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Russia left winger Alex Ovechkin and Team Canada centre Sidney Crosby shake hands after Team Canada 5-3 victory during a semifinal game in the 2016 World Cup of Hockey in Toronto. (Kevin Sousa/USA Today Sports)
Russia left winger Alex Ovechkin and Team Canada centre Sidney Crosby shake hands after Team Canada 5-3 victory during a semifinal game in the 2016 World Cup of Hockey in Toronto. (Kevin Sousa/USA Today Sports)

How Canada turned around its international hockey program Add to ...

His tone was what a proud teacher might use to describe a class of recently launched college grads, successfully making their way in the world.

“The kids aren’t kids any more,” Mike Babcock was explaining Saturday night, in the immediate aftermath of Canada’s 5-3 victory over Russia in the World Cup semi-final.

It was Canada’s 14th consecutive win in best-on-best men’s international hockey competition, and remarkably, it was once again led by team captain Sidney Crosby, aka Sid the Kid.

Maybe Tim Hortons can launch a new contest – find an updated nickname for Crosby, its most recognizable salesman.

But Babcock was taking the longer view of how Canada turned around its international hockey program, which circled all the way back to a quarter-final game against Russia at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver.

Canada had just an okay preliminary round and even had to play an extra playoff game – against Germany – to advance to the quarter-finals. There, the Canadians were to play a Russian team that had shut them out 2-0 four years earlier in the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin and was putting on a show. Alex Ovechkin, especially, led the way with a series of rampaging, highlight-reel hits.

But it all turned around right there, everything. Canada scored six goals in 24 minutes 6 seconds against the Russians and goaltender Evgeni Nabokov, blasting them out of the tournament.

Ilya Bryzgalov, the Russian backup goalie, famously described the Canadian onslaught by noting: “They came at us like gorillas out of a cage.”

The Russians have yet to recover from the shell shock.

Canada, by contrast, just gets better and better.

In Vancouver, Babcock relied on what he called his “grey beards” – Scott Niedermayer, Chris Pronger, Jarome Iginla, Dan Boyle – to provide stability in the dressing room for all the young talent adjusting and adapting to the pressure cooker of a hometown Olympics.

That group – Crosby, Jonathan Toews, Drew Doughty, Corey Perry and others – have now become mature, in-their-prime NHLers and have fully taken over the Canadian program.

“I trust them and I think they trust me,” Babcock said. “They know we’re prepared. They know we’re good. They know we have a chance. And that’s all you can ask in life – a chance.”

The chance to repeat as World Cup champions will come starting Tuesday, against Europe, who advanced to the final on Sunday with a thrilling 3-2 overtime victory over Sweden.

It is impossible to watch a Russia-Canada game any more and not compare the accomplishments of Crosby and Ovechkin, given how they came into the league together after the 2005 lockout, billed as the new faces of the NHL.

Since then, Ovechkin has won far more individual hardware – starting with the Calder Trophy in their respective rookie seasons, along with six Rocket Richard trophies, three Hart trophies, plus one Art Ross.

Crosby’s résumé is impressive – two Hart trophies, two Art Rosses, one Rocket Richard, plus the Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoff MVP in 2016. That’s where Crosby’s real edge lies, in what he’s won collectively.

There are the two Stanley Cup championships, two Olympic gold medals and now a chance to win the World Cup for the first time.

Crosby’s performance against the Russians, playing on a line with Boston Bruins Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand, was excellent and virtually an instant replay of what the trio managed the previous Saturday in their tournament-opening win over the Czech Republic.

In each case, Crosby scored three points and made the pivotal plays in the game to shift momentum Canada’s way.

The narrative was hard to ignore: How can Crosby consistently raise his level when the pace and the pressure increase, while Ovechkin, time after time, cannot find that extra gear?

Ovechkin, post-game, in about an eight-minute scrum, seemed at a complete loss for an answer. He kept repeating like a mantra, over and over, “I try my best, I try my best.”

For his part, Crosby is always made uneasy by the comparison, understanding only too well that teams win championships and everyone – no matter how accomplished – needs to find his role within the team.

With Crosby now in the driver’s seat to win tournament MVP, Babcock was asked: What has changed since 2010, when he first coached Crosby, who scored the overtime game-winner against the United States in the gold-medal game?

“I just think he knows how good he is and he’s more patient with what he’s doing,” Babcock said. “When things don’t go well, he doesn’t get frustrated. When people cross-check him, he doesn’t get riled up. He just knows he’s going to have success over time.

“The other thing that happens when he plays with Toews – Toews does a lot of stuff so [Crosby] can do what he does. So to me that’s a pretty good one-two punch.

“And of course, Sid, he’s no slouch either.”

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