TORONTO – They are still fairly young, this golden generation.
The group of cold-blooded Team Canada killjoys intent on squeezing the life out of international hockey competitions.
Work your way through the dressing room and ask which best-on-best tournament stands out most from their childhood memories. Again and again, it comes back to the 2002 Olympics.
“Salt Lake was unreal,” Matt Duchene said Sunday afternoon.
“That was a good memory for me,” added teammate Jonathan Toews. “I was pretty pumped to see them win that one.”
All the country has done since is win. At least that’s how it feels for the majority of the players wearing the Maple Leaf at this World Cup.
Of course, there was the tumble in Turin – when Team Canada was a little too loyal while building its 2006 Olympic roster and failed to recognize the game’s evolution towards youth and speed. A 49-save performance from Swiss goalie Martin Gerber in the quarter-finals didn’t help matters either.
Otherwise, it’s been four wins in five of these intercontinental events dating back nearly two decades.
That kind of run has a cumulative effect. Not only has it established Canada as the unquestioned power in the international game, but it’s kept the great Russian, Swedish and American players of this generation from experiencing the ultimate glory with their national teams.
They’ve all suffered some degree of heartbreak at the hands of Team Canada, which is why you’ve heard everyone from Alex Ovechkin to Patrick Kane talk about the urgency they feel here in Toronto to try and rectify the past.
As for the Canadians? Well, they’re relishing another opportunity to keep it from happening. Should they beat Team USA in regulation on Tuesday night, John Tortorella’s crew will be all but eliminated after just two games.
“I think we love it,” said Duchene. “We take pride in being the best hockey nation in the world. When we talk about that, we don’t just say it to boast about it – we’ve earned that and until someone takes it from us that’s what we are. …
“I say that in the most humble way possible.”
Let this be known as Canada’s hockey humblebrag.
One of head coach Mike Babcock’s main messages coming out of a 6-0 win over Team Czech Republic on Saturday night was “live scared and get better tomorrow.” Naturally, he doesn’t want anyone getting too full of themselves.
However, the clinical manner in which they picked apart the Czechs sent an awfully strong message to everyone else with ambitions of winning this tournament.
It was as good as you can expect to see Team Canada play at the outset of an event. The players certainly didn’t ease their way in.
Sidney Crosby expended just as much energy on the back check as he did in the offensive zone. Ryan Getzlaf, Toews, Drew Doughty and Carey Price – all key members of numerous gold-medal champions – were difference-makers as well.
“When your leaders are playing the game the right way your team’s going to be successful,” said forward Logan Couture.
“We’re happy with the success we had last night,” said Toews. “I think the score showed that we’re confident that if we work for it, we’re going to get the bounces. We’d rather have it that way than get almost 50 shots on net and maybe only getting one or two goals.”
This World Cup format allows very little room for error – a fact that is starting to sink in for Team USA after its surprising loss to Team Europe to open the tournament.
Canada is in good position, but only has back-to-back games left to prepare before jumping straight into a must-win semifinal.
“We have big boys, we’ve been in a lot of these competitions,” said Babcock. “We’ve been in a lot of them together and we understand what’s at stake.”
Ultimately, there is some sense of duty that comes with trying to build on the legacy. Team Canada, for example, has never lost a best-on-best game played in Toronto – going 10-0-1 here in Canada Cup and World Cup competition so far.
Then there are the recent Olympic moments that are fresh in each of their minds.
Couture said he had “goosebumps” while looking up at the scoreboard during the tournament opener and seeing clips of past Team Canada players. It really hit home for him then that he was contributing to something larger.
“We’re very lucky to grow up in this country where we’re immersed in this culture of playing hockey,” said Duchene. “From the time we know what Canadian hockey is; I grew up expecting Team Canada to win. I know there’s kids at home watching us now expecting us to win.”
He sees it as a passing of the torch and doesn’t want to be part of a group responsible for dropping it.
Deep down, that’s a source of motivation for players who almost exclusively remember international triumphs.
“When the torch is passed to you, you want to carry it well,” said Duchene. “So that’s how you stay humble, because there’s no time to sit back and say ‘Oh we’re Canada, we’re automatically just going to throw our gear on and win. It doesn’t work like that.
“I mean there’s nights we probably could do that, but that’s not going to work all the time.”