This time, it’s America’s turn to see its hockey-development program in what I guess passes for turmoil.
If you’ve been following the news, America has bigger fish to fry at the moment. Hockey doesn’t rank on its list of problems. Just add this one near the bottom of the pile.
The United States lost 1-0 to defending champion Finland in the world junior hockey championship quarter-finals – not exactly a shocking result – and can now spend the next calendar year defending its competence. That’s how it works these days at the world juniors. Go out before people think you should, and you are forced to answer a bunch of ‘Whither hockey?’ questions.
To most of those questions, the bulk of America will answer, ‘Sorry, what is hockey and where exactly was it supposed to be going?’ But this is the Americans’ own fault. We’ve spent the past few years being told what a juggernaut the Americans are becoming.
It’s too bad there isn’t a high-profile tournament – say, the Olympics, just for instance – where we might test this theory. As it is, we have to run this experiment with teenagers, and so will never really know.
Which is the best hockey nation on Earth right now? Canada. If only because we’re the ones who keep telling everyone that. And profession is nine-tenths of the law.
For the moment, Canada’s junior team is sitting somewhere between pretty and ugly. Finland is next up for it in Saturday’s semi-final. If the Canadians win that game, you can call this tournament a qualified success. Lose and it’s a bust.
What has Canada learned at this tournament? Not a whole lot. Perhaps only that Alexis Lafrenière has solidified his status as the projected No. 1 pick in the next NHL draft.
The question mark with every nearly-there young player of Lafrenière’s talent is, ‘But how tough is he?’ This may be a holdover from the Alexandre Daigle disaster – that point totals and hits-in-the-back don’t tell the full story on a player.
Bizarrely, Lafrenière may have helped himself by suffering what looked like a catastrophic mid-tournament knee injury. He returned to play five days later. For all we know, he’s skating around out there on one tendon and a prayer.
But Lafrenière has now proved his grit. It would’ve been better from a promotional standpoint if he’d bled a little, but you don’t choose your injuries. Nothing that happens from this point on can markedly improve Lafrenière’s standing. He can score four goals in the final and people will still come away thinking, “Tough kid.”
That is one thing you can’t help but notice in the modern world juniors. This isn’t a bunch of prospects trying to show you how good they are. It’s a bunch of prospects trying to kill each other to prove how badly they want it.
In the final seconds of the U.S.-Finland game, Oliver Wahlstrom of the United States tried to decapitate one of his opponents with a rising elbow. Wahlstrom’s movement was suggestive of trying violently to pry a nail from a board. He nearly got it out. It was a nasty, pointless play that would get an NHLer booed off the ice. But you can see Wahlstrom’s angle here.
At this tournament, he has been what you might call an active player. He’s basically a heat-seeking missile targeting human heads. This is what happens when you are a first-round draft pick (11th over all by the New York Islanders in 2018) and haven’t quite cracked the big-league roster. You need to show that you have other abilities.
That sort of naughtiness is contagious. The Swedes went so far as to publicly complain that too many people are slashing Leafs hopeful Rasmus Sandin. The 19-year-old was hurt early in the tournament by a hack on the wrist and wasn’t able to hide his discomfort. Now all the other predators are out there looking to finish off the job.
“We’re leading the game and they just go on slashing,” Sweden’s David Gustafsson told Canadian Press reporter Joshua Clipperton. “I’m sick and tired of seeing that.”
The hope, one supposes, is that the Russians – Sweden’s semi-final opponents – will be kinder to Sweden’s best player because they’ve been asked to be.
If that is indeed the hope, then it’s apparent that several high-ranking people in Sweden’s hockey program have never seen hockey before. This is how it works. The strong prey on the weak. Especially in a tournament most of the players have been convinced is the place to make (and occasionally break) reputations.
That’s why it’s so vicious out there. The NHL playoffs have nothing on the world juniors in terms of premeditated assault.
In that same U.S.-Finland game, Kristian Tanus delivered an elbow so blatant it ought to have come with an R-rating and Anttoni Honka tried running someone backwards, a real leap forward in terms of illegal hits. When did the Finns become the Flyers?
The whole tournament has been a mess of penalties – called and uncalled – and subsequent reviews and non-reviews. It’s getting hard to figure out what’s being reviewed and why. Possibly, everyone should be reviewed for everything. If you pine for the rock ’em sock ’em hockey of the old days (i.e. the mid-1990s), the world juniors are your jam.
Canada has largely avoided all this nonsense. The Canadians are out there trying to play a skills game and succeeding. For now.
But if that doesn’t work out, you can project a future return to the two-fisted Canada we all remember.
Because the worst thing that can happen to these teams isn’t suddenly turning the best young players in the world into a bunch of dirty tricksters and cheap-hit artists. It’s losing and, fairly or not, looking soft because of it. Ask America. Ask Canada if it loses Saturday.