Friday, 23 February 2018

We're Better Than This

We lost. Germany beat Canada this morning by a 4-3 score in men's ice hockey at the 2018 PyeongChang Olympic Games, and we'll return home with no gold medals in either hockey event. Combine this with no medals in the men's and women's curling events, and there are people calling for reviews of all sporting programs in this country from tykes to professionals. While it's disappointing to see our athletes fall short of their intended goals, are we really a country that needs to examine our sporting roots when we've enjoyed a ton of success while other countries tried to make up ground on us? Have we become so entitled to thinking the gold medal is ours without having to compete with the world's best that we now question the very making of our elite athletes?

I know that most of these comments are said in the heat of the moment while people are emotional, but we're better than this, Canada. Yes, it sucks for the Canadian men's hockey team who will still compete for medal. Yes, it sucked for the Canadian women's ice hockey team who still won a medal. Yes, it sucks for Kevin Koe whose men's curling squad fell short in the bronze medal game. And yes, it sucks for Rachel Homan and her women's curling squad as they missed the medal round altogether. Those unquestionably are surprising results in sports we usually do extremely well in, but to call for referendums on these sports is about as un-Canadian as anything I can conceive.

Our success in the early-1990s in women's hockey where we were heads and shoulders above the United States led to their program investing good money into their game. With the announcement that women's hockey would be a medal event at the Nagano Olympics in 1998, USA Hockey really focused on developing elite athletes to compete with Canada. Canada had defeated the United States in four straight World Championships leading up to the 1998 Olympics with scores of 5-2 in 1990, 8-0 in 1992, 6-3 in 1994, and a 4-3 overtime win in 1997. Note that last score as it was the best showing of any team against Canada in a World Championship to that date.

By having a country invest in its top-level program, USA Hockey proved that they could close the gap when that money was invested in coaching and athletes. The 1997 IIHF Women's World Championship served as the qualifying tournament for the 1998 Nagano Olympics, so the investment into USA Hockey's women's program would benefit USA's already-elite players such as Cammi Granato, Shelley Looney, Karen Bye, and Erin Whitten. Instead of having a handful of elite players, USA Hockey would begin churning out more and more elite players for future international events.

Yes, the Americans won a game in 1998 when they were arguably not the best team on paper. That, however, is why they play the games, and USA Hockey's investment into the women's program would be bolstered by a gold medal victory over Canada in Nagano. Thousands of girls and young women sat up and took notice of that exceptional team who defeated a giant in the sport, and this upset really laid the groundwork for a number of initiatives, programs, and teams to be started in the United States.

In other words, upsets are great for the respective sport in which they are seen.

It may have taken the United States another twenty years to duplicate the success of that 1998 team, but not one person on the planet can say that the US didn't close the gap on Hockey Canada over the last two decades. Some may even say that Hockey USA may have surpassed Hockey Canada's women's program with the success they've had over the last decade at various IIHF events, but no one can deny that Hockey USA is Canada's biggest rival.

Had 1998 not happened, would names like Hilary Knight, Brianna Decker, Maddie Rooney, and Cayla Barnes be household names today? I don't have a crystal ball to say yes or no, but I'd lean towards the latter.

Upsets inspire programs and people. Everyone cheers for the underdog when they meet with a juggernaut. There's a reason why people talk about upsets in mythical terms in sports, and it's because upsets advance programs, inspire people, and give hope that those results can be reproduced again if resources are invested in those inspired people and programs. Belarus, who has invested little in their programs, has seen virtually no growth since their upset win over Sweden at the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympic Games, and it has shown as they did not qualify for these Olympics and they were beaten by Hungary - a team that failed to qualify for the previous six top-level World Championships - at the 2016 IIHF World Championships.

There is no referendum needed in any of these sports. Canadians were prominently featured as the coaches of a number of non-Canadian Olympic curling teams, so our influence on these countries' efforts is very apparent. These countries recognized that there was a gap between themselves and some of the better curling countries from Canada and Europe, so they invested the money in a Canadian coach, flew their squads to as many tournaments as they could squeeze in across the globe to acquire much-needed experience, and they closed the gap on the elite countries.

Again, investment in coaching and players is working for countries like South Korea, Japan, China, and the US as they closed the gap very quickly on curling's best. With only five players per curling team, it's easier to close the gap faster as there are less moving parts than a hockey team, but the proof is there on both the world curling circuit and at the Olympics that these countries are coming to these events ready to play with the world's best.

While the men's hockey event might be completely thrown back into a "Big Six" event if the NHL jumps into the 2022 Beijing Olympics, the fact that there was parity and upsets in this year's Olympiad will have an impact on programs in Germany and possibly in Slovenia. The results won't be seen overnight, but if the German squad's performance this year inspires a couple of generations of kids, we might see a number of Draisaitl-like players emerge from Germany over the next two decades. Investment in the programs, coaching, and the players inside Germany will be paramount to getting more elite players coming out of Germany, and it's very possible that Germany could be one of those teams to keep an eye on if that investment is made.

Make no mistake in thinking I wouldn't have loved to have seen gold medals hanging around the necks of all our athletes. The losses hurt, and I'm sure that these athletes will come home and regroup for another run at Olympic gold in four years. But just showing up with a Canadian flag at the hockey and curling events is no longer a free pass into the gold medal match of these events. Canada, once a leader in these sports, has to put forth a solid effort now to get by a number of teams as they have closed the gap by using Canada as the pinnacle of the sport. They want to play like Canada and, eventually, beat Canada to show their fans that they have reached Canada's level in these sports.

Demanding referendums in these sports shows a disgusting level of entitlement on our part, and it's an insult to the rest of the world that we believe we deserve a gold medal over the investment and hard work that other countries have put forth to match our skill level.

We're better than this, Canada, and we know it.

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Hey Teebz, long time reader, first time commenter.

You hit the nail right on the head with this post, and as someone coming from the other side of the conversation, the strides that women's hockey in America (and USA Hockey in general) have made since 1998 made the win on Thursday even more poignant. It wasn't just that night, but the culmination of years of putting in the investment and the ground work necessary to get there, and building upon our successes in international play prior to that point (as well as improving upon areas that had been neglected before, such as with the payment dispute prior to last year's Worlds). And it wasn't just in women's hockey, either, as the recent successes of our U-20 teams at World Juniors have demonstrated.

The gold medals around our players' necks were earned by that effort over the last couple of decades first to catch up to, and then surpass Canada, and in both competition and organization, Canada were the best possible rival to measure up to, because they kept adapting and improving just as we did.

I have no doubt the Canadian teams will come back from this wiser for the experience, and at the same time, I welcome the new competitive balance. It keeps everything interesting and pushes us all further ahead.