MANNHEIM, Germany – Mark Messier says it’s time for Canada to show some heart at the IIHF World Hockey Championship.
The Canadian general manager brought a group of young players to the tournament, hoping they’d be hungry for success. Instead, they have showed little emotion in lacklustre losses to Switzerland and Sweden.
The latest defeat prompted a number of blunt assessments from the Canadian camp ahead of Tuesday’s round-robin finale against the Czech Republic (TSN, 10:15 a.m. ET).
“I think that through this tournament we’re getting a good reality check,” Messier said Monday. “The same things win hockey games at any level and at any tournament. You have to play with heart and passion and you have to execute.
“If you don’t do those things, there’s a good chance you’re going to get beaten no matter who you’re playing.”
The Canadian team has been left with little margin for error. A loss to the Czechs on Tuesday would likely set up a deadly quarter-final game against the powerhouse Russians, who have reeled off 23 straight world championship wins.
Fortunately, Canada still controls its own destiny and is poised to receive a big boost with the return of Steven Stamkos. The team’s top forward sat out two games after being elbowed to the jaw, but says he’s “hungry” to return after getting the thumbs-up from doctors.
He had to watch Sunday’s disappointing 3-1 loss to Sweden from the stands.
“It’s easy to be critical when you’re watching the game from the vantage point I was,” said Stamkos. “I think the guys know we’re a better team than that. … We’re in a position now where we have to win every game.”
A number of players on the team expressed surprise over the lack of emotion they showed in the first half of the loss to Sweden, with some suggesting they’d failed to play a “Canadian style.”
They’re vowing to show more commitment now that the tournament has reached its final week.
“It’s protecting the puck, it’s battling for pucks, it’s just kind of doing some of that ugly grunt work that typically wins you hockey games,” said captain Ray Whitney.
The most interesting decision facing coach Craig MacTavish is who to start in goal. He pulled Chris Mason during the loss to Sweden but has two inexperienced backups—Chad Johnson and Devan Dubnyk, who have combined for 24 career NHL games.
MacTavish wouldn’t reveal his starter.
“I have decided, but I can’t share,” he said.
The coach expressed his displeasure with the team in the dressing room after Sunday’s game, but seemed to have put it behind him by the time practice started on Monday. Even though the players are essentially volunteering their time here, he won’t hesitate to scold them.
“It’s about pride and your own personal standards,” said MacTavish. “We have an obligation to play a certain style of play.”
Just like most of the teams at this tournament, the Czechs have come to Germany without many of their better-known players. In fact, veteran forward Jaromir Jagr was critical of the number of NHLers who declined the chance to represent their country.
However, that doesn’t mean they’ll be a pushover.
“I think at times when you play teams that have guys in their lineup that you haven’t seen in the NHL, I think in your mind you maybe ease off a little and say: ‘These guys aren’t even in the NHL, we should be OK,”‘ said Whitney. “But we’ve seen that there’s some pretty good leagues around the world.”
The Canadians expect to show energy and emotion right from the opening faceoff, something they’ve had difficulty accomplishing so far. They’re starting to feel a sense of urgency.
“It comes from pride,” said forward Brooks Laich. “When you’re playing for your country and other countries start beating you, your pride is challenged. Everybody is at this level because they are a great competitor. This tournament for European players is almost like their Stanley Cup—they take a lot of pride in it and they compete their asses off.
“We have to do the same.”
Canada’s uneven play has served as motivation for some of the smaller hockey nations. A Zurich-based newspaper ran a cartoon following Switzerland’s 4-1 victory over Canada that included players standing on top of a moose under the tag line: “Ye Sui-Can!!!”
The Canadians are aware that some are taking pleasure watching them struggle but are trying to use that as motivation.
“There’s always that any time you get sand kicked in your face,” said Messier.
The GM has maintained an outward sense of calm throughout this tournament, but joined the chorus of those calling for more intensity.
“When you lose it doesn’t feel good,” said Messier. “Now we’re in the situation where we’ve got to bring it.”