Why isn’t Canada more dominant in hockey?

Sidney Crosby. (Bruce Bennett/Getty)
February 6, 2014, 8:25 PM

Canadian hockey has a serious problem: We care too much, and all that passion is holding us back.

On paper, the Canadian men’s program will be competing in these Games as underdogs, standing just fifth in the IIHF rankings. The last gold medal Canada has won internationally was our overtime squeaker over the U.S. in Vancouver in 2010.

The standard response is that the rest of the world has caught up to us.

It’s an easy sell–hey, Slovenia took us to overtime at the World Championships last April‹so we march to Sochi a nation of grim-faced Steve Yzermans, white-knuckling our way through a two-week assault on our collective self-esteem.

“What other teams do we worry about?” Yzerman said when the Team Canada GM announced his star-laden roster. “Every one.”

Our biggest competition, however, is incredulous. “If Canada did things right, we and other European countries wouldn’t have a chance,” Tommy Boustedt, director of hockey development for the Swedish Ice Hockey Association, told me. “If we beat Canada in an international game, we ourselves almost don’t understand how that is possible.”

It’s possible in part because of the scale of the game in Canada, which feeds inertia rather than change, and a survival-of-the-fittest mindset that passes for development.

Early this century, Sweden–the top-ranked hockey country in the world–was faced with a decade of poor international results. They responded in 2003 with an all-hands-on-deck hockey summit that came up with 100 recommendations to improve their development system. From impetus to execution it took 18 months, and it was easier to execute because it just didn’t matter that much to the average person. But imagine what would happen here if we decided to try something radical, such as delaying competitive hockey until age 12 like they do in many European countries.

“If you come up with ideas in Canada there will be so many people that will want in on the discussion and it’s going to be on TV,” says Boustedt. “It’s tough to do things in Canada because hockey’s such a big deal.”

Our love of hockey is expressed in Canada’s world-leading 2,631 indoor rinks, but also in the 625,152 players using them. Sweden has only 352 indoor rinks and 64,214 players. That’s about 23 percent fewer bodies scrambling for ice time, on a proportionate basis.

The lack of demand relative to the supply is one reason a promising 10-year-old Swede can pursue hockey for the price of about $1,000 dollars annually. It costs $10,000 and up in Canada, a barrier to entry that is perhaps the greatest challenge hockey faces in the cradle of the game. The great number of players here means there are always enough families willing to shape their lives and scrape their wallets so kids in grade school can play an NHL-type schedule, but ignored are those who fall away, start late or never bother to lace them up in the first place.

In Sweden, elite hockey players are a precious resource that can’t be wasted, so they’re nurtured with an emphasis on affordability and skill development. In Canada, it’s a race to be drafted into the cutthroat ranks of junior hockey at age 15. You can almost hear Boustedt shake his head over the phone: “You miss all the late bloomers,” he says. “Early puberty is no skill.”

There is no doubt Canadian hockey churns out amazing players, and we’ll see them in Sochi in the form of Crosby, Toews and Getzlaf. It’s a lineup built for gold. But an Olympic medal isn’t proof we’re doing the best we can to develop talent, just that we have so many players, we can cover up our mistakes.

“In Sweden, we are always afraid you will step outside the box,” says Boustedt. “Because the day Canada steps outside the box, you will be unbeatable on all levels, all day, every year.”

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