The distance between St. John’s, Nfld., and Ufa, Russia is 4,251 miles. Ron Tugnutt can only hope that gulf is wide enough to give Canada’s goalies some breathing room at this year’s world juniors.
It’s a debatable notion, but Hockey Canada’s goaltending consultant believes the stoppers on his country’s WJC team have faltered so badly in crucial moments the past three years because of the suffocating pressure they’ve faced playing on home soil or in a border city. Of the past three tournaments, two were in Canada and the other in Buffalo, an event drawing so many Canadian fans that chants of “This is our house!” rang out in the First Niagara Center during Canada’s semifinal game against the host Americans.
But the goaltenders have not been able to protect their house at the most pivotal times. In 2010 in Saskatoon, Sask., Jake Allen gave up five goals and was replaced by Martin Jones in what turned into a 6-5 overtime loss to the United States in the gold medal game. In 2011 in Buffalo, Mark Visentin surrendered five third period goals to Russia en route to a 5-3 loss in the gold medal game. In 2012 in Calgary, Scott Wedgewood allowed four to the Russians and was replaced by Visentin in a 6-5 loss to Russia in the semifinal in which Canada outshot Russia by 30.
Many things perplex when it comes to Canada’s fortunes in goal. In a country placing so much importance on the position, why is it Canada can no longer produce stoppers who can handle the pressure? To put their woes into context, the Canadians couldn’t win those crucial games despite the fact their opponents in all three of those games pulled their goalies, too. And there was a time when Canada was so strong at the position it won tournaments the backs of its goaltenders. In those days, people were so concerned about the lack of skilled skaters in Canada that the stakeholders held a summit to discuss the issue. Now Canada fills the opposing net better than any other country at this level, but not enough to make up for the deficiencies in its own.
“The weight of the world is on their shoulders,” Tugnutt says. “And it’s something they’ve never experienced before in their lives. When you’re looking at those cool-as-a-cucumber guys, Scott Wedgewood was that guy and it got to him, too.”
When the Canucks won five straight gold medals from 2005-2009, their goalies were 30-1-0 with a 1.34 goals-against average and a .944 save percentage. In the past three years, those numbers are 15-3-1 with a 2.29 GAA and .912 SP. Not terrible stats, but the situational play rather than the overall performance has killed Canada’s chances for gold.
One NHL scout who is a fixture at the tournament recently spoke to his team’s goaltending coach about this issue and said the former NHL goalie made an interesting point. Canada hasn’t had an undisputed No. 1 netminder in this tournament since Carey Price in 2007. (Price is remembered as a great goaltender in that tournament, but few recall he gave up four goals on seven shots in a shootout against the U.S. in the semifinal, which created the shootout legend known as Jonathan Toews.) He said Canada places too much emphasis on a goalie’s performance in the selection camp and not enough on his entire body of work. Most goalies perform best when they are comfortable and it hardly engenders that kind of atmosphere when the goalie knows his grip on the top spot is so tenuous.
“Keeping these guys guessing hasn’t seemed to work,” the scout says. “The mentality of a goalie is he wants to know he’s the guy. These guys need to know that if they beat the Swiss 5-4 they’re not going to lose their jobs.”
It doesn’t help that every move is dissected by everyone from TSN to the guy in his barcalounger in Moose Jaw. Perhaps it’s unfair, but if Hockey Canada is going to shine the light on itself so intensely with this program, it must find a way for its teenage goalies to deal with the heat that comes with it. “Want to know something?” Tugnutt says. “These guys all go into these games feeling really good about themselves. But when things start falling apart and that weight starts pounding on their shoulders, it’s not so easy.”