There was a time in Canada when we fretted about the hockey world passing us by. We looked elsewhere and saw players with more individual skill, deploying systems we had never imagined and wondered if our game was still ours.
A Canada-Russia final at the IIHF World Hockey Championship may not be a referendum on the sport, but it’s a pretty good signpost of where things are. And on Sunday in Prague, with Canada ahead 37-12 in shots and leading 6-1 late in the gold-medal game, everything looked splendid.
What stood out most about the dominant performance is how much speed and talent was on display at the O2 Arena. And how much of it was Canadian.
This was an elaborate game of keep-away, with crisp breakouts and long stretches of control in the offensive zone. There was a mobile defence corps to get the puck up to an Olympic-calibre forward group and somewhere in the middle of it all you almost forgot Evgeni Malkin and Alex Ovechkin and Vladimir Tarasenko were on the other team.
Canada dictated the terms of this 60 minutes in a way that would never have been thought possible two decades ago. For while as a country we have always produced elite players, we have not always armed them with this type of game plan.
The last few years have seen a renewed emphasis on speed and skill with the national team. Size is not valued nearly as much as it once was.
A role player is not coveted unless he can skate, especially for tournaments played on the big ice.
Seldom now will you see a Team Canada try and run its opponents out of the building with a physical game designed to intimidate. Other countries have changed, we have changed and the game has changed.
And we have learned that we can skate opponents into the ice instead.
The evolution started with the roster decisions made by Steve Yzerman’s management group for the Vancouver Olympics — where several young players were given key roles — and went to a whole other level last year during a business-like romp in Sochi.
This is our country’s golden generation and you could see the ripple effect of those victories in this World Championship performance.
It certainly helped that Sidney Crosby came over for the first time since 2006. The captain set the tone, registered a point in every game (including a marvellous goal and assist on Sunday) and became the 26th member of the Triple Gold Club as a winner of the Stanley Cup, Olympic gold and World Championship gold.
For just the second time in his career, he’ll head into the summer riding the wave of victory. His decision to reach out to general manager Jim Nill the morning after Pittsburgh was ousted from the playoffs at Madison Square Garden was obviously a good one.
Perhaps it’s one we’ll see more top players make in the future. The World Championship has not been particularly kind to Canada in recent years, but it’s hard to imagine any hockey player watching what happened in Prague from afar and not wanting to be a part of it.
While it is not quite best-on-best, it remains an important event.
I have some bias in saying so after covering the tournament seven times, but you need not crane your neck very far to see its benefits. This is a proving ground — head coach Todd McLellan should certainly be viewed as strong candidate for future jobs after turning this talented group of individuals into a team — and many of the players on the roster will be part of Canada’s entry at the 2016 World Cup of Hockey in Toronto.
As a country, you go to the world championship each spring to measure progress. To check where you are at.
It had been eight years since “O Canada” was played at the end of the tournament. On that night in 2007, coach Andy Murray stood in the winning dressing room at Moscow’s Khodynka Arena and proclaimed that “our emotional well as hockey players runs deeper than any other country.”
That seemed to be the case in Prague.
How about Tyler Ennis, all five-foot-nine of him, spinning through the Russian zone to set up Cody Eakin’s goal before scoring one himself on a wraparound? How about Jordan Eberle’s delicate chip pass to a wide open Crosby? How about Giroux finding Tyler Seguin after a spinarama and then channelling his inner Brett Hull by going down on one knee to finish off a pass from Crosby?
Skilled plays, one and all, and a heck of a lot of fun too. The overflowing joy on Crosby’s face when he lifted the trophy afterwards said about all you needed to know about what this meant.
Canada now owns gold from the most recent Olympics, World Championship and World Junior Championship. It’s the first time we’ve ever accomplished that.
Hockey Canada also comes home with a cash bonus of 1 million Swiss francs — approximately $1.3-million Canadian — after the team went undefeated through the tournament.
That money will be used to help plant the seeds for the next generation.