Hockey Fright in Canada

Let me be the 7,758,901st to join the national hand wringing in Canada over the desperate fate of Canada’s Olympic men’s hockey team. Let’s say, first, what it’s NOT about.

It’s not about Wayne Gretzky’s choice of wives or assistant coaches. The possible existence of a betting ring involving an NHL coach (Rick Tocchet, not the Wayner) is a serious matter for the integrity of league play, but it has nothing to do with Canada’s performance in Turin. And now for a few suggestions about what is going on.

Europeans play great hockey, and it is a generally more highly skilled brand than Canadian kids are encouraged, coached or, I daresay, even allowed to play. (So long as Don Cherry’s anti-finesse opinions are taken as gospel in Canadian hockey circles, a genuine commitment to skill development has serious obstacles. The kind of Canuck chauvinism that he quivers with makes learning from what the European system does well more difficult than it ought to be. They have not hesitated, it seems to me, to learn from the best of Canadian hockey – and there’s a lot to love. And emulate.)

If having the best team win is your object, the Olympic “lose and go home” system after the round robin is not a good system. The nature of the hockey beast – especially that dominating presence, the Hot (or horseshoes-up-his-hind-end) Goaltender – does not lend itself to one-game eliminations, although it does allow for vastly inferior teams to ice the occasional miracle, which makes for sappy but popular movies. (See: Lake Placid, men’s hockey. The United States got to have its cake and eat it, too, being the sympathetic underdog and still getting the golden glory. Perfect! Sweden’s defeat of the American women, despite being outshot by more than 2 to 1, is the karmic companion for the Americans. Sweden’s turn to make the movie.) Hockey is best played in elimination series, but I’m flaying a dead giraffe. That’s the Olympics. Deal with it.

It’s too early to tell if the Gretzky Gang, though, have chosen the right players. Our two most mobile defenders are hurt, it’s true. With four years between Olympics, we may have favoured experience too much; it downplays the experience gained by the youngsters in between Games, not to mention the eroding skills of vets who were on top in ’02. It seems certain that we would have been loyal to Lemieux and Yzerman had they not had the grace to bow out. On that big surface, with all that youth and speed, Canada would have been hobbled by them, I’m sorry to have to say about such wonderful players. Like a lot of people, I wish that Staal and Crosby were there; watching the young Russians, with their furious speed and skill, is breathtaking when they’re going well.

I repeat: it’s too early to tell.

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