Johnson: Pressure and expectations mix with dreams of gold for Team Canada
Nothing is a given with so much parity going into 2013 World Juniors
An industrial city of just over a million inhabitants constructed as a fortress on the orders of Ivan the Terrible in 1574 is where Canada must travel in search of junior hockey redemption.
Perhaps that historical perspective is just what’s needed in trying to reclaim the throne: A siege mentality.
Because if the last three years have taught us anything ...
“There is no such thing as divine right in this game,” says coach Steve Spott, the man entrusted with ending the drought, politely finishing the sentence for you. “There is no sure thing. There are no guarantees.
“But you want pressure to win gold medals. You have to want it, otherwise ... And, in that, Hockey Canada doesn’t mix words. It’s all or nothing. That’s the mandate. From the Under-17, Under-18 and on to our team.
“We fully understand the pressure that comes with this job and playing for this team. We also understand there has to be a respect level for everyone we play against now.”
The last three Januarys have burned deep into our psyche, A 6-5 OT final loss to the U.S. in 2010 at Saskatoon, the late collapse to blow a three-goal lead and tumble embarrassingly 5-3 to Russia at HSBC Arena in Buffalo the next year’s gold-medal game and, the freshest scar, that improbable semifinal fightback from 6-1 down against the Russians at the Scotiabank Saddledome that fell one agonizing goal short on Jan. 3.
Because of the country’s history of domination, because of the TV saturation, because of the cultural importance we play on the game, Canadians value this tournament more, support it more ferociously, than anywhere else.
With the NHLers still locked in a bitter with their employers, the scrutiny only intensifies, even somewhere as far away as Ofa.
Sweden arrives as defending champion for the first time in 32 years after shading the Russians 1-0 on Ottawa prospect Mika Zibanejad’s goal at 10:09 of overtime. The Russians, at home, will be loaded for, well, bear, and hugely motivated.
And, cautions Team Canada’s head scout Kevin Prendergast, don’t be caught zoning in too exclusively on the 2012 finalists, and make the dangerous mistake of overlooking our southern neighbours.
The U.S. and Russia are head-to-head opponents for Canada — along with the Slovaks and Germans — in Group B of the draw.
“The Americans,” says Prendergast, “have really closed the gap. Big, strong and physical. We have to go over there and earn the medal. We’ve got our bulls-eye on our back; everybody wants a piece of us. The Russians, being at home, are going to be extremely motivated. They brought over an excellent team for the Subway Series. Most of those players will be on this team. High-end skill, much like we are. Maybe a little stronger a little overall as a team physically. A lot of it comes down to who comes down to who has the best goaltender. (Andrei) Vasilevski was outstanding last year. We feel we have three good ones here, too.
“The Swedes are in the same boat as us. They lost their two best defencemen to injury. We lost Ryan Murray. But they’re deep, and they bring them up together since they were 10, 11 or 12 years old. So they have a cohesiveness going in that the other countries envy. They’ve been together a month now, training. So they’re gonna be very, very tough.
“The Americans? Big. Really big. I couldn’t believe how big they are looking at the roster. It’s going. From our standpoint, we’re going to have to turn the cheek a few times against them, but overall I think our skill is better than their skill.”
Skill, speed, creative intuition. That’s how Spott has constructed this edition of Team Canada. The presence of two immensely skilled 17-year-olds, Jonathan Drouin (“I always say ‘Get his hockey card!’,” crows Spott, “because its gonna be one that people want down the line”) and Halifax linemate Nathan MacKinnon, the decision to ignore age in favour of skill-sets, proves as much. As does shifting Mark Schiefele from centre to right wing to form a potentially devastating line alongside captain Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Jonathan Huberdeau.
“Ultimately,” explains Spott, “I wanted to make sure we could skate with the Russians, the Swedes, the Americans, the Finns. That was really important to me. Having been through this once, having been through it this summer, I cannot emphasize enough how important speed up front is.
“I want to be aggressive. I’ve been up front and honest about that. I believe in puck possession. I believe in getting in hard. We don’t want to disappoint our opponents. We want to be aggressive, we want to be in on the forecheck, we want to be a puck-possession team.
“We won’t sit back. We’re gonna play on our toes.”
The aim of Swedish boss Roger Ronnberg sounds eerily similar to that of Spott.
“If we have the mindset that we should defend a goal, we’ll be passive in some way,” Ronnberg told the IIHF website. “In our mentality, in the way we play, we want to chase another goal, chase another medal. We are really going for it again, with a new team.”
The NHL lockout has, naturally enough, amped up the quality of this tournament, as it did in other league-work-stoppage seasons.
The Swedes have Filip Forsberg and Calgary Hitmen Victor Rask back, among others; the Russians can count once again on 2012’s No. 1 pick Nail Yakupov and goaltender Vasiliev, one of the stars of the Calgary-Edmonton tournament.
“We really have seven returning players,” corrected Spott. “Ryan’s played at men’s Worlds, remember, so he understand what’s involved. For me to have access to those guys experienced at this level is second to none. We’ve seen in the second year of this tournament the development of guys like Jared Cowen, Brayden Schenn, how they’ve been different in the second year in this tournament.
“To have seven guys like that is really wonderful.”
With two tune-up games in Finland to tinker and experiment, to become acclimatized to the time change, the Canadians open up against Germany on Boxing Day.
“One Reason,” said Ty Rattie during Canada’s selection camp in Calgary. “That’s our motto. The whole country knows what we’re going over there for.
“It’s from the ’72 Series, when Esposito said ‘We’re going over there for one reason ...’ That famous speech of his. We’re taking that, and making it our own. This summer we talked to Phil Esposito on the phone. So it’s really cool.
“You can’t underestimate any opponent.
“We’re happy with the team we have. Very exciting opportunity, Russia is such a hockey-crazy country.
“The biggest thing for us is forgetting last year. It’s in the past now. This is a completely new team, completely new tournament. We’re going over there for one thing and one thing only.”
That thing, a gold medal Canada once considered its private property, won’t come easy. The quest to retrieve it has taken them halfway across the world.
“This is a great team, obviously, and there are expectations but at the end of the day we can’t expect anything,” cautions Kitchener defenceman Ryan Murphy. “We can’t think we’re just gonna pull on the jersey and, pow!, it’ll win us a gold medal.
“Growing up, I watched (Sidney) Crosby and those guys play and they were just going through this like ‘No problem’ That gave people the impression that this is a tournament that Canada shows up, collects a gold medal and flies home. But at this point, the margin of error is so slim.
“Gold medals can be by one goal, one shift, one mistake, one penalty. It’s that close.”
Or, as the last three years have proven, that far away.
Follow George Johnson on Twitter/GeorgejohnsonCH
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