ABOARD A TRAIN BETWEEN OTTAWA AND MONTREAL – Canadian defenseman P.K. Subban described Canada’s dramatic shootout win over Russia in the semifinal of the World Junior Championship with the typical, “Character, character, character,” refrain that is always so overused when it comes to Canadian hockey.
What he probably should have said was, “Skill, skill, skill,” because that is what Canada has had in abundance in this program for the better part of the past decade. Any time Canada has been in any trouble in this tournament, the team has been able to wiggle out of it by putting the puck in the back of the net.
Don’t expect that to change Monday night when Canada and Sweden face each other in the gold medal game. It’s interesting really, because 10 years ago Canada would have been a lunchbucket, hardworking outfit that relied on grit and goaltending for its wins and Sweden would have been the skill team. In this tournament, Swedish goalie Jacob Markstrom, a Panthers prospect, has been terrific and Canada’s spotty goaltending has been bailed out by its offensive stars and lethal power play.
It was interesting to note how Canadian coach Pat Quinn said it looked as though the Russians were playing in overtime to get to the shootout. A decade ago, a Russia-Canada shootout likely would have been a slam-dunk for the Russians, but in the game Saturday night, Canada buried the Russians with two goals on two shots.
My, how times change. It was just more than a decade ago that there was so much hand wringing in Canada over its dearth of offensive skill that there was a summit held in Toronto where a number of stakeholders gathered to discuss how to fix the problem.
Canada had just come off a fourth-place finish in the 1998 Winter Olympics and an embarrassing eighth-place showing – which included a demoralizing 6-3 loss to Kazakhstan – in the World Junior Championship.
Since then, though, Canada has made a habit of winning international tournaments. Four years later, it won its first Olympic gold medal in 50 years. If Canada wins Monday night, it will mark its fifth straight WJC championship, with a World Cup title and a number of World Championships at the senior, under-18 and under-17 levels mixed in.
And when you think about it, that’s how it should be. There is absolutely no excuse for Canada not to be a dominant force in this game, given how imbedded it is into Canadian culture, the resources put into the game and the sheer number of players. By way of example, Canada has more than 2,000 indoor rinks, while Kazakhstan has eight and Sweden about 300. Think about that. Most Canadians in urban centers probably have more indoor rinks within a 20-mile radius of their house as there are in all of Kazakhstan.
The summit Canada had more than a decade ago brought the skill problem to the forefront, but it could hardly take credit for the turnaround. But the about-face has been dramatic and there is no sign that the influx of Canadian skill players into the system is going to slow down anytime soon.
“That started long before the summit,” Quinn said. “The summit was bullish - because it was going after a system that was starting to work. All of these centers of excellence were in play. The skill development part was already going.”
Then Quinn really gets going. He maintains Canada’s success in later years had absolutely nothing to do with the summit.
“In fact, we had too many wackos at the summit,” Quinn said.
It should be noted that Quinn has something of a personal agenda here. The summit was spearheaded by Ken Dryden, who was then the president of the Toronto Maple Leafs and Quinn was the coach. To say that the two men rarely saw eye-to-eye would be an enormous understatement.
So we know Canada goes into the gold medal game with an abundance of skill. John Tavares, Cody Hodgson and Jordan Eberle have established themselves as supreme offensive players and there is no doubting Canada has enough offensive ability to win the tournament. Canada also has an abundance of secondary scoring should Sweden think it can shut down a couple of key players.
In fact, with 40 regulation-time goals – 41 if you include the shootout winner – Canada is scoring almost three goals a game more than the Swedes are to this point in the tournament. With the exception of the game against Russia, Canada’s power play has been exceptional and the defensemen have done a terrific job of jumping into the play.
Team Canada’s problems, however, have been at the other end of the ice. Their defense corps had a terrible outing against the Russians and Dustin Tokarski has been as brutal as he has been brilliant. In fact, Quinn wouldn’t totally commit to using Tokarski in the final after the Russian game.
The Swedes, meanwhile, are playing a disciplined, if unspectacular, game to this point in the tournament. There’s a feeling, and it’s shared by Swedish coach Par Marts, that this team hasn’t played to its potential yet and must step up its game in the final if it wants to take the gold away from Canada.
Defenseman Victor Hedman, who has undoubtedly lost some traction in the race for No. 1 overall NHL draft prospect with Tavares, has improved as the tournament has gone on and has been very good in his own end of the ice.
That will have to continue because one thing is certain – Canada will throw all the offensive skill and Hedman and the Swedes that they can handle.