Every Monday, Wednesday and Friday we ask the Globe's roster of hockey writers to weigh in on an issue from the world of puck.
Tonight's gold medal final at the world junior hockey championship marks the latest chapter in Canada's long hockey rivalry with Russia. Two Olympic finals and a number of exciting world junior games against the United States have made some argue our neighbours to the south are now our top opponent.
The question: Which rivalry do you think is Canada's best when the game is played on an international stage?
That's a toughie, so let me weasel and fudge. In terms of intensity, no doubt it's the Canada - USA rivalry, despite the fact that the junior match between the two on Monday was one of the worst and least-interesting games I've ever seen. Sometimes crap happens in hockey, and the Americans sure crapped the bed/ice surface.
The problem with the Russians, as everyone knows, is that they are hockey's fortune cookie -- you never, ever know what you will get. In fact, you don't know from period to period. I have seen Russians play some of the most amazing single periods imaginable (thinking here of Nagano in 1998, gold medal game, when Pavel Bure and teammates simply could not score on Hasek and the Czechs no matter what they did) and I have seen them quit (January, 1976 in Philadelphia) and walk into the dressing room, keen just to get it over and go home.
However, when the Russians are on the their game, and when the Canadians finally round into their team (it usually takes a few games, though didn't ever happen in Turin), this is the greatest hockey imaginable, as it is two different attitudes/skills/theories/styles going head-to-head. It is hockey played at the grandest and most exciting level.
I don't think there is any doubt that it's Canada - U.S. first.
Most kids' favourite player these days is Ovechkin; Russians aren't big and scary any more; there's no "us" vs. "them". Moreover, a story in the Hockey News recently pegged Russian hockey registration numbers at about 50,000, or about a tenth of Canada's. We're the favourites and should be by a long shot, so that angle is gone.
In many ways anti-U.S. sentiment in Canada is as strong now as any animosity that existed toward the old USSR, as tiresome as those can be. More significant is that the U.S. is the next most populous hockey nation on Earth and is coming on. They're a real threat to Canadian hockey supremacy and thus the most worthy rival.
Yup, I'm with Grange.
Reagan's long buried, so's the Evil Empire and the Cold War. The Soviet mystique is gone, the stoic automatons have been infused with as much spoiled-brat-ism as anywhere else (see: Semin, Alex).
And I'm surprised that Roy would describe the Russians as a fortune cookie surprise. Seems to me the formula's become all too predictable since 1972: Russian skill and artistry foiled by Canadian heart and industry(there have been few exceptions, most of them at the World Juniors).
You can only have a proper rivalry with a team that you secretly fear might actually be better than you, and that's the Yanks, as tournaments in Vancouver and Saskatoon showed last year.
The Russians are no longer capable of forcing a national crisis and wholesale re-think of Canadian hockey, the U.S. is - and surely will do before too long.
So cue a 5-0 Russian victory tonight, then.
The answer to this question falls along generational lines. If you're old enough to remember the 1972 Summit Series, Canada-Russia will always tickle your fancy. If you're younger, Canada - .U.S. has moved to the hockey world's centre stage for reasons that cut deep into our psyche and rekindled nationalism. We want to beat the Americans at anything, especially our game. So there. Nyeah.
Personally, it's the history between us and the Russians that makes this must-see hockey; a rivalry that will always matter. It has brought out the best - and worst - in both sides and it continues to shape the way the game is played. Canada - U.S. is intense but still emerging. Canada-Russia is already there. Always has been to a great many.
For me, the best rivalry for Canada is whoever happens to be on tap RIGHT THIS moment. That's how it was in the Olympics anyway. Canada was facing a quarter-final match-up against the Russians, after needing to play an extra playoff game against Germany a day earlier. Russia was the team that knocked them out of the Olympics in 2006; the fear was that history could repeat itself - and on home soil, after all the expectations and angst, that would have been a disaster. Then the Canadians came out and played magnificently - and won going away. Remember Ilya Bryzgalov's great quote: "They came at us like gorillas out of a cage." Five days later, when they were playing the Americans for the gold, then that became the best rivalry - and the match, though far more important in terms of medal results, didn't quite live up to the Russian game, until the final dramatic ending when Sidney Crosby won it for Canada. So two days ago, in the semis, Canada's greatest international rivals happened to the Americans. Tonight, it'll be the Russians again.
I'm with Eric on this, at least as far as the players go. You will often find the players' sense of a rivalry is different from the fans'. For example, the Montreal Canadiens are regarded as the Toronto Maple Leafs' fiercest rival. But when the Ottawa Senators were a good team 10 years ago and were always losing to a not quite as good Leafs team in the playoffs, the Leaf players would tell you they regarded the Sens as their biggest rivals.
And so it is here. The Americans are now good enough to challenge Canada for any global hockey prize. They also play in the same leagues as their Canadian counterparts (U.S. junior goaltender Jack Campbell and Canadian forward Zack Kassian are roommates in Windsor, Ont., where they play for the Spitfires), which keeps the competitive fires burning.
The beauty of international hockey these days is that Canada has two mortal rivals. And it's a generational thing.
For those who remember where they were when Henderson scored, there's no topping Russia -- no matter how far the Russkies have fallen. For the modern fan, two Olympic finals and several thrilling world junior games against the U.S. have constructed a new nemesis.
There's no doubt that the Americans pose the greater threat going forward. Grange mentioned registration, but also look at the top of the NHL draft. Eleven of the first 30 picks last year (and 21 of the first 60) were American, compared to just three Russians. Some of that has to do with the KHL, and fears that Russian players won't come to North America. But the bulk of it has to do with the U.S. National Team Development Program, and the fact that it is attracting better and better athletes, and churning out better players.
Canada-Russia still resonates with these ears, still has a ring to it that Canada-USA does not. But nostalgia aside, the better contemporary rivalry is against the Americans. No doubt.
Going to keep this short: everybody knows at least one American they dislike intensely. Or has at least one reason for disliking their culture intensely. Russia? Not so much. The only way the Canada-Russia rivalry gets back to where it was is in Sochi, where given Russia's money and the corrupt nature of their system, there will probably be a scandal involving referees. Just watch.
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