For the first time since 1998, Canada has failed to reach the semifinals at the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) under-20 World Championships.
The final blow to Canada’s chances of claiming a 17th gold medal came in a 6–5 loss to Finland in the quarterfinals of the tournament played in Helsinki. Canada’s struggles in the tournament began much earlier than that, however. Losses to both the U.S.A. and Sweden combined with only a shootout win over Switzerland saw Canada finish just third in the five-team Pool A, a seeding that set them up for the tough quarterfinal match up against the host Finns.
There are a number of reasons as to why Canada struggled in a tournament they usually excel at. This article will delve into those reasons and hopefully alleviate any concerns that hockey-crazed Canadians may have about the future of our national pastime.
The first and most glaring hole with this iteration of the Canadian World Junior team was the lack of a bona fide star. There was no Wayne Gretzky, Eric Lindros or Sidney Crosby leading this team offensively. That’s not to say that this team was without talent, though. With Dylan Strome and Mitchell Marner on the roster, Team Canada had the number 3 and 4 picks in last year’s draft playing for them. This was a team that had, as every Canadian team does, legitimate scoring threats throughout the entire lineup.
However, the lack of a player able to take control of the game when it mattered the most was felt during the entire tournament. Close games that were just begging for a hero to step up and take the reins went the other team’s way every single time.
Anybody that is anxious to point out this lack of an offensive talisman as a fault of the Canadian hockey system must remember just who this team was missing. Hockey Canada has become a victim of its own success in the fact that Connor McDavid, Sam Bennett, Aaron Ekblad and Robby Fabbri are just a few of the players that were kept out of the tournament because they were having so much success in the NHL that their respective teams refused to let them go to Helsinki.
The other area that Canada struggled with all tournament long was making simple mistakes at the worst possible times. Whether it was Kamloops native Joe Hicketts tipping the puck into his own net with minutes left to go against the Americans or Jake Virtanen and Marner taking silly retaliation penalties against Finland, it seemed like every time the game was on the line the Canadian team would make a crucial error.
I am not going to pretend that this didn’t drive me crazy, especially the lack of discipline that the Canadians exhibited throughout the tournament. My roommates may have even played a game where everyone had to take a drink every time I yelled “What are you doing Virtanen?”
The important thing to remember however, is that even though these are teenagers wearing the Canadian maple leaf jersey, they are still just teenagers. In fact, the unpredictability involved in putting these young, emotional players in such high-pressure situations is something that I enjoy the most about my favourite hockey tournament of the year.
This craziness is something that sets the junior game apart from the NHL, and the fact that it seems like the players don’t even know what they will do on any given shift leads to a situation where any team can win on any given day.
Another thing that people must realize is just how much this tournament has grown in the last six years. Since the 2010 tournament, five different countries have taken home the gold, with only Finland winning more than once during that span.
Gone are the days of Canada going on streaks of five gold medals in a row. This tournament is no longer exclusively the domain of Canada vs. Russia.
This is to no fault of Hockey Canada. Other countries have started taking the tournament more seriously, putting more money into their junior programs and making sure that the players they have selected for the team are of the highest calibre possible.
This is not a case of Canada falling behind where it used to be, but rather one of the rest of the world catching up.
None of these reasons stated for the Canadians losing point to a larger trend that portends the doom of Canadian hockey.
Canada will continue to go into every tournament with the mindset that anything less than gold is failure, now it’s just a lot harder to achieve.