Team Canada’s loss? Let’s get over ourselves about ‘Our Game’
It’s been over 40 years now since this country ‘owned’ hockey
Canada fans hang their heads as Canada plays against Team USA.
Photograph by: Nathan Denette, THE CANADIAN PRESS
VANCOUVER — Remember 1971?
All in the Family debuted. The Ed Sullivan Show ended. Charles Manson and his fellow Helter Skelter killers were convicted of the Tate-LaBianca murders. Richard Nixon declared the War on Drugs and — no cause and effect is implied — The Doors’ Jim Morrison died in his bathtub in Paris.
The Montreal Canadiens, backstopped by Ken Dryden, beat Chicago in Game 7 to win the Stanley Cup. The first World Series to feature a night game was won by MVP Roberto Clemente and the Pittsburgh Pirates. Leon McQuay fumbled away the 59th Grey Cup.
Pavel Bure and Mats Sundin, inducted together in this year’s Hall of Fame class, were born. Lance Armstrong was, too. And Nikita Khrushchev died.
Maybe that year, and all the years before it, hockey was Our Game.
If you didn’t count the four Olympics our overmatched amateurs hadn’t won since the Edmonton Mercurys did the job in 1952, you could still make that argument.
Then came the Soviet-Canada Summit Series in 1972, and only the repeated miracles of Paul Henderson saved Canada’s elite professionals from a comprehensive spanking by the fast, skilled Reds — and anyone not wearing blinders had to know, right then and there, that our days as the lords of hockey were numbered.
So how come, 40 years later, we still can’t get over ourselves?
How come we still cling to the notion that when push comes to shove, our players are supposed to be able to summon up qualities no other country’s players have — grit and determination, passion and a ruthless will to win?
How deep in the sand must our heads be buried to have missed what’s been going on for those four decades?
So Canada’s under-20 national team won’t be playing for the gold medal, after getting clocked 5-1 by the United States Thursday at the world junior championship in Ufa, Russia.
So this means ... what? A colossal failure? Cause for a royal commission? A closing of the borders so that those dastardly foreigners — all two of them, per team — can’t play in our major junior leagues, take spots away from our own kids, and then turn around and use what they’ve learned here to beat us over there?
Or is it simply one more chapter in the ongoing story of a sport that now belongs to the elite players of a half-dozen or more nations, not just one or two. To Americans and Swedes, to Russians and Canadians, to Finns and Swiss and Czechs.
Not necessarily, but sometimes, in that order.
The loudest of our jingoistic boosters say we ought to own the IIHF’s under-20 title every year because the Canadian Hockey League is the best junior league in the world and no other mechanism produces National Hockey League-ready talent so ably. Statistically, that statement is still true, which is why junior-aged players from Russia and the Czech Republic, and the U.S. (not so many, though some, from Sweden and Finland) come here to refine their games to NHL specifications.
But that’s like saying the English Premier League is the world’s best football circuit, and shouldn’t let foreigners benefit from playing in it. It may or may not be the best, though it’s certainly the most physically punishing — Spain’s La Liga isn’t too shabby, skill-wise — but it has nothing to do with national team success, otherwise it wouldn’t be 46 years since England won the World Cup. Spain, on the other hand, with a league that also features tons of foreign-born talent including the world’s best player, Lionel Messi, won the last World Cup.
The difference is that it is well understood, even by the most rabid of Britishers, who feel they invented soccer, that the game has grown far beyond their borders now, and there is no putting the toothpaste back in that tube, if it ever was there in the first place.
We don’t seem to have figured that out yet, about hockey.
A loss in a big game at any level — junior, world, Olympic — should no longer come as a shock. It’s not even a 50/50 proposition to win an elite international tournament now, it’s more like 1-in-4. And more than any other threat to Canada’s predominance as the fount of professional talent, it’s the United States, with its 22 NHL teams and mushrooming participation numbers and college programs that prize speed and skill over blow-up hits, that may well be passing us within a decade.
Nearly one in four NHLers is an American. And the NHL footprint has greatly increased the number of states that now produce elite junior players.
Should we wonder if the Canadians were outcoached Thursday? Sure, it’s only natural to be skeptical when a gifted team in a lockout year, with all the best junior talent available, comes out as flat as Steve Spott’s charges did against the Americans.
Should we give some credence to a former Canadian-based Finnish journalist, Vesa Rantanen (you can’t spell his name without “rant”) who tweeted: “Last GREAT Canadian goalie? Brodeur? His trick? No school. Modern CAN goalies are overcoached machines who can only do butterfly.” He has a point. Lots of Canadian goalies make the tournament all-star squads, but many have ridden on the backs of dominant teams. We’ve known for some time, or ought to have known, that the best goalies aren’t developed in Canada.
At least the question of whether a bye is a curse or a blessing — think the Detroit Tigers' excessive layoff prior to the World Series, B.C. and Montreal in the CFL division finals, the Canadian juniors two years in a row — is a moot point now.
Starting next year, the format changes to no byes, and four quarter-finals.
For Canada, that might only mean that our first must-win test comes one game sooner, and the must-wins haven’t been too kind to us for some time now. A knockout tournament is always an iffy thing. Canadians are used to best-of-seven series, with chances to have a couple of off-games.
There are no second chances after a bad one-and-done elimination game.
Spott’s squad looked tight, and listless, and his biggest stars couldn’t make passes, or take them, or finish, or defend against an up-tempo American side that did every single thing better, including tend the goal.
In a single game, stuff happens, even to Canadian boys.
On the whole, it might be easier on the psyche from now on to hope for the best, rather than expect it. It’s not Our Game any more, and only a romantic would tell you it is.
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