There is no doubt that through the round robin portion of this year’s World Junior Championship the most exciting team has been Canada. The players have not only scored many of the prettiest goals, but they have played a punishing physical game—a clean and exciting style of vintage Canadian hockey.
Hockey is, as they say, a contact sport, but the best part of the hits in Halifax is the absence of gooning retaliation. The players know how important this tournament is. They know if a hit is clean they have to absorb it and get on with their shift. And they know fighting will cost their team and earn themselves a game misconduct.
To enjoy or advocate hitting without fighting is not to argue in favour of abolishing fighting from the pro game so much as it is to point out how noticeable—and enjoyable—it is to see a great hit go "unpunished" by the opposition tough guy or the player on the receiving end of the hit.
The glass here at the Metro Centre is very giving, and no player has failed to get up after being crunched to the boards by a hit. Jordin Tootoo has led this tournament in hard and frequent checks, but they are clean and, for the most part, the player on the other end of Tootoo’s shoulder simply skates away a little the worse for wear.
Hitting is an intimidating tactic. Players don’t like to be hit hard, so they try to avoid being hit. As a result, they make bad passes, quick passes, so that they give themselves time to avoid the oncoming attacker. This results in turnovers and great scoring chances, as we saw yesterday when Derek Roy’s ferocious hit behind the Finnish net led to Joffrey Lupul’s goal.
But hitting is also hard on the giver as well as receiver. Just ask Wendel Clark, the player who comes to mind when Tootoo is on the ice hunting down opponents. Tootoo, like Clark, is not big, and in the pro game he’ll have to be more selective in whom he hits and when. If he isn’t, he’ll turn into an oft-injured NHLer who will be forced to temper his game and, in the end, be a lesser player.
If you watch how the Canadians hit, you’ll see there is a skill and art to what many consider to be purely a lowly physical act. Timing is everything, carefree recklessness is required, but intelligence is also essential. Canadians are well versed and well coached in the art of hitting, and there is no doubt that that has been the single biggest reason the team is undefeated so far. Their hitting has led to penalties, scoring chances, and enthusiastic roars from the crowd. Canada leads the tournament in power-play time and, more important, has scored an incredible 12 goals with the man advantage. By comparison, the U.S., second in this statistic, has scored just four power-play goals.
Which leads to an interesting feature of the upcoming playoff round. Any team that is going to beat Canada has to play a physical game, has to absorb excessive physical punishment and not retaliate, and then worry about passing and scoring. It’s a daunting task for any team, especially since the Canadian players bring speed and skill to the ice with their hitting.
Fighting in the NHL is a way of life. It’s a matter of survival during a schedule that features more than 1,200 games a year. It’s needed to protect the superstars from the fourth-line, five-minutes-a-game goons. But for ten days over the holidays, it is a tremendous pleasure to watch fight-free, hard-hitting hockey at a world class level.