For the fourth year in a row, the holiday dream of watching Canada dominate the World Juniors again turned into a nightmare. An embarrassing 5-1 loss to the United States in the semifinals relegated Canada to the bronze medal game, where they faced Russia in a game many had pencilled into the finals before the tournament started.
The awkward time zone of the host city Ufa, Russia meant games started between 1:00 and 4:00am here in British Columbia. It was an unfortunate year for the NHL to be locked out, as the lack of top-level hockey meant interest in the tournament may have been at an all-time high – especially with the prevalence of NHL talent on Canada’s team, that had players such as former #1 overall pick Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, future #1 overall pick Nathan MacKinnon, Dougie Hamilton, Mark Schiefele, and others.
Tournament broadcaster TSN continued its own yearly tradition by firing up the hype machine for the tournament. It was quite simply impossible to watch TSN programming in the weeks leading up to the event without being inundated with advertising for both the live and tape-delayed broadcasts of Canada, as well as games between other countries. Combine this with the already frightening level of devotion to the tournament we have had in this country for over two decades, and the pressure may have been too much for the Canadian players, especially compared with the under-the-radar American team who played loose and confident in the semis.
Hockey Canada is also at fault for overinflating the importance of the event – spending thousands upon thousands of dollars on sleep specialists, sports psychologists, and special ‘lighting devices’ that promised to speed up recovery to jet lag by days, provided the players huddled around the contraption for a few hours each day until their body was used to the half-day difference. Hockey Canada also sells out the players to companies like Nike and Gatorade in commercials, who turn around and advertise the amount of pressure the tournament has and how the players have to/will rise above it. One school of thought says the organization was only trying to help the team compete in the tournament, which is obviously in their best interest; another says there was far too many hands in the cookie jar, and Hockey Canada’s aggressive approach only hurt the players by producing an aura of importance the team couldn’t live up to. The oldest players on the team team were born in 1993 – younger than half the UNBC undergraduate student body. While every member of the team, without exception, have been playing top-level hockey for years, the tradition and pressure of the event was like nothing the players had seen before. A short round-robin and single-game knockout playoffs can only compare to the Memorial Cup, and even then, the World Juniors sit on a much higher pillar in the Canadian sporting hierarchy.
Much of the blame fell on goaltender Malcolm Subban. Many thought that Subban wasn’t even the best goalie in the pre-selection camp, and was simply handed the job by Canada’s coaching staff or perhaps by Hockey Canada. Subban didn’t look overly strong in the exhibition games the team played before the tournament, or ever magnificent in the round-robin, and eventually conceded four goals on only 16 shots in the most important game Canada played in the tournament. Other coaching decisions were questioned, but most revolved around playing time of certain players, unlikely to have made a difference if the goalie only saves 75% of the shots he faces.
It has become evident over the past few years that the development of young hockey talent in at least three countries – Sweden, Russia, and the United States – has caught up to or surpassed that of our own. The impact on the psyche of players from Canada has to be accounted for, and perhaps Canada still does bring the best team on paper to the tournament every year, as many seem to think – but four years without gold medals, an unthinkable streak following five golds in a row immediately beforehand – has sobered the confidence of hockey fans in our country. The final dagger came with the loss to the United States, which is never easy; as far as most of the country is concerned, they can have all the other sports, but hockey is supposed to be ours.
By Geoff Sargent