Not just our game, anymore

The hockey landscape has shifted. Can Canadians keep up?

Not just our game, anymore
Photograph by Brian Howell

There are lulls in hockey games. There are hushes and buzzes and what you might call silences—though a 16,700-strong crowd never truly shuts up. Then there’s an order of audience shock so profound and dreadful it defies a one-word label. It follows the sonic template of a car crash, and you could hear it during last week’s game between Switzerland and Canada, when Swiss defenceman Patrick von Gunten scored with 10 seconds remaining in the second period. There were screams, followed by a calamitous “Oh!” and then, in the ensuing quiet, random cries like the tinkle of breaking glass.

Von Gunten’s goal lifted his team into an improbable 2-2 tie with the gold medal favourites, which is no calamity in the broader scheme of the tournament. But it was a full-on catastrophe for the red-clad patriots at Canada Hockey Place, salved only by the shootout heroics of Sidney Crosby and goaltender Martin Brodeur. From that point on, the team appeared fragile. Insecurity over the close call with Switzerland fed into Sunday’s devastating 5-3 loss to the United States—a game the Canadians dominated yet squandered with a series of untimely defensive-zone gaffes. By then, fans and media were already hitting the panic button, invoking memories of Canada’s epic loss to the U.S. in the 1996 World Cup of Hockey, second-guessing the line combinations chosen by the coach, Mike Babcock. At one point late in the game against Switzerland, one agonized fan to the right of the press section seized upon a break in play to pose the obvious, if crudely phrased, question: “What the f–k’s going on?”

These Olympics, like others before them, say much about the shifting landscape of hockey. When the NHL first allowed its players to participate in the Olympics in 1998, most assumed that teams with the most and best NHL players would be on an entirely different competitive plane. At first, the results bore them out. A Czech team led by NHL stars Jaromir Jagr and Dominik Hasek won gold in Nagano; four years later in Salt Lake City, the Canada-U.S. final looked like an NHL All-Star game, with Mario Lemieux, Martin Brodeur and Joe Sakic on one side, and Brian Leetch, Mike Modano and Mike Richter on the other.

But in Turin, the received wisdom took a hit, as a Swiss team comprised almost entirely of players who compete in European club leagues caught Canada off guard with a 2-0 win, marking the first time the country had beaten players wearing the maple leaf since Olympic competition began. But the top three countries in the tournament—Sweden, Finland and the Czech Republic—featured a host of NHL stars. So the fact that the two teams made up entirely of NHL talent finished out of the running seemed to pass everyone by. Canada and the U.S., it seemed safe to assume, would come back.

They may yet do so. In Vancouver, a U.S. team that made much of its underdog status had struck upon the tried-and-true formula of timely goals and stellar netminding that has carried many a team to Olympic glory. Goalie Ryan Miller, who plays for the Buffalo Sabres, is about the only reason they survived Canada’s 45-shot onslaught. Canada, meanwhile, recovered to paste Germany 8-2 in a playoff qualifier, earning the right to face Russia Wednesday in the quarter-finals.

Still, Switzerland’s impressive showing this week (they also lost a hard-fought 3-1 game to the U.S.) suggests that big win four years ago was no fluke, and it isn’t the only sign that hockey’s centre of gravity is shifting. Germany and Belarus both played close games against Sweden and its roster of NHL superstars, losing by only two goals apiece. Germany has six NHLers, but the most important, goalie Thomas Greiss, sees little action with his team, the San Jose Sharks. Belarus? Two NHL regulars, the best of whom is Ruslan Salei, an unheralded defenceman with the Colorado Avalanche.

Add that to the impressive quotient of Olympians hailing from Russia’s upstart Kontinental Hockey League, and some long-time observers of the international game are looking upon these Olympics as a revelation—not unlike the one Canadians experienced in the 1970s on seeing Soviet players skate circles around their favourite stars. “The flow toward parity is looking more real all the time, particularly at this tournament,” says Murray Costello, a former president of Hockey Canada, who has served the past four years as a vice-president of the International Ice Hockey Federation. “Now we’re all wondering what it means. Frankly, for the international game it’s a healthy sign. It makes the game better.”

This may benefit the NHL by providing a wider base from which to recruit talent. Or it could backfire. If the 2010 Games have demonstrated anything, it’s that it’s possible to make a decent living playing hockey in Europe and still participate in the Olympics. Meantime, the growth of European leagues now presents an alternative to elite players who would rather not ride buses throughout the American Rust Belt in hope of getting a sniff of NHL action. That, in turn, helps explain how European national teams keep surprising teams like Canada and the U.S. at international events.

Not just our game, anymore

Few people can take as much credit for that as Ralph Krueger, a Winnipegger who 10 years ago took over Switzerland’s national men’s program and set about raising it from its lowly status as the 12th-ranked team in the world. Last week, after his team won a surprisingly physical game against Norway, the 50-year-old coach took a rare breather to explain the recent success of club leagues in Russia, Sweden and Switzerland. “The marketing is better and the budgets have gone up dramatically,” he said, noting that some 40 teams in Europe now have payrolls exceeding US$20 million. “That’s how they’re retaining some of the top players, which gives the younger players a better environment in which to improve and develop. I think you’ll see a lot more top players making a career over there.”

Money isn’t the only reason the players are hanging around. The more sane schedules and shorter road trips in European leagues also factor in—top Swiss clubs like Bern and HC Davos play about 50 games a season, and rarely travel more than four hours for road games. European leagues tend to be closely integrated with national team programs, which the players treat as the pinnacle of hockey achievement. “Every league in Europe breaks three times a season for a week for national team training,” Krueger said as if still stunned by the thought. “We get prep time for the world championships, and I had one week with my team prior to the Olympics in Winnipeg. Without that time, we’d have no chance over here.”

Canada’s national team, it goes without saying, enjoys no such luxury. Most of the players on the team arrived in Vancouver within a few hours of its first and only practice before its opener against Norway—a crisp, 35-minute job in which Babcock hastily cobbled together some lines. Such coaching on the fly is always a crapshoot, and in the aftermath of the Swiss game, several Canadian players engaged in a bit of thinly veiled griping. Winger Rick Nash, who played for Davos five years ago during the NHL lockout, said, “It’s amazing how many breaks they take just to practice as a national team and it shows in their game.”

Nash and company can expect a lot more such games if current conditions hold. At a time when NHL commissioner Gary Bettman is voicing doubt about freeing NHL players to go to Sochi in 2014, the idea of mid-season breaks for national team training sounds like fodder for a stand-up routine. Meantime, the KHL—a league that is persuading many of the best young players in the former Eastern bloc to stay home—is giving elite players more time to train together in countries like Belarus, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Russia (fully nine of the stars on the Russian team play in that league, including the redoubtable Alexander Radulov, who two years ago spurned the Nashville Predators). Costello sees it as a natural evolution. “When you take a game like this and spread it around the world, the other countries are not going to sit still.” But for Canadian fans, that doesn’t make those unexpected goals any easier to swallow.