It’s been a long time since Canada could take advantages for granted in Olympic hockey competition.
It’s 93 years since team secretary W.A. Hewitt, who also happened to be sports editor of The Toronto Star, was asked if he’d mind refereeing the first Olympic match at the Antwerp Games.
And it’s 89 years since ringer Harold (Moose) Watson predicted Canada would whip the Americans 10-0 or 12-0 in the gold-medal match at Chamonix, France. Perhaps the fact that the final score was only 6-1 – with Moose picking up three goals to take his Olympic total to a record 36 – was a harbinger of decades to come.
There would be a day when Canada would just be one of several teams with a chance at Olympic glory.
Sochi will presumably mark the fifth time NHL players have been released by their clubs to play for their countries. In that time, Canada has won two gold medals (Salt Lake City, 2002; Vancouver, 2010), finished fourth in Nagano in 1998, and came a shocking seventh in Turin in 2006.
There are lessons for Sochi in all of these victories and losses, but whether they will be heeded will not be known until the gold-medal game slated for Feb. 23, 2014.
Will Canada win that gold-medal game or not? And if not, why not?
Russia has already sent back some good advice for Canadian teams headed over there. The junior Team Canada was in Ufa over Christmas and New Year’s with Canada’s usual “gold-or-nothing” attitude and returned with nothing, despite sending some fabulous young talent over.
The lessons of Ufa are simple:
*Don’t grab an NHL head coach – in the case of the world juniors, a major-junior head coach – and send him off to win in international competition. Make sure most, if not all, of the coaching staff have considerable international hockey experience.
*Do not presume to play your game on their ice, as the Canadian coaching staff stated it would in Turin. It is not the same game. Only the equipment, the size of the nets and the puck is the same; everything else is in another world.
*Do not continue to assemble the best players and presume they can perform assigned and unfamiliar functions. There is no need for the traditional “grinder” lines of NHL and major junior. The most any team will play another is twice in such competition – no time for personal grudges to build up, no point to avenging anything the way international hockey is called. The very idea of turning young Nathan MacKinnon into a grinder for Ufa was preposterous. He might be the hottest prospect in hockey, but he was invisible in Ufa.
The abiding theory in putting together Canadian teams has been to gather together the top players, assemble the machine and, over time, work out the kinks. While this can work, and has worked for Canada, it is worth noting players familiar with each other and teams dedicated to speed often have success in the Olympics.
The Swiss beat Canada in Turin. The Slovaks came within a shot of taking Canada to overtime in Vancouver, and were, at the time, in control of the game. The tough games aren’t always the ones checked off in advance.
Then, there is the matter of size. Canada – for reasons that baffle – was given exceptional permission by the International Olympic Committee to stick to the smaller NHL ice surface in Vancouver, and this undoubtedly proved helpful as Canada and the United States faced off in the gold-medal game. No such variance will be available in Sochi, where the regulation Olympic ice surface will return.
If Canada were to put together one team for the big ice and one team for the North American ice, they would not be the same. Or at least they should not be the same.
The forwards Team Canada chooses for Sochi should be as adept at cycling as they are at shooting, as skilled working the boards as they are coming through centre ice.
The defence will need to be as mobile as possible. In international hockey, the NHL’s much loved “stay-at-home” defenceman is a liability, not a plus.
If the Canadian NHL players are finding officiating in the NHL confusing as the shrunken season speeds along, just wait until they hear the first few whistles in Sochi. It is popular in Canada to dismiss international officiating as incompetent, but it is really just different, and likely no more consistent or inconsistent than NHL officiating.
The greatest difference may well be in off-ice rulings. If the players think NHL vice-president Brendan Shanahan can be quick with the suspension, think again. You’ll pay much more for stupidity in international hockey.
And finally, there has been one important lesson in all the previous four Olympic competitions that have included NHL players: Luck will take some unexpected shifts.
From Dominik Hasek in Nagano, to Martin Gerber in Turin, Canada can run into goaltending that cannot be solved in a single game.
In Salt Lake City, it was clear to all, even Team Canada, the best team in the tournament was Sweden – only to see Sweden doomed by a Belarus dump-in that wouldn’t even have hit the net if it hadn’t bounced off goaltender Tommy Salo’s glove, head, back and into the net.
It happens. It almost happened in Vancouver, where pesky Slovakia had a skate on Canada’s throat in the dying minutes, only to see Pavol Demitra either miss the net or Roberto Luongo make a miracle save, take your choice.
Luck will have a say in Sochi, too.
Just as it has, and should have, in every Olympic hockey game that has ever been played or will be played.