Canada can’t stand losing at the World Juniors

But let’s not despair for the future of our game
Finland players celebrate a goal as Canada’s Adam Pelech skates by during second period semi-final IIHF World Junior Hockey Championship action in Malmo, Sweden on Saturday, January 4, 2014. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn
Frank Gunn/CP

“Canada fails to medal at the World Juniors again. What’s up with that?”—Wendy Mesley, host of CBC’s The National

Five years without a gold, two years without a medal, too long without a nationwide, head-scratching debate about why Canada’s best teenagers can’t win anymore. The questions, the worrying for the future of Canada’s favourite sport, were a foregone conclusion as soon as this year’s chosen few couldn’t muster any energy in a dispiriting semi-final loss to Finland. So there was Wendy Mesley, teasing the night’s stories and cueing up a familiar debate.

Had the Canadian kids salvaged bronze in their final game against Russia at the International Ice Hockey Federation’s annual under-20 world championship, the worrying might have been dampened some. But the absence of an effective powerplay, a team that, at times, couldn’t hit the net, and two losses to end the tourney guaranteed the conversation—that uncomfortable look in the mirror, as a disappointed nation stares at its hockey rinks and wonders how it all went wrong.

The boys of early 2014 are disappointed, no doubt, at having spurred a single question about Canadian hockey supremacy. But at least they played for a medal. Recall the darkness that blanketed Canada on January 3, 1998, when that year’s world junior team lost their third game in a row. The first of the losses was respectable enough, 2-1 to the Russians, but it knocked them out of contention. The next loss, a 3-0 shutout, came at the hands of the then-mediocre United States. That left the Canadians in a battle for seventh with lowly Kazakhstan, a hockey middle power on its finest day. Which, perhaps, was that day, because they embarrassed the tired Canadians by a score of 6-3.

A debate raged after that tournament about how Canada, which had won its fifth tournament in a row in 1997, could have failed so dramatically and so utterly. The program responded. Six years produced six medals, four silver and two bronze. Then, in 2005, Canada won again. And then again and again and again and again, as five golds came in five years. None has come since. Everyone else seems to have improved in the interim. Four other countries have won.

Diagnoses are everywhere. Bruce Arthur thinks, maybe, there are a few reasons Canada’s not winning. “Maybe it is an improvement by the rest of the world, and a relatively shallow trench for Canada. Maybe it is a goaltending deficit, and a skill development issue. Maybe it’s coaching and conservatism. Maybe the pressure cracks teams whose sheer talent can’t overcome it,” he wrote. “And maybe they win gold next year. Deep breaths.”

A parallel, possibly worth noting, stretches all the way back to 1998. When Canada lost to Russia in that year’s quarterfinals, the Russians fought all the way to the gold-medal match. They lost to that year’s host country, 2-1, in overtime. The host was Finland, who wouldn’t win again until they beat Sweden, yesterday, in overtime. Other countries win, sometimes. Canada sticks around.

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