The wee hours of Thursday morning came with a feeling Canadians may have to get used to.
USA Hockey is here to stay as a world power, and that’s going to mean they don’t just nip Canada’s teams in an upset on a rare occasion.
Now they can whip them decisively in a key game once in a while.
So it was at the semi-finals at the world juniors over in Ufa, Russia, where the Americans pulled out to an early lead, extended it to 4-0 and eventually held on to win 5-1 over a listless Canadian team that suffered its worst loss in an elimination game in this tournament.
The U.S. will now play for its second gold medal in this tournament in the last four years, a span during which Canada has settled for silver or bronze every time.
Excuses are few for the Canadians this time around, too. This was a lockout year, where they had a stacked lineup with four or five 19-year-olds who would have otherwise been in the NHL and were facing a U.S. squad with just three returning players.
Even so, the reality is these were two very evenly matched teams.
That’s come as part of what’s been a very distinct, undeniable trend that’s continued the past decade or so. For all the talk about Switzerland or Denmark or other hockey minnows improving over time in international play (and they have), the Americans are the only top tier team that is drawing from a system with more and more depth each year.
You can see that even in the NHL. The past 10 years alone, the number of U.S.-born players in regular roles has risen from 15 to 23 per cent as the Canadian content has trickled down slightly.
There are a lot of theories out there as to why the Americans appear to be catching Canada in our national sport, but the most compelling ones come down to pure demographics.
Consider that, according to the IIHF’s latest figures, Canada and the U.S. lead the world with the most junior hockey players, with 455,806 and 305,453 respectively.
The next nation in line, Russia, trails the U.S. by nearly 250,000 players.
Junior players by country
Those participation rates continue to shift in the Americans’ favour, too, with their enrolment growing over time as Canada’s flat-lines.
There, you can likely credit the NHL for much of the growth, as hockey fans are turning their children into hockey players. In the past five years alone, youth hockey numbers are up between 17 and 46 per cent in markets like Western Pennsylvania (the Crosby effect), the Greater Washington D.C. Area (the Ovechkin effect), North Carolina and Illinois.
Add in 5 per cent or more growth in other homes of NHL teams like Missouri, Connecticut, California, New Jersey and Minnesota, and the U.S. world junior squad suddenly has far, far more areas to draw from than before.
U.S. minor hockey growth (2007-2012)
Whereas the roster used to be dominated by kids from only Minnesota, Michigan and Massachusetts (the so-called ‘Three Ms’ of American hockey), the 2013 team drew 23 players from 13 different states, with only seven from the Ms.
Where this trend eventually leads is an interesting question. For one, a lot of that growth referenced above won’t even be fully evident at the world juniors for another five or six years, when the seven and eight-year-old fans who watched the Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals rise to prominence turn 17 and 18.
It’s plausible that the American team will get better and better, which on a global scale can only be a good thing for the small world of international hockey, which needs as many competitive teams and rivalries as it can get.
As for what Hockey Canada can do differently, context is important here, too. One flat loss in a tournament like this isn’t on its own cause for alarm, and certainly not when you consider Canada has won a medal at 19 of the previous 20 world junior events - including 10 gold.
The U.S. may be catching up, but they’re not on top. Not yet anyway.