HELSINKI, FINLAND – In a classic Cold War battle, the Russians had the better strategy, beating Team USA 2-1 in a grinding war on ice. The Americans’ top line of Auston Matthews, Colin White and Matthew Tkachuk was held off the scoreboard, despite an inordinate amount of ice time given to them by coach Ron Wilson. And while Tkachuk, a top prospect for the 2016 draft, hit a crossbar and came close on several other great chances, the crease in front of goalie and Washington Capitals prospect Ilya Samsonov was largely a no-go zone for Americans.
When Hockey Canada president Tom Renney emerged to speak with reporters the day after Canada’s dismissal from the World Junior Championship, it seemed about the only thing missing in the backdrop was a constant loop of The Funeral March by Chopin.
(Full disclosure: I’m not actually at the WJC this year. Our junior hockey ace, Ryan Kennedy, is proudly carrying the THN banner at the tournament in Helsinki.)
Renney looked grim and answered his first question by saying, “We’re dealing with it OK,” as though he were talking about a death in the family. He went on to talk about how Hockey Canada, “has to own this,” and “take a real good, hard look at this.”
It’s of almost no consolation to the young men who tried their best for their country and were sent home early, but this is not the end of the world for them or for Hockey Canada. As far as their own careers, this is not a bell weather of how they’re going to fare as NHL players, if indeed they make it to that level at all. Roberto Luongo, Vincent Lecavalier and Alex Tanguay were all part of the 1998 Canadian team that finished eighth and lost to Kazakhstan, while Scott Niedermayer, Eric Lindros and Paul Kariya all played for the 1992 team that finished sixth.
By contrast, the two most dominant teams Canada has ever produced were in 2005 and ’06 and Cam Barker was on both of those teams. Ever wonder what happened to Dan Bertram, Sasha Pokulok and Ryan O’Marra? So do a lot of other people, but they were on the team that won in 2006 in Vancouver and might have been the most dominant defensive team Canada has ever produced. For all the greatness on the 2005 team that included Patrice Bergeron, Sidney Crosby, Corey Perry, Ryan Getzlaf and Shea Weber, you might recall the goaltending tandem was Jeff Glass and Rejean Beauchemin and included the likes of Shawn Belle, Danny Syvret, Jeremy Colliton and Stephen Dixon. Martin Brodeur was cut from the 1992 team and in 2004, Cam Ward was lit up like a Christmas tree in the selection camp and was released, two years before winning the Stanley Cup and Conn Smythe Trophy.
Which is to say that the WJC is a snapshot and in the 2016 snapshot, the photographer got Hockey Canada’s bad side. It was not a particularly bountiful year for 1996-born players, the goaltending was shaky to be sure and the team was a little too small and not quite skilled enough. But this does not have to provide a referendum on the state of hockey in Canada. Pretty tough to look at the likes of Connor McDavid, Mitch Marner, Brayden Point and 2017 potential first overall pick Nolan Patrick and argue Canada is not producing enough skill players. In fact, go to a minor hockey arena near you and you’ll see kids doing some wonderful things on the ice. The fact is players have never been more skilled or better coached than they are in Canada now. (If you want to address something, you might want to start with goaltending. Just saying.)
The fact is that sometimes things go well and sometimes they don’t. Renney talked about Canada always wanting to be in the hunt for medals and it always is. It was in this tournament, but came out on the wrong side of a one-game elimination because of a variety of factors. It happens. Canada will be back in the hunt next year on home ice. In fact, it will be right there the next three years when it will scarcely have to leave its own backyard.
For all the arrogance Ron Wilson has displayed at this tournament, there is no doubt he was onto something when he talked about the “unconscionable pressure” placed on the Canadian players. Wilson blamed TSN, but he missed the mark by a little. TSN is only trying to make a buck in a tough, competitive industry. The real culprit here, in your correspondent’s humble opinion, is Hockey Canada. It is the governing body of hockey in Canada that is at the controls here and it is the one that has allowed the hype for this tournament to run amok. You want unconscionable? A major hockey Canada sponsor telling 11- and 12-year-old kids that preparations for the 2023 WJC begin now. “If you do all that,” it counsels kids, “you’ll get noticed.” That’s unconscionable.
And has anyone ever stopped to think that maybe, just maybe, it’s this approach to the tournament that is behind Canada’s lack of success. Now I get wanting to win every year and doing everything in your power to make that happen. Of course you’re going to do those things. and you never, ever want to get complacent about your place in the hockey universe. But just because it doesn’t go well doesn’t necessarily mean you have to “own it” and go through every flaw with a fine-tooth comb. How are those kids going to feel next year if they can’t win it at home after Hockey Canada has vowed to make things right?
It’s all about perspective. And when it comes to perspective, Canada has lost it when it comes to the World Junior Championship. And that loss of perspective starts right at the top of the food chain.
HELSINKI, FINLAND – Swedish defenseman William Lagesson let out a primal scream, then loudly muttered to himself as he stalked off the ice. The rugged Edmonton Oilers prospect had, after all, managed to shut down Finnish super-teen Jesse Puljujarvi; something unheard of in this edition of the world juniors. But while Puljujarvi’s deadly line with Carolina pick Sebastian Aho and another 2016 draft phenom, Patrik Laine, was held off the scoresheet, Finland had a Plan B.
HELSINKI, FINLAND – Through five games at the world juniors, Sweden rolled. The Tre Kronor were scoring in bunches, but also getting incredible goaltending from starter Linus Soderstrom. The New York Islanders prospect surrendered just five goals in four appearances, including a 46-save shutout against the U.S. in a 1-0 game the Americans swear they should have won, had it not been for the kid in the other net. So perhaps that kid’s public announcement right before the tournament came at the best time possible.
Soderstrom, as it turns out, has Asperger Syndrome.
Toronto Maple Leafs prospect William Nylander will miss the remainder of the world juniors due to a concussion.
Nylander suffered the injury during Sweden’s 8-3 win over Switzerland on Dec. 26.
HELSINKI, FINLAND – We knew pretty early on in this tournament that Finland could score, but could the Young Lions keep the puck out of their own net? In the round robin, that was no guarantee. Russia strafed them for six in a loss, while the Czechs got four past the Finns in a game the hosts would win 5-4.
So yes, it appears as though the Finns played with fire again in their quarterfinal win over Canada (which had a 6-5 score), but talk to the players and they’ll tell you the goalie change made early in the second period really helped get them on track. Out came Veini Vehvilainen and in came Kaapo Kahkonen.
HELSINKI, FINLAND – In a perfect world, Canada would have played the same way in the final two periods of the quarterfinal as it did in the first 19 minutes of the game against Finland: smart, responsible hockey. One penalty taken, one penalty killed off.
But that’s not how things went down at Hartwall Arena on Saturday night. Canada racked up the infractions in the second and third periods, giving Finland’s lethal snipers too many opportunities and taking out important players such as Joe Hicketts and Mitch Marner at the wrong times. On top of that, the game turned into a track meet and Finland had more, well, finish.
For the first time in 18 years Canada will not play in the semifinals at the world juniors.
The defending gold medalists were bounced 6-5 in the quarterfinals by Finland on Saturday.