McKenzie: Ufa was not a glorious moment for Team Canada
1/5/2013 2:53:30 PM
The sky is falling. Again.
Maybe not as hard as it fell between 1998 and 2004, a seven-year stretch when Canada failed to win even one gold medal at the IIHF World Junior Championship.
But it's been four straight years now with no gold for Canada at the WJC and this year's fourth-place finish is the first time since 1998 Canada hasn't come home with any hardware whatsoever.
So cue the panic, Canada has lost its international lustre.
The Americans have now won two gold medals in the last four years, which maybe serves notice they've truly arrived as the power at this tournament, unless you choose to read more into their seventh-place finish last year in Alberta.
Or maybe it's the Swedes, who won gold last year and appeared in the gold-medal game this year, the day after Sweden won the Under-17 World Hockey Challenge, although you can't not mention that last year's gold medal was the Swedes first at the WJC since 1981.
And the Russians, oh, the Russians. In each of the last three years -- the miracle third period comeback in the gold medal game in Buffalo, the wild semi-final victory in Calgary last year and this year's bronze medal overtime contest -- the Russians have beaten Canada when it counts.
So whatever your interpretation of it, Ufa was not a glorious moment for Team Canada.
As is the case with any significant Team Canada loss in international competition, the knives are out, and the chorus is a familiar one with all the old standards:
Canada was outcoached.
Canada was outgoaled.
Canada took the wrong players.
If you didn't know better, if you just listened to the cacophony out there now, you'd think that Team Canada head coach Steve Spott, and his staff, as well as starting goaltender Malcolm Subban and backup Jordan Binnington fell off a turnip truck on the way to Ufa.
It matters little now that Spott, GM and head coach of the Kitchener Rangers, has always had the reputation of an organized, smart and accomplished hockey man. He was Pete DeBoer's associate head coach when Kitchener won the Memorial Cup in 2004, he was head coach of Canada's U-18 team that won the Ivan Hlinka tourney in 2011, an assistant coach on Canada's 2010 national junior team that lost in overtime to the U.S. in Saskatoon. And if you're checking references on him, just ask Jeff Skinner or Gabriel Landeskog or countless other good players who have played for him.
But that isn't to say he deserves a pat on the back either. He'd be the first to tell you that he and his staff didn't get the job done and, as he said after the bronze medal loss to Russia, that's something he'll have to live with for the rest of his life.
That doesn't make him a bad coach. It makes him a coach who lost and maybe with a do-over could have done this or that differently but there are no do overs.
The perception of coaches in this WJC -- winners and losers, good coaches and bad coaches -- has always amused me at this tournament, where the margin between glory and disaster is paper thin.
I remember after the 2010 WJC in Saskatoon that the popular theory, espoused by many after John Carlson's overtime winner to give the Americans gold, was that Team USA's Dean Blais did an amazing job, out-coaching Team Canada's Willie Desjardins. Which is pretty funny, if you think about it in an overtime game for gold, where Canada missed its two-on-one at one end and the Americans zipped theirs in at the other end.
The next year it was Dave Cameron's turn to be the dumb-dumb behind the bench who was less than 20 minutes away from a rather dominant Team Canada WJC effort before an incredible, near miraculous comeback by the Russians. Last year, it was Don Hay's turn to wear the goat horns. It didn't matter Hay won the tourney in 1995, or that he won a Memorial Cup, his team didn't show up for the first 40 minutes of the semi-final against Russia, so he was the cardboard cutout behind the bench.
Speaking of which, it's really too bad the 7th-place Americans last year couldn't get a guy like Dean Blais to come back and run the team after his heroics in 2010 in Saskatoon.
Uh, what's that? Oh, Dean Blais was the coach of the 7th place Americans last year...just two years after winning gold in Saskatoon. Go figure.
I could go on like this forever, but there's one more I find too good to pass up.
When Canada won gold in Ottawa in 2009, Pat Quinn was hailed, and rightfully so, for doing a tremendous job as head coach. He kept his cool on New Year's Eve and his team rallied from a three-goal first period deficit to the beat the Americans. But I particularly liked Pat's work when, in the semi-final versus Russia and down a goal in the final minute, he willed a Russian player to ice the puck and then have another Russian fail to clear it off the faceoff and gift-wrap one of the most improbable WJC goals ever (Jordan Eberle), paving the way for Canada to win a fifth straight tournament that it was seconds away from playing for bronze.
Hockey Canada will do its due diligence on a post mortem and maybe they'll find Spott and his staff's performance was found wanting, but in the meantime we can only judge what we saw and try to draw some reasonable conclusions.
This edition of Team Canada definitely had a rocky start. It lost its first pre-tournament game to Finland and beat Sweden 2-1 in a shootout. But it lost Charles Hudon to injury in the opening game. Brett Ritchie also got hurt in the first game, not bad enough to be dropped but not 100 per cent either. Boone Jenner earned a three-game suspension for a late hit against Sweden. Penalties and lack of discipline were most definitely a problem in those pre-tourney games.
Malcolm Subban wasn't terrible against Finland in a pre-tournament game but he wasn't as good as Jordan Binnington was in the win over Sweden, yet on Christmas Day, Spott named Subban as the No. 1 goalie for the tourney.
In the first two games, Subban gave up a total of six goals against Germany and Slovakia, which did nothing to quiet the questioning of why he, not Binnington, was the starter. Throw in two five-minute majors in the game against Slovakia -- J.C. Lipon's high hit that resulted in a one-game suspension and Anthony Camara's devastating charging major (appeared to be a clean but injury-inducing hit) that didn't warrant any further discipline -- and a furious comeback from a 3-1 deficit to ultimately win 6-3, well, let's just say the jury was very much out on this Canadian team heading into back-to-back games against Team USA and Russia. And there was a sense that perhaps the wheels were ready to completely come off for Spott's team.
But a funny thing happened on the way to New Year's Eve. Team Canada, for the most part, found its discipline. Spott's team turned in a solid B or B+ effort versus the U.S. in a 2-1 win but really hit its stride in an almost perfect 4-1 win over Russia. It was an A++ performance. All was well with the world, or so it seemed.
Subban was brilliant in both games. He played like a guy who was justifying goalie coach Ron Tugnutt's faith in him, living up to his billing as a blue-chip stopper who rises to the occasion when big games are on the line. As Canada left the preliminary round, armed with a bye into the semi-final for finishing first in its group, you'd almost think the coaching staff had taken the necessary steps to rein in any discipline issues and get what was, on paper anyway, as talented as any roster in the tourney playing at peak efficiency.
Of course, we all know what happened next.
Team Canada's performance against the Americans in the semi-final was a glaring no-show on every level. Spott and his staff ultimately have to take responsibility for that -- I mean, that just goes with the job description of coach -- but even now, after sleepless nights trying to figure out how it all went so horribly wrong in a lopsided 5-1 loss to the Americans, Spott isn't sure how or what they would have or could have done differently to prepare.
I don't have the empirical data to proclaim it, but I don't ever recall a Canadian entry playing an almost perfect game (against Russia) only to come out the next game and look so perfectly horrible in every way.
No one wants to unduly beat up a bunch of teenage kids for having one bad game, but to have a team with six returnees, veritable thoroughbreds at this level -- Jonathan Huberdeau, Mark Scheifele, Ryan Strome, Boone Jenner, Dougie Hamilton and Scott Harrington -- and let us not forget Ryan Nugent-Hopkins on loan from the Edmonton Oilers after a full NHL season...to have that group come out and lay as big an egg as it did, top to bottom on the roster, man for man...
It's almost unfathomable, especially when you consider that the same group, a year ago, did much the same thing under Don Hay, although in that game the Canadians at least rallied in the third to make it close and put a better face on the same outcome.
Or maybe that's just kids. Or maybe that's just hockey, world junior style.
In any case, Subban was yanked after the fourth American goal and while he probably couldn't be directly blamed for the first two or maybe even three, it didn't matter to an angry public looking for a scapegoat. Goalies tend to get too much credit when they win and they most certainly get too much blame when they lose. And that was certainly true in a game where no Canadian skater even showed up. Binnington did a nice job in relief, perhaps bolstering the claims of those who believed he deserved the starting job in the first place.
If it looked as though the Team Canada wheels were wobbling after the Germany and Slovak games, they seemed almost off the axle after the semi-final loss to Team USA. The bronze medal game against Russia looked as though it could be capital F ugly.
Binnington, justifiably so, got the start but gave up three goals on the first five shots to the Russians and was lifted in favor of Subban, who looked strong in relief in getting the game to overtime.
No one wants to lavish any praise on a fourth-place team -- that's not how Canada rolls -- but to be down 2-0 in the first five minutes, to trail 3-1 in the second period and 5-4 in the third, and still get the game to overtime, the coaching staff and the players on this team rallied and showed heart and character in a situation that easily could have become a debacle.
But when Russian stud winger Valeri Nichushkin wheeled Canadian defenceman Ryan Murphy, he of Spott's Kitchener Rangers, for the game-winning goal in overtime on Subban, you just knew where this narrative was headed -- the goalie (Subban) didn't make the save the team needed and they either picked the wrong players (Murphy, for one) or had the wrong player(s) (offensive defencemen Murphy and Morgan Rielly) on the ice.
It didn't matter that Subban had been excellent in relief, it didn't matter that the comeback was keyed in large part by Murphy's offensive contributions on the power play (one goal and two assists). It didn't matter that Nichushkin did the same thing to stud U.S. defenceman Seth Jones in an earlier game, hell hath no fury like a Canadian hockey fan scorned after a fourth-place finish. And if you want to centre out Murphy for poor defensive play because it fits your narrative, knock yourself out, but be sure to duly note that Canada's checking line led by Jenner and top defence pair of Harrington and Hamilton were turned inside out and then some on the Americans' first goal in the semi-final game. There's plenty of blame to go around.
Maybe Team Canada should have had Laurent Brossoit of the Edmonton Oil Kings in net; maybe Sudbury's Frank Corrado should have been on the blueline. Maybe they picked the wrong players, but here's the thing about that: One, any Team Canada at any level that doesn't win has to deal with that type of second guessing. And two, the best part about making those unequivocal statements -- we would have won if (fill in the blank) was there instead of (fill in the blank) -- is that there's never any way of knowing if they're valid.
As far as the goaltending, as has been the case during the four-year gold drought, Canada's netminding hasn't been awful, not even close to awful, but it hasn't been as quite good as the teams that have won or finished ahead of Canada. That's undeniable. John Gibson of the U.S. the Russian tandem of Andrei Makarov and Andrei Vasilevksi and Sweden's Niklas Lundstrom, either consistently or on balance at crunch time, a touch better than Subban and Binnington.
But so, too, were their teams. Canada didn't finish in fourth because of horrid goaltending. It finished in fourth because there were a variety of issues and goaltending was merely one of them. The Canadian loss to the Americans was billed as "collective failure" and the same goes for the final result. There isn't anyone on Team Canada, from the coaches to the staff to the skaters and the goalies, who gets a free pass.
That will rankle a lot of Canadians, who like easy and identifiable targets, but in a tourney where one game can often seal a team's fate, that's the truth, too.
Now it's up to Hockey Canada to decide if there's reason to connect the dots, to determine if a loss in overtime in 2010 has any link to a third period collapse in Buffalo in 2011 to a 40-minute no show in Calgary in 2012 to a much more uneven effort and epic egg laying in 2013. No one is suggesting Canada isn't producing quality young players but is the system in place for choosing coaches, selecting players and ultimately naming a team keeping pace with Canada's international rivals?
Or is it as simple as, the puck is round, the ice is slippery and you never know how things are going to go, sometimes you're on top of the heap and sometimes you're road kill?
It's possible this group was burdened with the weight of too much expectation, this being a lockout year and all. Canada has won so many gold medals when it didn't have all its best players available to them (because they're playing in the NHL) that the history of going undefeated and winning gold in 1995 and 2005 and huge expectations -- the other lockout years -- may have caused this group to seize up.
I will bet, though, that two "system" issues will be looked at and looked at hard by Team Canada.
The first is the final selection camp and how it's conducted. This year, because it was a foregone conclusion so many players were automatic selections to the team (six returnees and Nugent-Hopkins, amongst others who earned their way after strong performances in the summer games against Russia), the selection camp had a totally different feel to it. It was not nearly so competitive as in past years. In fact, at times in the past, I often wondered if it was too over the top in terms of the physical, mental and emotional demands on players who were coming off incredibly busy and demanding schedules to begin with.
But some believe that selection camp gauntlet is precisely what steels the resolve for successful Team Canadas of the past.
The irony is other countries, over the years, have made changes to become more like Canada.
The Americans, for example. used to have a summer camp, watch their candidates play in the fall months and simply name a final roster without a December selection camp. Years ago, though, the Americans instituted a Canadian style selection/competition camp in December and this year, took it one step further. Instead of naming its roster prior to leaving North America, at the end of the selection camp, Team USA took extra players to the pre-tourney games in Finland. The Americans didn't make their final cuts until Dec. 23 and even then, they left one roster spot on defence open when they submitted an official roster on Christmas Day. Only after the Americans played a tourney game against Germany did they decide between Pat Sieloff and Matt Grzelyck as their seventh defenceman.
Canada, meanwhile, named its roster Dec. 14 in Calgary before leaving for Finland.
This Team Canada coaching staff and some within Hockey Canada wanted to do what the Americans did, take extra players to Finland and make the final cuts after the pre-tourney games against the Finns and Swedes. But Hockey Canada's policy committee -- which includes the commissioners of the WHL, OHL and QMJHL, amongst others -- did not approve the policy change.
Given the success of the Americans at this year's event, and the fact other nations also used the pre-tourney games before naming their final roster, this "foreign concept" and how Canada conducted its selection camp are certain to be under the microscope for review.
Beyond that, as usual, we need to take a deep breath.