SANTA CRUZ, January 17, 2014 — As the U.S. and Canadian junior teams jetted home from Sweden following the 2014 world junior hockey championships, the moods of the two squads could not be more different.
Neither team medaled in the competition, certainly disappointing as the Americans were the defending gold medalists and Canada is, well, Canada. For the U.S., this year was an aberration, a hiccup, a blip, whatever you want to call it. For Canada, it was endemic of a flawed systemic approach which must change.
The U.S. team started the tournament strong, winning their first few games by lopsided scores. Under head coach Don Lucia, the U.S. played a quick, patient, puck possession game. Lucia is a college coach and his pedigree showed as his team utilized the larger ice surface, played responsible defense and cashed in on their chances with a quick strike offensive attack. The Americans were also deadly on the power play, putting their opponents in a hole early in most of their games.
The Canadian team struggled initially in most of their matches, falling behind to almost every team they played before eventually emerging victorious. Canada’s only loss in the preliminary round was to a game Czech Republic squad in a shootout. Winning by the skin of their teeth is foreign to Canadians, who are expected to run away with this tournament every year.
Canada’s recent struggles have raised no small amount of concern in the hockey crazed country. If one were to poll the national pundits, the overriding feeling would be tantamount to the sky collapsing.
The world juniors over the last two years have provided a clear picture of two nations whose amateur hockey programs are going in different directions. For years, the U.S. teams participating in the tournament have been scrappy and occasionally competitive, but never really a threat to the dominance of Canada, Russia or Sweden. The tide began to turn in 2004 when the Americans stunned Canada in the gold medal game. It was a coming out party for USA hockey’s NTDP, National Team Development Program, which began aggressively recruiting and training the country’s elite players in 1996.
Canadians believe hockey is their game. Their junior teams are expected to dominate international tournaments and bring home gold every time. Last year, they failed to reach the medal round for the first time in over a decade with a team that boasted several professional players due to the NHL work stoppage. Meanwhile, the Americans beat Sweden to win gold. Initially, Canadians blamed the showing on poor goaltending, inciting numerous cries to overhaul the Canadian major junior league’s policies on recruiting foreign goaltenders.
This year, Canada reached the medal round, losing to Russia in the bronze medal game in what most described as an uninspired effort. For the first time since Hockey Canada’s program of excellence was established in 1982, Canada’s national under 20 team had failed to medal in consecutive tournaments. Cue the widespread Canadian panic.
Undoubtedly, Canada will continue to produce an inordinate amount of the world’s elite hockey players. The individual skill level of those making up Canadian rosters is second to none. The issues lie in the way in which these teams are selected, coalesced and coached.
The 2014 squad took underage players, while some of the country’s most skilled skaters were left off the squad. While goaltending has been suspect, most believe it was the coaching and preparation, rather than the lack of skill of the goalies themselves, which came up short.
Hockey Canada needs to reevaluate the selection process, both for coaches and players, as well as how its teams prepare for international competition. The traditional north/south, bang and crash style emblematic of the Canadian game does not always transfer effectively to the larger ice surfaces and puck possession style of the teams they will be facing.
Gone are the days where Canada can just show up to a tournament expecting to win solely due to the maple leaf on their sweaters. Canada will always produce great players, they just need to change and adapt their coaching and preparation.
Russ Rankin writes about hockey, music & politics. You can find him on Facebook and follow him on Twitter. He also sings for Good Riddance and Only Crime. Find out what he’s up to by checking out his website.