Tuesday, 5 January 2010

The Better Team Won

Congratulations to Team USA. This was a victory celebration that they should have had on December 31, but I believe the wait until today is well worth the heartbreak felt during their last game of 2009. John Carlson's goal in overtime gave the Americans a 6-5 victory over the Canadians after the Canadians had mounted a furious comeback to tie the game in the third period. Throughout this tournament, however, it has been evident that Team USA has been gaining momentum, and it culminated in the biggest of prizes tonight.

Let me say this once more: the better team won tonight.

If it wasn't obvious in the New Year's Eve game, Canada simply cannot match speed with the Americans. Given their knack for sniping goals as well, the Americans posed a major threat to Canada in the round-robin, and followed that effort up by upsetting the favored Swedes in the semi-finals before knocking the Canadians off their pedestals. Throughout it all, they got timely goaltending, superb defensive play, showed off an excellent transition game, and racked up goals in taking down the two favorites in the tournament in successive games.

The better TEAM won tonight.

Look, there's no secret that Canada's junior hockey system produces some of the finest players on the planet. We have this extensive junior hockey program that stretches from coast to coast to coast, and the World Junior Championship is the biggest stage for the all-stars of that league to come out represent the Canadian Hockey League. When they pull on that Hockey Canada logo, the expectation is a gold medal and nothing less.

I'm ok with having high expectations. After all, why play the games if you're not trying to win, right? The problem is that this tournament has become a joke in terms of Canada vs. everyone else.

With the win by the Americans tonight, it's time that this country faces one cold, hard fact. We, as Canadians, think our players can skate with swagger just because of their pedigree. We think that they have an automatic berth in the gold medal game due to their nationality. We think that they will cruise through the teams that other countries send because they are the best of the best.

That one cold, hard fact? Despite all the skill that we assemble on paper, it's the best TEAM that wins.

Canada could go up and down their roster throwing names and numbers at you in terms of matching player for player in this tournament. There is no question that Canada's depth would allow them to field two or three teams for this tournament if they really wanted. The problem is that the best players from this country do not always make the best team. We saw that at the 2006 Winter Olympics when Canada finished seventh, and we saw it in Saskatoon tonight when Carlson ended the game with a wrist shot past Martin Jones.

The same pinching Canadian defensemen allowed the same speedy American attack to get past them, turning plays into odd-man rushes as the Americans blazed down the ice. Once they hit the Canadian blue line, the skill of the Americans was put on display, and they finished at a high rate of success. If this sounds like déja vu from the New Year's Eve game, it felt like Groundhog Day watching this game.

I do want to point out that the Canadians could have simply folded their tents after falling behind 5-3 with thirteen minutes to play. Instead, Canada seemingly willed their way back into this game, led by Saskatchewan-born Jordan Eberle's two goals late in the third period to tie the game.

I cannot fault the Canadian players for making mistakes. That will happen. But it just felt like they made the same mistakes over and over again, and were not learning from them. The Americans, on the other hand, adapted to changes and played as a cohesive unit when faced with mounting pressure. That is the sign of a close-knit team, and it shows that every player on the American roster has an immense amount of trust and respect for his teammates.

"I said 'If you guys were to tell me at the beginning of the tournament that we'd be here right now going into overtime right now for the gold medal, anyone in the locker-room would have taken it,'" Carlson said to TSN's Ryan Rishaug about the pep talk he gave to his teammates. "So I think the camaraderie really helped and we really pulled together there and squeaked out a win."

Isn't that what a team essentially is - a camaraderie?

If I'm Hockey Canada, I start looking for a full-time head coach and coaching staff like they had when Pat Quinn wasn't coaching in the NHL. This staff would be able to scout players as part of their jobs all season long in the CHL, NCAA, and other leagues before making decisions on who should be on the roster. This isn't to say that Willie Desjardins didn't do a good job. But if Hockey Canada wants to establish dominance at this tournament and distance itself from Hockey USA's advancing program, it needs someone at the helm to steer this ship for 365 days every year.

Secondly, the emphasis on speed and skill - in that order - should be paramount. Far too often, it appeared that Canada simply couldn't open the floodgates and score at will. They struggled against the American collapsing defensive system, and didn't have the speed to catch the Americans when a turnover occurred. If Canada wants to skate with Sweden and the USA, they need to be in the race. Canada's level of skill is unquestionably one of the best in the world, but skating needs to be emphasized as much as skill like it was in the early-1980s when the USSR skated circles around NHL players and international squads. How did we catch the Soviets? We started to play more like them, creating a hybrid of speed, skill, and hitting that changed hockey in the 1980s.

Isn't that what Canadian hockey is best known for - speed, skill, and physical play? When asked tonight what the difference between this USA squad and other American teams that had more talent, head coach Dean Blais had a short, but poignant, response: "We played Canadian hockey". And that's a compliment to how we go about selecting our players and having them bond into a team.

I want to say that I am extremely proud of the juniors on the Canadian team. They provided some excellent hockey highlights over the last couple of weeks, and they literally came up a goal short in their quest for six gold medals. In no uncertain terms am I going to fault the Canadians when they came so close and made everyone in Canada hold their collective breath for the last five minutes of the third period and into overtime. They played hard and they played well, but they were beaten by a better team tonight.

But I do want to congratulate Team USA, the best TEAM at the 2010 IIHF World Junior Championship. They played relentless, aggressive hockey, battled hard in their own zone, and got outstanding goaltending down the stretch. The gold medal is certainly earned, and you deserve the honour for you efforts.

Buffalo, New York may become an honourary Canadian city for three weeks next year. However, I'm sure that the defending champions in Team USA will have something to say about that. May the best team win!

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

1 comment:

Jim BC said...

Well said Teebz. Totally agree. The US was simply too fast for the Canadians and are deserved champions. With the exception of the blowout games the WJHC are fun to watch. The biggest problem for us Canadians is that we sometimes lose sight of the fact that these are only kids. Too bad that the focus is on getting the gold and nothing else. Congrats to our boys for a hard fought tourney (and showing some grit coming back from 2 goals down in both games against the US). Be proud of the silver - you represented our country well.