Sunday, 5 January 2014

It Might Be Time For Less

With Ristolainen's overtime goal today against Sweden, the World Junior Championship comes to close once more with Canada coming home empty-handed. They dropped a 2-1 game earlier in the day to the Russians, and those results will have some calling for a hockey referendum once more in this country. To me, that's insanity. Canada needs to take a long look in the mirror and realize one thing: it might be our game, but there are other countries who play it as well, or better in some cases, than us.

For the second year in a row, Canada finished fourth. Sweden and Russia are bringing home the same color medals as they did last year, and we have our fifth different nation winning the gold medal in the last six years.

See a trend here? There are five countries who, in theory, are favorites to medal each and every year. All five have won gold once in the last six years. No longer is there a gap between the rest of the world and Canada and the Soviet Union. For nearly thirty years, the Soviets and Canadians were sworn enemies on the frozen surface, and then the Swedes started winning. Followed by the Americans. Followed by the Finns.

No longer can we be naive enough to believe that putting the red-and-white uniform on is enough to guarantee a medal. No longer can we simply name twenty-five players to a roster and expect them to come home with a gold medal. No longer should we be proud of past accomplishments if we're not willing to continue to move forward in terms of making our nation better. We helped to set the standard, but it seems we've stalled when it comes to our nation's performances on the international stage.

I suggested up above that we don't need a hockey referendum. I honestly believe that would make us worse as a hockey nation. Hockey Canada will re-evaluate what it is doing to promote the game in Canada, and it might be time to shift its focus.

"We have work to do. We need to look at our program, how we do things and try to get better," Scott Salmond, Hockey Canada’s director of hockey operations, said. "Other countries are getting better. We have to get better."

I have seen a lot of coaches with the whiteboards out at practices for eight and nine year-old kids. I've seen a lot of ten year-olds who are defencemen or left wingers. Why does this happen? Do we need to teach tykes the importance of X-and-O play when we should be doing nothing more than laying down a framework for them to follow?

Creativity was on display in spades when it came to watching the Swedes and Russians play. The Finns played a very structured defensive game, but were allowed to flourish in the offensive zone. Don't believe me? Here's the gold medal goal by Rasmus Ristolainen of the Finns. He's a defenceman, not a forward, and he makes a move that very good offensive defencemen make. The key in this sequence? The teams are playing four-on-four, and he jumps into the play instead of staying in his X-and-O defensive shell.
That's creativity. It's not creative in terms of the move that he made, but allowing Ristolainen to skate off the blue line when the gold medal is on the line is creative. Far too often, we saw Canadian defencemen in on the play, but they were firing pucks on net, not dancing around forwards and taking a chance at creating offence. No, that was left up to the forwards as the defencemen simply chipped the puck deep or fired a shot on net. Sure, Matthew Dumba had a couple of rushes, but he appeared mostly ineffective as an offensive force in this tournament.

What Hockey Canada needs to do is to start emphasizing creativity within a system. There's a reason why fans pay to watch players like Pavel Datsyuk, Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Patrick Kane, and Alexander Ovechkin. These players show amazing creativity offensively while playing within their respective systems, and the results are often highlight-reel goals. When is the last time we saw a highlight-reel goal from a Team Canada junior player? There haven't been many in recent years.

Watching the Swedes throughout this tournament, it was impossible not to see how much fun they were having while playing in the offensive zone. Forsberg, Lindholm, Burakowsky, and de la Rose appeared to be playing shinny most times in the offensive zone, and it resulted in a pile of goals for Team Sweden. Sure, they came back and played solid defence, but the moment that puck crossed the offensive blue line, it was razzle-dazzle as these players used speed, stick-handling, and creativity to weave magic on the ice.

To promote this creativity, it's time to get back to the fundamentals of hockey. We need to start emphasizing speed. We need to spend as much time working on stick-handling as we do on defensive systems. We need to force more shinny play and less structured play. And the biggest thing? We need to play less hockey.

I can hear you now: "Teebz, you're crazy. We need to play more in order to catch up to these nations. We're not practicing enough, and it shows". Initially, I'd say you might be right, but let's look at this on a practical level.

People take vacations from work because they need a break. Students are given a ton of time off each year. They allow hockey players in the NHL to have a break between seasons. To have anyone do anything for a sustained period of time will allow complacency to creep in, and players will lose focus. It's a proven fact that allowing players to play other sports in the off-season and even during the season benefits them greatly. Like employees at work, you don't get a player's best effort if they are forced to play hockey all the time because it becomes a job, not a passion.

When people talk about players like Gretzky, Crosby, Datsyuk, and Ovechkin, they talk about the immense skill they possess. But that skill is a direct result of the passion they have for the game, and the passion they possess to be the best players on the planet. I get that these four players above are being paid an exorbitant amount of money to pursue this passion, but if we relate the junior players to you and I who make a modest salary doing a job we may or may not be entirely passionate about, suddenly a vacation from the monotony some of us feel in our day-to-day lives sounds great.

It's the same with hockey with the junior players. They're making very little money day-to-day, and they are playing hockey for better than two hundred days per year. Personally, if I could use a break from the game, shouldn't they be given the same opportunity? From combines and fitness testing and weight-lifting and off-season work, hockey is a full-time job for these kids.

Of course, all this work means there's always the hope that they'll be drafted - similar to getting a promotion at work - but nothing is guaranteed when there's a worldwide pool of talent vying for 230 promotions. That means you'll have to work longer and harder than other players of the same age group just to get noticed, and... wait, weren't we just talking about taking time off?

Again, the specialization of hockey players at an age below junior-level needs to end. Players who play more sports are better all-around athletes. Better athletes means better teams. It's the various skills that players learn in other sports that they can bring to the game of hockey: hand-eye coordination, lateral movement, seeing the full field of play, and a pile of other intangibles that will help a player bring more to the ice.

If Hockey Canada was serious about growing the game of hockey, it wouldn't be looking to change the program. It should be changing how often the players are on the ice. There should be a mandatory off-season where players are encouraged to play other sports. Once they return to the ice, the focus should be speed, stick-handling, and creativity inside a fundamental defensive structure.

Will my theory work? I'm not sure, to be honest. But I do know that we didn't see many creative plays by the Canadians at this year's World Junior Championship, and we were beaten by teams that showed off creativity in mass quantities. What I do know is that it might be time to lay off the X-and-O practices, and start letting players play the game again.

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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