Ryan Kennedy: Hockey Canada makes sweeping changes to Program of Excellence

Canada is used to winning gold medals in international hockey and with the world junior team going four years without, the timing was apt for a shake-up.

Hockey Canada announced significant changes to its Program of Excellence Tuesday, with a murderer's row of brainpower from the major junior ranks and beyond signing on as both coaches and managers.

Red Deer's Brent Sutter will return behind the bench for the world juniors, assisted by Gatineau's Benoit Groulx and Kootenay's Ryan McGill. At the summer's under-18 Ivan Hlinka tournament, London's Dale Hunter will be at the helm with Halifax's Dominique Ducharme and Oshawa's DJ Smith riding shotgun. Sean Burke of the Phoenix Coyotes will handle goalies in the program as well as serve in a management role for the world junior team, where he will be joined by Kelowna Rockets owner/GM Bruce Hamilton and Hockey Canada's Scott Salmond. London's Mark Hunter will manage the Ivan Hlinka team, while Blainville-Boisbriand's Joel Bouchard will oversee the country's under-17 program. Ryan Jankowski, a former scout with the Montreal Canadiens and former exec with the New York Islanders, will replace Kevin Prendergast as Hockey Canada's head scout.

The biggest challenge facing this group is still the world juniors. At the Ivan Hlinka, Canada has been dominant in recent years, particularly since Team USA does not send its best players. Instead of the elite kids from the National Team Development Program (NTDP), the Americans put together a squad of prospects from prep schools, the United States League and occasionally major junior.

But it's that NTDP program that has given Canada fits at the world juniors lately, knocking them out in the semifinal in 2013 and wrenching gold from the Canucks in 2010. The Americans have dominated the world under-18s in recent years because of those same NTDP kids, though Canada won this year thanks to phenom Connor McDavid.

All this personnel change sounds impressive, but there are structural reasons why Canada has been at a disadvantage, namely the Canadian Hockey League itself. Hockey Canada and major junior are intertwined, but as other nations have gotten better, the Canucks are now living and dying by the same sword.

For instance, McDavid was only available to Canada because he played on an Erie Otters team that missed the Ontario League playoffs; the world under-18s happen smack-dab in major junior's post-season, so the best Canadians aren't necessarily going to be there.

“We've talked about that at the IIHF level,” said Hockey Canada president and CEO Bob Nicholson. “We would love to see it change, but the other countries are against it. We talked about a November date, or even January, February, but it's a non-starter with the other countries. They really see it as a build-up to the end of the year.”

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Nicholson added that bringing in younger players for the world under-18s has been a point of emphasis recently, if only to get experience at the beginning before other skaters are freed up once teams are knocked out of the CHL playoffs.

But that best-on-best competition does seem to matter. At the 2012 under-18 final, Team USA blasted Sweden 7-0. Five of those Americans went on to world junior gold in 2013, while nine Swedes took silver after shocking Russia on home ice in the semifinal. Canada, which finished fourth at the 2013 world juniors, had no players from its 2012 under-18 team on its final roster.

This speaks to chemistry. Hockey Canada has made token efforts at this in the past, but with poor results. Freddie Hamilton made the team in 2012, partly on the strength of playing on a line in Niagara with Ryan Strome. Tanner Pearson's case was helped by Barrie linemate Mark Scheifele, but neither Hamilton nor Pearson had the expected impact at tourney time. There was a pleasant surprise when underagers Nathan MacKinnon and Jonathan Drouin of Halifax made the cut for 2013, but then they didn't even play together. Meanwhile, Team USA's Seth Jones had played with nearly every other blueliner on his team in some capacity in his two seasons with the NTDP.

“When you don't win the gold medal at this level there's so much scrutiny, right or wrong,” Sutter said. “In reality, there's not enough respect, from outside of the people involved in this, for how good other countries have become. They've caught up to us.”

Goaltending has also been a sore spot lately, though Burke believes it has been blown out of proportion, while noting that other countries have caught up there, too. As for what Canada's next world junior roster will look like, don't expect much of a change.

“It's always going to be the same for Canada,” Burke said. “You want a team that's aggressive, that plays at a high tempo. When the game starts they take charge, they're not waiting to see what the other club does and I know with Brent Sutter that's the type of team he always has.”

That hasn't been the case lately, where Canada's medal round teams have frequently fallen behind badly to teams such as Russia and the U.S. But the notion of simply trotting out an all-star team was put to rest.

“Of course we want elite players,” Jankowski said. “But we also want elite players at different positions, whether it be penalty-killing or in a checking role.”

At the under-17 level, Canada will pare down its teams from five regional squads to three, the hope obviously being that more gold will come with the concentration of talent.