Monday, 22 February 2010

Great Reader Email

Normally, I save emails up until I have four or five I can post with regards to a certain topic or event. Occasionally, I get emails where people take me to task over something I've written, and I'm more than happy to discuss my views on a subject. After all, I don't mind seeing someone else's perspective if one is willing to challenge my perspective. So it was a bit of a surprise that I got a very well-written email that spun the Canadian loss to the Americans in a different light rather than the outrage about how the Canadians could lose.

Blaine took the time to read through my article from yesterday before writing a very smart email that I'm happy he's allowed me to share. Here it is in its entirety.

"I just read your blog on the canadian-american game and agreed with most of it. However, I think there is something we are overlooking in all of this.

"As a canadian and as a hockey fan, I think there is too much panic in the canadian game. What I mean by this is that we have this white-knuckle WE HAVE TO WIN OR ELSE mind-set - and it cripples the creativity and flow of our game; this process starts right at the grass-roots levels. I tried to watch the game dispassionately tonite and it struck me how the canadians always seem to be running a chinese fire drill in their own end; by contrast, watch how (usually) efficient and economical the swedes or finns (especially the finns) are in their own zone. Our players appear to have a very low panic threshold and we saw the same thing at the world juniors, too. At some point, we are going to have to teach our kids to just go out and play rather than squeezing the sticks so tight that you can see the sawdust spitting out between the fingers.

"Beyond that, canadian hockey really needs to break away from this myopic shit of looking only at playing the "canadian style"; christ, i am so sick of listening to the Hockey Canada junior coach du jour talk about playing "the canadian style". How 'bout, just for a change, we play "the winning style?" What does that mean? Well, it really means taking a step back and looking at what other countries do well and maybe deciding that such a style can work for us, too. Take the russians: this team seems to need fewer chances than canada to score just as many goals. Obviously, having ovechkin and kovalchuk helps - but I truly believe that canadian hockey does a poor job of creating "finishers"; we seem to work too hard to score our goals in international play. Additionally, as canadians, maybe we need to ease up on the accelerator: we put so much pressure on these kids to win that they often play beneath their potential; I believe we are seeing some of that in this tournament.

"Finally, I think its fair to say that canada is done in this tournament. Even though I was always ridiculed for saying it, I always thought that brodeur was a good goalie who played in a great situation - rather than a great goalie who made his team better. think about it: put hasek in New Jersey for 15 years, and what sort of numbers does he put up? The thought of it is frightening.

"Right now, canada is in a helluva pickle. Luongo has never shown he can win the big game in the playoffs, and can we afford to put him in at this juncture? My guess is that they will go with luongo in the german game and then come back with brodeur (I am assuming that they actually win the german game - which is far from certain). Personally, I don't see any happy options here: Brodeur is not going to win you a game at this level against the elite teams - he may have lost canada this one tonite - and Luongo may or may not be ready for a show-down with the russians less than 24 hours later. The sad thing is that I could see canada losing pretty decisively to the russians - and we will suffer that ignominy even though, I think, this is the best-balanced and deepest team we have sent to the olympic games since pros started being used back in 1998. Its too late now, in any case; they've crossed the rubicon, so to speak, and unlike ceasar, there is no conquering goin' on here."
Thanks for the email, Blaine. I appreciate you taking the time to write me with your thoughts.

I, for one, agree with Blaine on a number of things he has presented.

This "win-or-else" mentality has evolved over a number of years as we tried to claim superiority over every other country out there. It started in 1972 at the Summit Series, and has been gradually picking up steam at each international event since. It was evident during the NHL-Soviet meetings, it was painfully obvious at the Canada Cups, and it certainly reared its ugly face during the 1998 Nagano Olympics and the 2006 Torino Olympics.

We place unbearable pressure on our National Under-20 team every time the World Junior Championships get underway. These are young men no older than 19 years of age who carry the weight of the expectations of a country on their shoulders, and that expectation is a gold medal. Nothing else. Gold or nothing. Lose, and you'll be forgotten. Win, and you're part of something special.

That's pretty much how it is for all our teams in Canada. If you don't bring home gold, don't bother coming home. That's a pretty harsh reality when you stop and think about it. And Blaine has it correct: the emphasis placed on winning stifles the creativity and imagination that some of these players bring to the table. The Canadian systems haven't changed much over the last twenty years, and while those systems won gold medals through the 1980s and 1990s, they need to be revamped again as the European teams have caught up to the level at which the Canadians are playing.

We used to get by because our goaltending was better. Grant Fuhr, Martin Brodeur, Tony Esposito, and others held the fort against the opposition better than others. However, guys like Hasek, Nabokov, Lundqvist, Miller, and Kiprusoff are breaking that stereotype as they have claimed gold medals, NHL trophies, and other accolades over the Canadian netminders.

We used to boast the best defencemen. Bobby Orr, Paul Coffey, Larry Robinson, and Scott Niedermayer were the toast of tournaments as their smooth skating and scoring abilities mesmerized opponents. Today, players like Gonchar, Rafalski, Kaberle, Timonen, and Lidstrom are the elite players on the blueline that score in bunches.

Up front, we could boast players like Gretzky, Lemieux, Phil Esposito, Mark Messier, and Darryl Sittler as the best scoring talents on the planet. Today, there are players like Alexander Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin, Jaromir Jagr, Teemu Selanne, and Henrik Zetterberg to match up with our scoring threats.

For the distance we once had on all of these other countries, it's time for Hockey Canada and Canadians to face reality and admit that the distance between the top-six countries in the hockey world is no longer what it was, and it probably will never be that distance again. For Canadians to simply expect a medal of any colour at this point in time is absolutely ignorant. And I mean that with all due respect.

I have to agree with Blaine again, though, in that this might be the deepest Canadian team we sent to the Olympics. There are grinders who can score, there are scorers who can grind. There are setup men who have amazing finish, and there are finishers who can play as a setup man. The defensive unit is fairly balanced and deep in terms of the number of levels it can play at. Any team would love to have the goaltending that Canada does when the goaltender of the reigning Stanley Cup Champions is your third man.

However, if you look at all of the other medal favourites in this tournament, they are just as deep as the Canadian squad. Where they excel is in the effort and hard work departments. If there is one team that tends to take shifts off, the Russians are probably that team. However, the Swedes, Finns, Americans, and Czechs all work much harder than the Canadians do over the course of 60 minutes. And, as a result, all of those teams are ranked higher than the Canadians as the elimination rounds begin.

Canada needs to begin to step back when it comes to the expectations we place on our hockey players. Yes, we expect them to play hard and to compete in every game, but we need to start changing at this "gold-or-bust" attitude when we send a team to an international tournament.

No longer are the Swedes "soft", as they were thought of in the 1970s. No longer are the Americans "lucky", as they were thought of 1980 after completing the "Miracle". No longer are the Finns "dirty", as they were thought of in the 1990s. No longer are the Czechs "dependent on Hasek", as they were thought of in the late-1990s and early-2000s. No longer are the Russians "a professional amateur team", as they were thought of before the fall of the Iron Curtain.

And no longer is it a given that Canadian hockey players will return to Canadian soil with a medal or a championship to their names. Those five teams are all gold or silver medalists since 1998, and all five of them want the 2010 men's hockey gold medals.

It's all up to how badly our Canadian players want it, and how much they are willing to sacrifice to earn that title. If they continue down the same path they were on during the preliminary round, they aren't coming home with anything except their tails between their legs.

But if they're willing to give everything they have on every shift of every game, that might be enough to win a gold medal. It might be enough to beat those five teams ranked ahead of them.

The one thing it will certainly guarantee, though, are entertaining hockey games, and a return to a "Canadian style" of play seen in the 1972 Summit Series and the 1987 Canada Cup. That was a time when every Canadian hockey player gave it everything they had, and left everything on the ice. And that's when Canadian hockey truly ruled the world.

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

1 comment:

Peter said...

Great letter & Great response!! Though I've only been reading your blog for the last few months, you've mentioned several times about the "pressures" put on the younger players. i.e.: The nasty hit by the Erie Otters' player; You mentioned in that post how the player who did the hard hit would have faced a stigma of playing "soft" from his coach if he had not gone hard into the play...

Canada and Hockey go hand in's evolved into a lifestyle, and it seems that Canadians have seemed to lost the "sport" spirit of the game. What I mean by that is that Hockey is so much part of the Canadian identity, it's really understandable where the "failure is not an option" pressure comes from. It's a deep reflection of Canadians (I don't think I've ever used that word so much) loyalty, love & lust for their game, it shows that when they play it as a game, they excel, but when they play it for pride, Hockey is no longer a game at that point, and sadly, it's when everyone loses...