HALIFAX – Canada faces an opponent at this IIHF World Hockey Championship that it has never seen before.
As much as the Russians and Finns and Americans stand in the way of a gold medal, so does the burden of playing at home. It seems strange to consider home ice a disadvantage but only one of the last 21 host countries has even played in the gold-medal game – and Sweden had to settle for silver in 1995.
Last year’s Canadian team arrived in Moscow with few expectations. It spent the first week of the event staying at a hotel that was several notches below NHL standards and the players had to contend with language issues and more than their share of “mystery meat.”
Those conditions forced the guys to spend a lot of time together and helped them form a tight bond that helped propel them to an unbeaten record and the gold medal. This year’s team won’t have that luxury and will have to find a different golden formula while hosting this event for the first time ever.
“When you go into another country it’s kind of you versus the world,” said Canadian coach Ken Hitchcock. “You’re together all the time. There’s nobody tugging on you, there’s nobody pulling on you.
“When you play at home, it’s family, it’s friends, it’s distractions, it’s media, it’s everything. There’s always a constant tug on you to do other things with other people. And it’s really hard to keep your focus in the right area.”
The Canadian players won’t been able to go very far in Halifax or Quebec City without getting noticed. Strangers call them by name at the team hotel and whenever they’re spotted around town.
Almost the entire focus of this event will be squarely on the Canadians and it won’t just come from fans and media. The only other team with as many top-quality players here is Russia so the other countries have already started saying that they are the two to beat.
“There’s no question it’s Canada and Russia,” said Finnish coach Doug Shedden. “There’s not even a question.”
Hitchcock addressed his team about some of the perils and pressure that come with playing at home and wasn’t overly upset when it lost a pre-tournament exhibition game to Russia, calling it a “wakeup call” for a few of his players.
Canada eases its way into the event by playing Slovenia in Friday’s opener at the Metro Centre. After that, it faces Latvia on Sunday and the U.S. on May 6.
There will be six round robin games before the team plays a must-win quarter-final that will determine whether it travels back to Quebec for a chance to win a medal. Canada’s toughest opposition is likely to come from Russia, Finland, Sweden, the Czech Republic and maybe even the U.S., which is sending a young team here.
“It’s the usual cast of characters,” said Hitchcock. “It’s always the same. It’s the big five or six that always do it and it depends on two things – it depends on goaltending and the engaging of your big players.
“If your big players are engaged in this tournament and they take it very seriously and they’re really focused, they always carry the team.”
The Canadian team features two lines full of those kind of players.
Ryan Getzlaf, Dany Heatley and Rick Nash will form one unit while Jason Spezza, Eric Staal and Martin St. Louis are together on the other. How can you reasonably say Canada has only one top line?
Of course, talent alone won’t win anything and many of the European teams feature quality players that won’t immediately register with fans in North America.
“It’s easy to underestimate the other teams,” said Getzlaf. “There’s a lot of emphasis on the National Hockey League and who’s playing here from our league.
“There are good leagues over in Europe too. There’s a lot of talented hockey players who haven’t come over here so no one knows who they are.”
It will be interesting to see how the Russians bounce back after failing to win gold on home ice last spring.
They have arguably the best player in the world in Alex Ovechkin and also feature Ilya Kovalchuk, Alexander Semin, Alex Radulov, Alexei Morozov and Sergei Fedorov. They’re carrying a full stable of Russian leaguers and have indicated they will ice the best team possible – even if that means giving a domestic player more ice time than one of the NHL stars.
Russia has not won the world championship since 1993 and is hungry to change that.
“I’ve never won it,” said Kovalchuk. “Hopefully we can finally do some damage in Canada.”
The Finns are worth watching as well.
General manager Jarri Kurri was crying tears of joy when his team upset Russia in the semifinal last year and he’s assembled a decent squad again. Teemu Selanne and Olli Jokinen are the stars up front while Niklas Backstrom should provide solid play in goal.
If any team knows about the pressure of playing on home ice, it’s the Finns. While hosting this event in Helsinki five years ago, they squandered a 5-1 lead to Sweden during a quarter-final game and lost 6-5.
“We were up 5-1 and the whole building was rocking, you could feel the building shaking,” said Selanne. “And then 5-2, 5-3, 5-4. You could start almost hearing the people talking. All of a sudden, 5-5, it was scary how silent the whole building was.
“I was like, ‘Come on, what happened?”‘
Quarter-final games are tougher than any other because they basically determine whether the tournament is considered a success or failure for most teams.
In Canada, nothing less than gold will be good enough for the home side. Selanne hopes the home curse continues this year because Canada has won three of the past five world championships.
“It’s so hard to win at home,” he said. “It’s just like a zoo. Your phone is ringing 24 hours for tickets. You can’t really focus because there’s so many other things to worry about.
“Hopefully that’s going to be the case this year too so Canada can let someone else have the gold.”
The Canadians aren’t very eager to share.
Jason Chimera is one of the unsung energy line players that helped push last year’s team over the top and is here to fill that role again. He recognizes that this team faces a different challenge but doesn’t think it’s insurmountable.
“This year’s team is more talented,” said Chimera. “I think it’s important that guys have a willingness to accept their roles.
“It shouldn’t be too hard because it’s a great opportunity for all of us to be here in our own country. It can’t get any better than this.”
Hundreds of players have felt that way over the past two decades before having the tournament end with disappointment.
The last country to accept gold medals on home ice at the world championship was the Soviet Union in 1986.
“This year is going to be the first year in a long time for someone to do it,” said Chimera. “We have the team to do it. That streak isn’t going past this year.”