It's an interesting time for Canada on the international hockey front.
The World Under-17 Challenge just wrapped up Saturday in Sarnia, Ont., with three balanced Team Canada(s) (White, Red and Black) finishing fifth, sixth and seventh, respectively, in the eight-team tournament. Russia beat Team USA for gold; Sweden topped Finland for bronze.
Tonight, in Saskatoon, the Canadian Hockey League's six-game Subway Super Series against a barnstorming Russian all-star team commences, with additional stops in Brandon, Peterborough, Kingston, Bathurst and Rimouski this week and next. Hockey Canada will use the six games involving Canadian all-stars from the Western, Ontario and Quebec Leagues as critical evaluation to determine which players will be invited to mid-December's final national team camp for the 2015 World Junior Championship, where Canada hopes to end a five-year WJC gold-medal drought and win a medal of any colour for the first time in three years.
Now, honestly, a disappointing if not embarrassing result at one entry-level international tourney (U-17), revamped as it was to give Canada a better chance to do well, and a five-year WJC drought that was preceded by a five-year WJC gold-medal bonanza isn't sufficiently disastrous to warrant getting our country's greatest hockey minds together in a formal setting in one room to oversee an overhaul of the Canadian development model.
So let's try to maintain some perspective here.
But that isn't to say we shouldn't, at the very least, maybe just over a cup of coffee, pause for some reasonable discussion, discourse and introspection on how Canadians are going about their hockey business these days.
When it comes to hockey, we have always been a nation of extremes. We're the best; it's our game. Or, after a particularly poor performance or losing streak, we suck; our game is broken.
If you're part of the former camp, you're still dining out on back-to-back gold medals at the 2010 and 2014 Winter Olympics. All is well with our game and pity the fool who suggests otherwise.
If you're a member of the latter group, you take last week's poor World U-17 Challenge results (Team Canada Black, with three of Canada's better 1998-born players, needed overtime to beat Slovakia to avoid finishing in last place), combine that disappointment with the five-year WJC gold-medal drought that includes the unprecedented (since the Program of Excellence was founded in 1982) no medal at all in back-to-back years, and you have the makings of total system failure.
Here's the thing, though.
I'm not even convinced winning international tournaments should be the primary measuring stick for any country's development system. Certainly, you can't ignore results. There's a reason they keep score. But tournament play being what it is, where the margins between success and failure are so fine, there's got to be so much more to it than that.
At the U-17, for example, if Team Canada Black had beaten Team Canada White in overtime of their round-robin game, instead of the reverse happening (White beat Black 5-4), it would have virtually guaranteed one Canadian team in each of the semi-finals. That would have meant, at the very least, one medal and two top-four finishes. The optics wouldn't have been nearly as poor as the 5th, 6th and 7th place finishes.
Also, if we're going to make broad assumptions on the strength, or weakness, of one tournament and hold Team Canada(s) accountable for their performances, should we not delve a little deeper, perhaps make some allowance, for example, for Team Canada White, which was decimated by injuries and lost their top two defencemen and second-line centre before the tourney even began?
To take it a step a further, what if it Patrick Kane has scored the golden goal in Vancouver instead of Sidney Crosby, would it really have said anything different – better or worse -- about how we develop Canadian hockey players?
Okay, so if international tournament results shouldn't be the primary determining factor in measuring relative strengths and weaknesses of development systems, what should it be then?
How about putting individual talent into the NHL? Getting players drafted first overall or in the first round and going on to have long and successful NHL careers?
That's a good one. The quantity and quality of hockey players a country puts at the pinnacle of the hockey pyramid can be an outstanding metric. So as long as Canada continues to produce elite talent as plentiful, smart, speedy and skilled as Connor McDavid, Aaron Ekblad, Nate MacKinnon, Jonathan Drouin, Taylor Hall, Tyler Seguin, John Tavares, Steven Stamkos, Drew Doughty, Jonathan Toews and Sidney Crosby, to name only a few, the Canadian game, the Canadian system, is just fine, isn't it?
I thought about that a lot as I watched Team Canada White, Red and Black grind the gears at the U-17. I thought about how Russia, Team USA, Sweden and Finland all got better team results in Sarnia and I thought, or at least wondered, how many of the individual Americans, Russians, Swedes and Finns from those U-17 teams will be chosen ahead of many of the 1998-born Canadians in the 2016 NHL draft?
There'll be some, of that there is no doubt. Team USA's Max Jones has NHL power forward written all over his game and Russia's Dmitri Sokolov is a dynamic offensive presence. There may be some others.
But it also occurred to me that the "results" of this U-17 tournament may well turn out to be at odds with how the NHL evaluates the 1998-born Canadian talent at the 2016 draft in Buffalo. In other words, as collective as the Canadian failure was in Sarnia, what does it say about the Canadian development system if on draft day the individual Canadian players come out on top in the eyes of the NHL? I mean, Connor McDavid's Team Ontario finished sixth in the 2013 U-17 tourney.
Of course, there's more to winning medals in international tournaments than just developing speedy and skillful hockey players. Getting them to come together as a team quickly and when it matters most is an art form of sorts that often means as much to the final outcome as does the talent of the individual players.
Canada clearly struggled on that front in Sarnia. Perhaps, to a point, understandably so. Team Canada White, Red and Black were up against, for the most part, true national teams of the U.S., Russia, Sweden and Finland.
The Americans play as a real team in the USHL, train and live together in Ann Arbor, Mich. The European teams come together more frequently and for longer periods than the respective Canadian teams, who were assembled after a 108-player, 10-day evaluation camp last summer in Calgary. Most naturally assumed going from the old U-17 format of five regional teams to three balanced, national teams would make for much stronger squads, but what the three Team Canada(s) gained in depth of talent they perhaps lost in cohesion and/or identity.
Besides, if the goal were to win and only win hockey games and tournaments, Hockey Canada would have done the obvious: stack one true national A+ team with the best 22 players, giving itself the best possible chance of beating very good national teams from the U.S. and Europe, and then put together weaker Team Canada(s), B and C, with the remaining 44 players.
Last Friday night, after all three Team Canada(s) lost their quarter-final games, the mood was understandably morose. Hockey Canada vice president of hockey operations and national teams Scott Salmond gathered together all the Canadian coaching and support staffs that night and told them the same thing he would tell anyone who asked the next day:
"If we had 10 objectives going into this tournament, we really feel as though we successfully checked off nine of the 10 boxes. We exposed players and coaches to a whole new program, instituted a lot of different elements that we've never done before, important things we think are going to make us ultimately more successful with this age group in the future at the World Junior U-20 level. The one box we weren't able to check off here was winning and as important as it is for Canadians to win in international hockey, if that were the only goal here, we would have gone about it in a different way. As Canadians, we don't like losing – believe me, I understand that -- but sometimes, in the interest of development, at this age in particular, there may be things more important than winning."
Fair enough. But, for what it's worth, if you're going to make the World Under-17 Challenge a nationally televised event – and it was; the semi-finals and medal games were broadcast live on TSN – it almost behooves you to have one true national team, because Canadian hockey fans, bless them, aren't going to watch USA-Sweden and Russia-Finland in the semi-finals and be happy about it, to say nothing of a USA-Russia gold-medal game.
TV and marketing concerns, as well sparing the battered Canadian international hockey psyche, may not be good enough reasons to eschew "development" at the U-17 for merely a better chance to win. Or maybe it is. That is what Hockey Canada's post-tournament de-brief will be for. We'll see what form this tourney takes a year from now.
So given all of that, in the meantime, can we draw any conclusions from the World U-17 Challenge as it relates to the state of Canada's game, the development of young Canadian hockey players?
Well, keeping in mind we're talking about mercurial 16-year-olds, which is to suggest you could play the tourney all over again next week with wildly divergent results, I'm not sure anyone could make any sweeping pronouncements with any degree of absolute validity. I know I couldn't, especially since I only saw a handful of games (Team Canada White beating Team Canada Black 5-4 in overtime; Team USA absolutely demolishing Team Canada Red 7-3; Team USA having to work a little harder but still fully in control to beat Team Canada Black 4-1 in a quarter-final; Russia breaking open a 1-1 third period tie to whip Team Canada Red 4-1; as well as Team USA's convincing 4-1 semi-final win over Sweden and Russia demolishing Finland 6-1 in the other semi).
But I can tell you what I saw, and what I felt, small sample size be damned.
For the most part, man for man, the Americans and most certainly the Russians and Swedes were superior skaters to the Canadians. They also appeared to be more skillful, if by skillful I mean the ability to give and take passes and makes plays at top speed, than the Canadians. One Canadian coach told me he watched the Swedes practice and was blown away by how few passes were mishandled over the course of a high-tempo practise, using his own CHL team's practice skills as a comparison.
Maybe none of that comes as any surprise to anyone. In spite of however many great successes Canada has had internationally over the years, and there have been many, we've always marveled at what seemed like the superior speed and skill of our opponents. But in the limited games I saw in these particular games in this particular tournament, the difference seemed really striking. Incredibly so.
What was also really noticeable, though, in Team Canada Red's and Team Canada Black's losses to Team USA was how much hungrier the Americans appeared. They won more battles, they were far more tenacious. The consistency of their effort was greater and not by a little either.
Like I said, with players this age you never know what you're going to get from night to night, never mind year to year. My esteemed colleague, TSN director of scouting Craig Button, told me the 1997-born Russian team that won bronze at this tournament a year ago, was soft and often noticeably lacked effort and drive. The 1998-born Russians, who won the gold medal this time, were precisely the opposite. Which is another cautionary note when making any bold pronouncements on the state of anyone's game.
As noted, the Russian speed and skill was eye-popping in Sarnia, but in Russia's semi-final win over Finland, I couldn't have been more impressed with their tenacity. They had voracious hunger for the puck. They were relentless, hard and physical, winning battles, going to the net, playing with as much passion and commitment without the puck as with it. It was every player on every shift for the entire game. It was no small wonder they won the gold medal the next day with a win over the Americans, who had looked like the team to beat all week.
Dare I say it, these Russians played what we like to think is a great Canadian-style game, except with greater speed, skill and strength. I often felt the same way when watching the Americans.
Make of that what you will. These are all merely subjective observations from one person after watching a handful of games involving 16-year-olds in a tournament with a somewhat unusual format (Canada splitting its talent over multiple teams).
If I were to infer to anything from my time at the World Under-17 Challenge, there would be two takeaways:
One, given that Canadians have just one silver and one bronze of the 12 medals up for grabs over the last four years at this event, it would appear obvious that if "winning" is the primary objective, going with multiple balanced entries or regional teams against the other countries' national squads isn't going to cut it. Canada's opponents have simply improved too much, though one may do well to ask how "important" winning should be at this stage of the development model.
Two, whatever "statement" the NHL Draft or back-to-back Olympic gold medals may ultimately make about Canada's status as a hockey power, I still have to believe there is much Canada can learn from its international competition, especially on how to teach superior skating and skills to its young players.
Canada can be better; Canada is going to need to be better because the other hockey-playing nations of the world are continuing to set the bar higher and higher.
I'm not sure you need a summit to see that.