the catalyst for pressure: Fact is, the Canadian media’s focus on the under-20 team doesn’t heap pressure on the players so much as turn them into celebrities. I don’t think that has always been so. Going back 20 years, names of kids on the team might have grown familiar over the course of the tournament but nothing much more than that. Some had NHL contracts, most had been to NHL camps, all were big names wherever they played the rest of the season. When they came to the world juniors they checked their egos and attitudes at the door.
Not this year’s team. Hopefully it’s a lesson for those who will return to this team next winter. I have my doubts, but some kids can grow up a lot over the course of a year.