Getting there is half the …
It’s simple enough. You get on an airplane, fly all night; get on another airplane, fly all day; get on another airplane, fly half the night.
And then you’re there – wherever there is.
Let’s get a couple of things out of the way. First, no one has a clue where Ufa, Russia, is. And second – sacrilege, sacrilege – the world junior hockey championship is not nearly as good as TSN has somehow convinced Canadians it is.
Both statements are true. Both are also false. It all depends on your perspective.
Ufa, after all, has more than a million people who call the capital of Bashkortostan home. Some of them are Russians, but there are far more Bashkirs and Tatars. And lest Ottawa, Saskatoon, Buffalo and Calgary – sites of the last four junior championship games – think they can smugly look down their noses at some place in the middle of nowhere that no one has ever heard of, a quick check of Wikipedia will readily inform them that Ufa dates all the way back to 1574 and was founded by Ivan the Terrible.
What better place to hold what is certain to be a rugged and hard-fought hockey tournament?
As for the tournament itself, there will be more poor games than great, as always, but the great ones are what make it worthwhile. And in a year in which the NHL has gone to hell, the juniors going to Ufa is even more welcome than usual during the Christmas break.
The contrast is startling: teams owned by flags rather than billionaire egotists; young men playing for Kraft Dinner and free track suits rather than contracts that will pay more in two shifts than the average fan will earn in a year.
But the game, too, is different from the NHL.
It is not just the big ice – albeit an improvement – nor the no-touch icing – common sense – but it is what happens and doesn’t happen on that ice.
First of all, these players have barely left childhood. They are mostly 19-year-olds, but some are 18 and a precocious few – such as Canada’s Jonathan Drouin and Nathan MacKinnon – only 17.
Being so young, they make mistakes, and capitalizing on mistakes, any minor-league coach will tell you, is what determines hockey games. The more mistakes, the more excitement; the more excitement, the more youthful exuberance and desperation takes chances; the more chances, the more mistakes. And even more excitement.
Mistakes are what an NHL coach tries to eliminate. In recent years, teams have almost as many coaches as players, which has, in some cities, created a situation where the game is so overcoached it is as unwatchable as the NHL game was prior to the previous lockout.
The true beauty of the world juniors is expediency. There is no time to practise, no time to institute the dreaded “systems” that can turn an NHL game into table-top hockey.
The players are mostly strangers to the coaches, the coaches strangers to the players. Coaches can exercise only a modicum of control, and the most basic of systems, meaning – oh glorious day – creativity, becomes a far larger factor in a WJC game than it is allowed at the older and professional levels.
This, of course, is wonderful for a team like Canada, with creative players such as captain Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Drouin and MacKinnon.
Canada, however, has not won the championship since it was held in Ottawa in 2009, when the Canadian juniors captured their fifth straight gold medal.
What happened? Well, strong teams from the United States (Saskatoon), Russia (Buffalo) and Sweden (Calgary), obviously, but there are three other factors that may come into play in Ufa.
Clutch goal scoring: In the past, this has been a Canadian trademark – Jordan Eberle’s heroics in Ottawa the best example – but it has been rather absent over the past three tournaments. What was most noticeable in the red-white scrimmages at the Calgary camp this month was how skilled, fast and strong the Canadians were, but how rarely they got the puck into the net.
Goaltending: The first concern would seem to suggest that the second is not a concern this year, but in fact the goaltenders trying out for the team in Calgary saw few shots get through. No No. 1 emerged from the three goaltenders selected – Malcolm Subban, Jordan Binnington, Jake Paterson – and one will need to, dramatically, if Canada is to challenge for the gold medal.
Coaching: Canada was badly outcoached in Buffalo when Russia stormed back in the third period to score five straight goals in a 5-3 win. While Russian coach Valeri Bragin – could there possibly be a better surname? – made all the right moves, Canadian coach Dave Cameron neither changed his goalie nor called a timeout when it was clear that panic was wearing the red maple leaf.
These will determine Canada’s fate in Ufa: coach Steve Spott’s speed in getting to know his new team’s strengths and weaknesses, the emergence of a crunch goal scorer, and goaltending.
In other words, Ufa is really no different than anywhere else.