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Roy MacGregor

It's going to get a lot tougher Add to ...

The top draft prospect at the world junior hockey championship sits, all alone, in the newly furbished Team Canada dressing room at Credit Union Centre, elbows on knees, head in his hands.

Taylor Hall - the 18-year-old Windsor Spitfires phenomenon from Kingston - could not possibly be more surrounded by inspiration. The walls hold huge posters of the past five gold medalists, all Canadian, all photographed at their moment of triumph. A Canadian flag has been taped to the wall for the youngsters to dedicate the tournament to someone special to them, living or dead. There are inspirational sayings all around: "Just as you once watched and idolized them," one says, "it is not you who are watched and idolized."

Hall, who revels in all this attention, all this expectation, still shakes his head in wonder.

"I can honestly say I've never beaten a team that badly."

It might have been better if no one was watching Saturday afternoon as Canada humiliated little Latvia 16-0 in a game that had nothing to say for it apart from the final buzzer.

On a day in which this fabulously talented Canadian team should have been celebrated for its skill and determination, it seemed more hockey fans were actually embarrassed about the outcome. It was what they talked about in the hotel lobbies and the coffee shops, what the comments said on the sports websites and even what some of the victorious players were saying.

"A little out of hand," added Hall's Windsor teammate, defence sensation Ryan Ellis.

"A little bit," agreed Hall's linemate and Toronto Maple Leafs prospect Nazem Kadri of the London Knights. "But not much you can do.

"I guess it just wasn't Latvia's day."

An understatement if ever there was one. This particular version of Team Canada - as quick and hard-driving a team as Canada has sent to the tournament - scored even when no one intended to, the goals mounting ever higher as the mismatch dragged on and on.

Canadian head coach Willie Desjardins said after Saturday's game that there had never been intention to humiliate the opposition. It just happened. "We ran a number of different units on the power play," he said in his post-game news conference. "We didn't send out our top power-play unit, hardly, as a group … It wasn't that we were trying to run it up. We were just playing hard."

Some argued that a good team has no choice but to run up the score on a dreadful team in this tournament, as goal differential could possibly decide - and has decided in the past - the position of tied teams going into the medal round. However, such an argument is at best spurious when one looks at the weak Group A that Canada finds itself in - Latvia, Switzerland, Slovakia and United Stares - and tries to imagine what possible factor a 16-0 win could play.

TSN analyst Pierre McGuire says that the goal-differential rule needs to be altered to bring an end to such ridiculous outings. His suggestion is that the maximum goal differential allowed, regardless of the score, be five goals. If you beat a team 16-0, you would be allotted five on the plus side; if you beat a team 10-5, same thing. While it would not prevent lopsided scores, it might put an end to games that become unbearable to watch.

Kadri agrees with McGuire's solution; Ellis does not.

"If we only put up five," Ellis says, "we could then just do nothing but run out the clock."

And that, in his opinion, would be just as boring as trying to watch a scoreboard reach 15-0 with many in the crowd, bizarrely, wanting still more.

Another solution might be merely to be as hard-nosed as Canadian hockey likes to think of itself: put an end to having 10 teams in this tournament and shrink it down to six or so.

While junior hockey does not suffer as badly as women's hockey from lack of international parity, it suffers enough that 10 teams are simply too many. If a country such as Latvia wishes to work its way into the top six and qualify, then it is welcome to do so by all those who believe a truly competitive tournament is far preferable to one that only becomes competitive in the later stages.

The Olympics is more restrictive, with all teams qualifying capable of periodic surprises - as Switzerland demonstrated against Canada in Turin, as Belarus showed against Sweden in Salt Lake City.

Team Canada - minus Hall, who is nursing some minor bruising - practised yesterday but it seemed far more a practice designed to erase bad habits from a bad game than one intended to pump them up for today's match against Switzerland.

Switzerland, unfortunately, didn't play in the tournament last year in Ottawa. It wasn't considered good enough, having been relegated in 2008. This does not bode well for a good game, though the Swiss do have two legitimate prospects: Luca Sbisa, who played eight games earlier in the season with the Anaheim Ducks, and Nino Niederreiter, who plays for Portland in the Western Hockey League.

"It's going to get a lot tougher," head coach Desjardins said yesterday. "We know that. That was only one game."

And let us all hope the only one.

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