Canada reached the final of the men’s world hockey championship six times between 2003 and 2009 and won three gold medals.
Since that stretch, it’s been three straight quarter-final exits.
Canada’s strategy for a return to the podium in 2013 is to hold fast to a style of hockey they know despite the wider, unfamiliar ice surface and opponents who will be in their element.
“It’s going to be a lot of work to play Canadian-style hockey on this big ice, but that’s what it’s going to take to win I think,” forward Matt Duchene said Friday. “You’ve got to push the pace and tell yourself to move quick. There’s going to be more room out there, but you’ve got to come through that room with speed.
“That’s going to be the challenge for us though, to not fall into the style of game that those other teams want to play who are comfortable on the big ice.”
Canada opens the tournament against Denmark on Saturday followed by Switzerland on Sunday at Globe Arena. Devan Dubnyk of the Edmonton Oilers will spend his 27th birthday in Canada’s net versus Denmark. Mike Smith of the Phoenix Coyotes gets his turn the following day against the Swiss.
Canadian head coach Lindy Ruff intends to rotate the two goalies until one emerges as a No. 1 for the medal round.
“I would look to one guy to try and push through,” Ruff said. “You decide which guy you think is playing the best and probably go with him.”
In Friday’s action, the Czech Republic beat Belarus 2-0, while Switzerland upset Sweden 3-2.
Meanwhile in Helsinki, last year’s silver medallists from Slovakia opened with a 6-2 win over France, while Finland beat Germany 4-3 in overtime.
Denmark is ranked 12th in the world and Switzerland, coached by Canadian Sean Simpson, is 10th behind Canada at No. 5.
The Canadians start the tournament having had just three practices as a team because the NHL lockout pushed the regular season’s conclusion to the end of April.
The players actually prefer this scenario, which feels like a natural extension of their seasons, to winding down and ramping up again in the three weeks between the end of their NHL seasons and the tournament.
But the reality is Canada had little time develop chemistry and cohesion or get a feel for the wide ice.
“We’ve tried to create a system everyone is comfortable with right off the bat,” Ruff said. “We want to play a real fast-paced, North-South game, the same game we would play in North America on North American rinks. Try to stay inside the [faceoff] dots, get pucks to the net and try to use our speed to get in behind people.”
The European countries have had at least parts of their world hockey championship teams together to prepare while they awaited the arrival of some NHL players. The majority of the Danish team spent the last month playing exhibition games.
The Canadians are still favoured to win their opener, but they’ll have to overcome their internal unknowns while pursuing their first win of the tournament.
Canada lost to Slovakia in last year’s quarter-final by one goal. The year before that it was a 2-1 loss to Russia in the quarter-finals. In 2010, the Russians also eliminated Canada in the round of eight by a score of 5-2.
Jordan Eberle was a 19-year-old forward fresh off his junior career in 2010 when he was named to the Canadian team. He watched from the stands as Canada lost 4-1 to Switzerland and then played in a 3-2 loss to the Czechs in the preliminary round that year.
It was an eye-opener for the Edmonton Oilers forward because those countries hadn’t come close to beating Canada when he won gold and silver at world junior championships.
But the Eberle now knows a thing or two about the unpredictable animal that is the world hockey championship because he’s playing in his fourth for Canada.
“Every team can beat any team, especially on this big ice,” Eberle said. “We play NHL-style all year and you come here and you have to play a different game. They grew up playing this kind of game.
“I think that’s why it’s been challenging for us in the last few years. That being said, it takes a couple games to get used to it and once you do, you should be able to play it.”
The upside of the NHL lockout for this Canadian team was that six players spent some time between September and December playing for European clubs. Duchene played for clubs in both Sweden and Switzerland before returning to the Colorado Avalanche when the lockout ended.
“I played in the Swedish league and that game is night and day compared to the NHL,” he said. “It was tough for me at first to figure it out and I know that Swedish team is going to go right back to their roots, which is that type of hockey. It’s going to be kind of a slower game, kind of controlled, they’re going to try create time and space.”
Dubnyk backstopped Canada to a Spengler Cup victory in Davos, Switzerland, in December, and is preparing to adjust his game again.
“As pucks are coming to the outside, you feel you have to keep going just because there is so much room outside the dots,” he explained. “You just have to force yourself to keep your feet where you are and not open up the far side, and realize the half-wall is a lot farther away here too. They don’t look to shoot as much off the half-wall here.”
Duchene is playing in his third world hockey championship even though he’s just 22. He experienced those quarter-final losses in 2010 and 2011.
“I’m kind of a seasoned veteran at this tournament now,” Duchene said. “I kind of know what loses, anyway. Hopefully I can figure out what wins.”