For the love of the game

Robin
Robin Short
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The Canadian kids lining up to receive their third-place trinkets Thursday evening were gracious, to be sure, but the manufactured smiles creasing the boyish faces suggested that while the world junior hockey bronze medal meant something, truth is it was little more than the 10-grand third-place prize on a million-dollar lottery draw.

Nice. Better than nothing.

But ...

It's now - gasp! - four years and counting since Canada last won the world junior hockey championship, the longest drought since the late 1990s and early part of the decade when this country went seven years without a gold medal. Prior to 1998, Canada had won five straight championships, and following the 2004 silver medal, peeled off another five consecutive titles, beginning with the 2005 dream team that would produce seven players who would win Olympic gold in 2010.

Thursday's 4-0 shutout of the Finns was this country's 14th straight medal in the world juniors, and 26th overall since 1982 when the national team concept was formed. Certainly nothing to sneeze at. Russia/CIS/Soviet Union is right behind with 25, but only nine gold to Canada's 15 first-place finishes.

And, yes, we all know Canada doesn't necessarily send its best players to the juniors because they're working in the NHL. However, that cannot be used as an excuse, just as injury woes cannot be cited as a reason for failure, even though we all know a banged-up team is a team hard pressed to win.

Anyway, back to the bronze medal.

Somewhere, somehow, Canadian hockey fans have been led to believe it's in the rulebook that Canada wins gold in hockey, no matter what the event, from world junior, to women's hockey, to the professionals.

Now, while Canada has, for the most part, dominated the global hockey stage, it hasn't been a cakewalk. In 1972, Paul Henderson's last-minute heroics were needed. Same in '76, at the Canada Cup, when Darryl Sittler beat Czech netminder Vladimir Dzurilla. In 1984, three years after the Soviets smoked the Canadians in the Canada Cup final at the Montreal Forum, Mike Bossy's tip-in in overtime against Russians was required to advance to the Canada Cup final.

In 1987, it was Gretzky-to-Lemieux which bailed out Canada. And on home soil, two years ago at the Olympics, Sidney Crosby delivered the goods in OT in the gold medal game vs. the Yanks.

So while we've won more than our share of hockey tournaments, it hasn't been the little matter of just throwing on the gear and twirling our way to glory.

So why, then, does the world fall apart when the Maple Leaf wilts at the world juniors? When if it's not gold, it's indeed bust?

"I think," Kenndal McArdle was saying the other day, "that willingness and desire to win is what makes our hockey program so good. Because hockey is our sport and because we take so much pride in it, I think we should want to win.

"I think the only way to win is to have that desire, so I don't see anything wrong with being disappointed when you don't win. At the same time, there is a fine line between confidence and cockiness. You don't want to be too arrogant in thinking that you will win, regardless of anything else.

"As a nation, we're confident but I think pretty humble, too. And that's the way it should be."

McArdle should know. The St. John's IceCaps' forward was a member of the 2007 world junior team in Leksand, Sweden, which won Canada's third of five straight gold medals.

That was the year Carey Price, the lone bright spot on an otherwise dark Montreal Canadiens' landscape these days, was the tournament MVP, when Jonathan Toews had one of those 'where-were-you?' moments, with three goals in the shootout vs. the Americans in the semifinal.

A lot of pressure is placed on the Canadian kids in the world juniors these days, certainly more than when IceCaps' assistant coach Mark Morrison laced 'em up for Canada in 1982 and '83. Maybe it's the media influence - TSN covers the world juniors in the same light as American networks are all over the Super Bowl and Bowl games, combined.

"It's deserved pressure," said McArdle, one of three IceCaps players who played for the Canadian junior teams (Patrice Cormier and Riley Holzapfel being the others). "Any time you win five championships in a row, the whole world is looking at you. The other nations know our hockey history, and everybody wants to play Canada. That's why it is so hard for us every year.

"But there's nothing Canada has to change. It's a first-class program, and the fact other countries gear up for playing Canada just proves how good a hockey country we really are."

There's a fine line to winning and losing, finer still in a tournament format, unlike the best-of-five, or four-out-of-seven playoff series to which North American hockey fans are accustomed.

Just so happens Canada's been on the winning end most of the time, when John Slaney scored against the Soviets in 1991, when Price stoned the American shooters, when Jordan Eberle left the Russians crying in their vodka in 2009.

"Everybody knows hockey is a game that no matter who you play, any team can win on any given night," McArdle says. "When you're in a single elimination tournament, not in a playoff format that we see at the professional level, when it comes down to the medal round, that's what makes it so entertaining to watch. Anything can happen. You can be the best team on paper, but that doesn't at all necessarily mean you're going to win."

Friday, on the morning after the bronze medal, and three days after a furious comeback against Russia fell short, the sun rose.

Maybe all is not perfect in the world, but in Canada, it's not bad (although outside Vancouver, hopes of the Stanley Cup coming north of the border appear bleak).

Outside of that, however, if there is a concern, it would be Canada's netminding. While Mark Visentin played well against Finland, neither he nor Scott Wedgewood were there with the big save when Canada needed it most 48 hours earlier.

In fact, one might need to go back to '07 and Price when Canada last had world-class goaltending in the world juniors (come to think of it, in any kind of international hockey). In Sweden, he allowed but a lousy seven goals in 370 minutes of duty.

"Funny thing is, he wasn't even our No. 1 guy before the tournament," McArdle said. "It was between him and Jonathan Bernier. But we were fortunate Price was the MVP. Any time a goalie can do that, it's going to take you a long way.

"You know, the pressure is exponentially greater on a goaltender, and really, they're just kids. You can't fault any one player. It's an accomplishment to even play there."

Not to mention win a medal.

Robin Short is The Telegram's Sports Editor. He can be reached by email rshort@thetelegram.com and Twitter@ telyrobinshort

 

Organizations: NHL, Montreal Forum, Montreal Canadiens North American

Geographic location: Canada, Russia, Soviet Union Sweden OT Maple Leaf St. John's Leksand Vancouver Finland

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