More than gold on the line for Team Canada

Hockey Canada proudly announces the 25 players that will represent Canada at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia.

You can call them Team Canada, or you can call them our last defence against a round of painful navel gazing, bitter self-reproach and national angst. The 25 men named Tuesday to represent Canada at the Olympics in Sochi next month have a mission: win gold and don’t embarrass us. The secondary task? Hopefully save us from the coast-to-coast pity party that silver or worse may very well inspire.

It may be coming anyway, gold or not as Canada’s hockey-development system—traditionally flawed—is rightfully coming under scrutiny as the advantages we’ve enjoyed in numbers, money spent, infrastructure and mutual fanaticism are less and less sufficient when it comes to propping up our collective ego with the idea that we have some kind of hockey gene in our DNA. In the meantime, Team Canada executive director Steve Yzerman and coach Mike Babcock and nearly everyone else around Hockey Canada have become more expert at tempering expectations as Canada’s standing as the world’s preeminent hockey nation slides.

So you had Yzerman name drop Slovenia—who Canada had to scramble to defeat 4-3 in overtime at the World Championships last May. That Yzerman seemed legitimately concerned about a country with seven indoor ice rinks is perhaps all you need to know about the true state of Canadian hockey. “The hockey world is getting more and more competitive every single season,” Yzerman said during the press conference in Toronto Tuesday. “We won a gold medal on home ice in Vancouver four years ago. The competition is even harder today. Our goal is to go to Sochi and come home with a gold medal; by no means do we consider this an easy task. That is our goal, that is our hope.”

A cursory look at the facts would seem to bear out Yzerman’s rightfully guarded optimism: Canada isn’t very good at international hockey anymore.

Canada has played in eight world hockey championship events at the under-20 and senior level since 2010—when Sidney Crosby squeaked in a lucky goal against Team USA’s Ryan Miller in overtime in Vancouver—and has been shut out of gold since, 0-for-8. In fact the only medals we have are a pair of silvers and a bronze, all won on North American ice at the junior level. The last time Canada won gold at a world event on international ice was at the juniors in 2008 in the Czech Republic when Steve Mason was the most valuable player and Kyle Turris led Canada in scoring. The senior team hasn’t won gold on the big ice at the worlds since 2007 in Russia and in four Olympic tournaments featuring professionals it has only won gold in North America while being shut out of the medals in Nagano in 1998 and Turin in 2006.

Canada’s fourth-place finish in Nagano inspired our country’s last hockey crisis, which in turn inspired Open Ice, a three-day summit in the summer of 1999 where it was concluded hockey needed to change from the grassroots on up: better coaching, improved ratio of practices to games and more emphasis on skills development. Given that 10 of the 22 skaters on the Olympic roster are 27 or younger, the team Canada is sending to Sochi is the product of that shift in emphasis, presuming it ever truly took root.

Certainly there are positive signs. In 1998-99, 11 of the top-20 scorers in the NHL were Europeans, as were four of the top six. It reflected a worrisome trend and was a blow to Canada’s hockey ego. The Olympics only made it worse. The concern then was that Canada was producing a nation of muckers and grinders and the rest of the world was taking over our game with their velvet hands. Halfway through this Olympic year it’s hard to argue Canada isn’t producing skill—eight of the top-10 scorers in the league are Canadian, as are 10 of the top 15, even with super sniper Steve Stamkos out with a broken leg.

But there seems to be something wrong. The unease is there. It’s fair for Yzerman to point out the growth of other hockey nations, but it’s also fair to point out that there is no way around the fact that Canada has long punched below its weight. Canada goes into Sochi as the fifth-ranked country in the world according to the IIHF. The four countries ahead of us—Sweden, Finland, Russia and Czech Republic—have 137,000 registered under-20 players combined, compared to 447,000 for Canada, so if the world is gaining on us it’s not because of numbers.

The teams Canada has entered in the world juniors should be, in theory, the most skilled groups Canada has ever produced given the focus on development by Hockey Canada and the fortune being shelled out for private or small group instruction—‘extras’ in minor hockey parlance—that is part of an elite minor hockey player’s routine from as young as age eight on.

Yet Brent Sutter was lamenting the lack of Canadian skill after Canada’s loss to Finland in the semifinals in Malmo on the weekend. “When you’re in this, you see it first-hand, you see where the skill sets are in some of these other countries, the speed of the game they play at,” said Sutter, who suggests an (another?) overhaul of Canada’s grassroots approach is needed. “It’s not about x’s and o’s. It’s about developing your skills, your skating, you see how some of these teams in Europe have done a remarkable job with that. It’s something in our country we have to evaluate … There’s too much focus on winning and losing at such a young age, and not enough about the skill part of it.”

Canada’s struggles at the world juniors and particularly this past holiday season seem to have resonated with Yzerman and Babcock when they put together their team for Sochi. Skill was clearly a premium, but skill with speed—and thus best suited to the big ice—was best. “Our emphasis on skating has been huge. We really believe that pace is so important,” Babcock says. “When I watch the world juniors when I watch the last few world championships that’s what I keep coming back to: we need to play with as much pace as we possibly can. We need to build a lineup that allows us to do that.”

Win or lose at the Olympics it could be start of something big—again—for hockey in Canada. A gold medal win on big ice by a young, skilled, fast team could forever cement the direction of hockey development in our country. What good is grit when you can’t catch a guy to apply the sandpaper?

A gold medal loss—or worse—might even guarantee that change is coming.

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