Canada suffered a very disappointing 6-5 quarter final loss to Finland on Saturday at the World Junior Hockey Championships. When Canada fails to medal internationally it always raises questions about the Canadian development system and hockey in our country as a whole. The players are put under automatic extreme pressure because they do end up truly representing the current state of Canadian hockey at every level in the eyes of many. The thought is always “what’s wrong with Canadian hockey?”, and never “what’s wrong with this particular group of 20 or so Canadian U20 players?” When you look at it realistically, all the usual alibis are in place. A few of our top guys were held back by their NHL teams and the other countries are catching up with us. These are both true. But what difference would an extra NHLer or two have made against the best teams? Not much I’m afraid, because I don’t think this frustrating tournament-long showing had anything to do with lack of skill or compete. It was just a plain old lack of team identity.
Canada obviously didn’t have those one or two marquee go-to guys and that was just one contributor to the overall identity issue. Most of the players are usually the main forces of their regular teams. They are used to being called upon. None of these players seemed able to take on a different role or were never provided one, and at the same time no one was capable of taking it upon themselves to step up and deliver on command. There didn’t appear to be much direction as far as who should attack and from where, who the powerplay trigger man was, who the shut down guys were for the top lines against them.
Sure there were systems in place, and as I mentioned in… these systems did improve as the tournament wore on. Against Finland it may have been the best effort yet. However, these roleless individuals had to play by instinct and courage, which in a tight and meaningful game can lead to doubt.
The other thing people are blaming the loss on is lack of discipline leading to bad penalties, but I think in
this case those penalties were a bi product of the lack of identity. They were in fact a true testament to how badly these players wanted to win. When these fierce competitors find themselves in an all or nothing game, they usually have some little role or task to concentrate on. It gives them focus and takes them away from bad situations. Someone knows their job is to win defensive zone face offs. Someone else might be the guy who goes to the net all the time, for example. I don’t think players were given enough specific, meaningful roles to pour their energy into and feel like they were contributing. It seemed all they had to go off was whether they won or they lost, and no one wanted to lose. With emotion at its peak, adrenaline high, and no where to focus or channel it to, some players got caught up in the extra stuff as a way to feel like they could provide immediate positive satisfaction and small victory.
Instead it’s what ended up ultimately costing them the game and the tournament.