TORONTO – Jarome Iginla hit the nail on the head.
“I think Canadian hockey has a great system. I really and truly believe that,” said Iginla, glowing in the spotlight after Canada beat Finland 3-2 in the championship game of the 2004 World Cup of Hockey.
Iginla is a product of Canadian Hockey’s development programs and he knows how much it has helped him in becoming one of the best players in the world.
“It starts at the Under-17 championships. It takes you out of minor hockey and you see a little bit more about preparation and they teach you a few things. And you are playing with other provinces. Then at Under-18, now you get used to traveling abroad and then you have World Juniors and the pressure goes right up. It is a great one step at a time and it prepares you.
“Truly I look back and every time (he has won Canada’s jersey) it has been so exciting and such a thrill. The big part of it is you are playing with guys you are used to battling against (in the NHL) and all of a sudden you are playing with them and as Canadians we are trying to carry on a tradition.”
The tradition Iginla was referring to is one of the driving forces behind Canada’s successful run on the world stage. This is a country where losing is not an option anyone wearing the maple leaf on their chest even considers.
The World Cup championship was an unprecedented fourth straight championship Canada has won on the international stage. The impressive run started with a gold medal performance at the 2002 Winter Olympics and followed with championship performances at the 20 World Championships. And now the World Cup is a part of the national trophy case.
Tradition is huge in this country. Ryan Smyth now has four straight titles on his resume – the ’02 Winter Olympics along with back-to-back world championships and the 2004 World Cup.
“Every time you get the call, there is no hesitation,” he says.
Canada’s World Cup triumph confirmed a couple of things in this hockey-mad nation. One is that hockey is truly Canada’s game – as if that was even an issue - and the other is Canada rules the hockey world.
“What a hockey country,” said Raimo Summanen, the coach of Finland. “What a tradition.”
It says something when you consider the Canadians never trailed in their six World Cup games and the perfect record marked the first time Canada has a perfect record in a best-on-best tournament.
There’s more to winning than simply being the best, however.
What the run of success has done is silenced the critics who railed about the state of Canada’s development system following the loss of the 1996 World Cup to the United States. Canadian Hockey responded to the stinging defeat with the Open Ice Summit which brought together people from all facets of the game to look at the problems and suggest ways to get things back on track.
“Twenty years ago we were making system players who were robots and we’re not robots,” says Head Coach Pat Quinn. “This program is developing terrific young guys with great skill levels.”
Canada’s World Cup team will be remembered for its blend of youth and veterans. Veterans like Mario Lemieux, Joe Sakic and Adam Foote were showing Vince Lecavalier, Dany Heatley and Scott Hannan what it takes to win in a best-on-best tournament.
“It is an amazing group of guys. All those kids who stepped in did an incredible job and I was saying I have been around these teams for as long time and I don’t think I have ever been around a group that has been more focused and loved to play hockey,” said Wayne Gretzky, Team Canada’s executive director. “Nothing bothered them and nobody ever complained and it was a great group to be around.”
“This team was never behind in the whole tournament, which is pretty amazing. That does not happen a lot. They came to work every day,” continued Gretzky. “They played hard and they loved it and I give them a lot of credit. The best players played to their ability and Mario (Lemieux) did the things he had to do to lead this team. I thought (Joe) Sakic was outstanding and Lecavalier came through . . . we could go through the while lineup.”
Adds Sakic: “The guys who stepped in played great and that is just the depth this country has. We are going in the right direction in Canada. We have a lot of great young players that are just getting in their prime ad we will be good for a long time.”
The Canadians are not about to rest on their laurels. They know the opposition will improve and they will use Canada as a measuring stick.
“We have our work cut out for us. You can see the Czechs have gotten better and the Finns have gotten better and the United States will get better,” said Gretzky. “It just gets tougher each and every time but we are going in the right direction. We have a great group of kids here. There is a lot of depth in our country and we should be pretty proud of them. We have our work cut out and this is no time to let our guard down. We just need to keep getting better.”
In the end, the Canadians win because they play their heart out. Once Canada took a 3-2 lead on Shayne Doan’s goal, the Finns had little room to move. The Canadians nursed the lead by smothering the Finnish attack.
“Let’s face it, there is so much pressure on Team Canada and I think more on us that other teams, but we would not want it any other way,” says defenceman Adam Foote.
“That’s the way it should be,” says Canadian Hockey President Bob Nicholson. “Canadians only want gold medals and they do not want any other color and if we keep doing things right, and it does not stop and start with this team, it starts at the under-17 and under-18 . . . we have the program in place and we have to keep working the whole program and we just can’t work the top end.”
And Canadian Hockey will continue to do what it does best and that’s provide the environment and support for youngsters to develop into stars. This is a country where losing is not an option.