As 2002 turns in to 2003 and time’s chariot hurls forward, Canadians from coast to coast must surely be shaking their heads.
Canadian hockey, as we all know, is in disarray and needs a complete overhaul. Three years after the Open Ice Summit conference, nothing has changed. Kids play too much and don’t learn their skills. The Europeans are overtaking Canada as dominant hockey powers. Americans are providing better training for their kids. Canadians are thugs.
As we have learned from scouts and the media about a decade ago when the full European invasion began, the NHL will soon compartmentalize its players: skill from Europe, power forwards from the U.S., and fighters from Canada. And goalies. Quebec will always provide the goalies.
Gimme a big fat break.
The nation that invented the game and gave it to the world is as strong as ever. The rivalry that has dominated hockey for half a century has remained, and Canada’s ability to produce world-class players is increasing not decreasing. Canadian content in the NHL has gone UP, and is still well over 50%. Now that the European movement has peaked and levelled, Canadian content in the NHL will remain stable.
Canada started 2002 by going to the World Junior finals against Russia. Double gold—men and women—in Salt Lake City made February a great month. In May, Canada was a goal away from a shot at gold at the World Championships, losing to a team that did win gold and playing with a roster that didn’t have its top 60 players, who all declined to play after a grueling NHL season.
The Stanley Cup was won by a Detroit team led by the longest-serving captain in NHL history who gave one of the bravest performances ever in a demanding playoffs that demands as much every year. The NHL Awards were dominated by Jarome Iginla and Jose Theodore, and while they have been less than award-like in their play this year, they have been replaced by guys named Lemieux and Thornton as the best and most exciting players in the game.
Later in the year, in August, Canada’s women won the Four Nations Cup—again. And now, while Canada’s juniors prepare for a re-match with Russia for gold on Sunday, Canada’s revamped national program, under coach Mike Pelino, won the Spengler Cup—again.
The only thing the matter with Canadian hockey is the criticism. Is it perfect? Of course not. Can it be improved? Of course. Is the state of the game so awful that a complete overhaul of the system is needed? No. Just look at the juniors in Halifax.
This year’s team has every bit as much skill as any in the tournament. The players skate as well as the Europeans and move the puck with hard, accurate passes at top speed. Physically, the Canadians have been stronger than any team, including the Americans, and their ability to combine speed, skill, and bodychecking make the team capable of competing against the Russians or Americans equally.
Funny, though, the Russians also played more physically than the Americans when they met in the preliminary round. They, too, have speed and skill. They have survived perestroika and now flourish again under Minister of Sport and Hall of Famer, Slava Fetisov.
The gold medal game should be a beauty—and it will be played the Canadian way—skating hitting, great goaltending, intense emotion--a way the Russians have learned from its great adversary.