Two unfortunate things happened during Canada’s world junior hockey championship game against Russia on Saturday.
First, Canada was absolutely shellacked, 6-0, and lost its best player in the process. Second, during the playing of the Russian national anthem, team captain Barrett Hayton declined to remove his plastic hat.
I get it. This anthem thing in sport has gone too far. The point of it, as best I can tell, is forcing foreign opponents to tremble under the majesty of your native tuba arrangement.
Whenever I think of representative anthem lyrics, I hear Mel Brooks in The 2,000-Year-Old Man: “Let ‘em all go to hell/Except Cave 76!”
But however ridiculous the ritual may be, you still have to take off your hat. This is how we prevent wars.
Several Russian players, being Russian and all, took exception. In the good/bad old days, there might’ve been a brawl. But you can no longer give physical expression to your hockey feelings in polite company. If you must release your rage, you do it after the fact on Instagram.
Once it became a thing, Hayton released one of those apologies-by-committee that make a 19-year-old sound like the outgoing CEO at Bear Stearns.
“As a leader on the team, I was trying to process the game and evaluate how we can regroup,” Hayton’s statement read in part.
I’m sure it’s true. If you’d been standing beside him at the time, you’d have heard the beep-boop-boop-beep sounds of all that processing.
This is what happens when Canada no longer lords it over everyone else at the world juniors. The players go a little squirrelly.
In any sensible sports environment, this tournament would be pure fun. A kind of barnstorming futures game with a little – and I mean, a very little – bit of national pride on the line.
These aren’t our best and brightest. Not yet, at least. They’re kids, many of them legally as well as functionally. Teenagers should not be expected to carry the banner of Canadian hockey which, in some quarters, is another way of saying Canada’s national vitality.
This should be happening at the Olympics, but everyone’s screwed that up.
First off, there’s us – the people who like hockey and like Canada and like the two things together. Our bovine acceptance of NHL players’ absence from the Olympics continues to amaze.
Had a sporting body in England, Brazil or Italy announced one day it had decided to never again participate in a soccer World Cup, there would be riots. The Olympics represent the same crucible for Canadian hockey.
What did Canada and Canadian professional hockey players do? ‘Oh, well. Them’s the rules I guess’.
Clearly, we have bigger fish to fry in this country, but this particular fish is sitting right beside a hot pan. Frying it should not be difficult.
This isn’t primarily the fault of the NHL and IOC (although it is their fault, too). It’s the players. That they haven’t made Olympic participation the core demand of their next bargaining round tells you something about how seriously they take representing their countries. They’re for it. But not if it costs them any money.
In some other sport, the world championship might act as a half-decent Olympic proxy. But those happen in the midst of the NHL playoffs, and so are ignored.
One supposes it’s possible hockey’s own World Cup might become more than a transparent cash-grab, but that would assume they could figure out how to schedule one. We’re almost four years removed from the last tournament and no one has any clue when the next one might be. All the involved parties are too busy fighting over the cut.
The result of this ineptitude is that Canada’s junior hockey team has become our de facto senior hockey team.
If the juniors win, great. They were meant to. If they lose, it’s a panic. What the heck is going on? Are we serious about hockey or not? What happened to Canadian values? Are phones to blame? Aren’t they to blame for everything these days?
This system worked while the junior team was consistently in the medals, which it no longer is.
Complete failure is not an option, although it should be. These are developmental players given no freedom to develop.
You’re starting to see the cracks that sort of pressure creates. One blowout loss and we are at national alert for an impending disaster. The players are so gobsmacked in the aftermath, they’re forgetting the formalities.
Hayton’s breach of etiquette is already being set up as a portent of doom. It’s difficult to imagine Canada failing to make the knockout rounds. The tournament is set up so that a team of Czech rink staff could make the knockout rounds. But if Canada loses early there, Hayton’s slip will be a capital-r Reason it all went wrong.
This sort of hothouse environment is meant to be occupied by established NHL players. The Brad Marchands of the world can handle it. They’ve issued a few statements in their time. They know how to shrug off negative attention and concentrate on the work.
Barrett Hayton hasn’t learned how to do that yet, and should not be expected to do so while several million of his countrymen bore their eyes into him.
None of this will change as long as the world juniors continue to be this country’s most-watched international hockey tournament. In lieu of something better, we will continue to fixate on this, no matter how foolish it seems to put your collective reputation on the backs of a bunch of high-schoolers.
Maybe the NHLers ought to think of that when next it considers the Olympics. Several senior members of Canada’s current generation got to experience what it feels like to win at the most important sports event on the planet.
The next few ones will instead get their professional starts learning what it feels like to disappoint their country at an event that shouldn’t matter all that much, and then never get the chance to correct the record.