HELSINKI — As they packed their bags and started to make their way back home unexpectedly early, Team Canada rallied around the notion the rest of the world has caught up to them.
And certainly the evidence would support that theory.
But if the future core of Canada’s senior men’s team comes from players that have not had success at the under-20 level, the country might be in for disappointing results at future Winter Olympics.
It will be up to Hockey Canada to find a way for this country to regain its hockey advantage. But in the heat of the moment and absorbing the embarrassment of booking early flights home, concrete solutions seemed hard to come by.
“We continue to take great pride in who and what we are as a hockey nation,” said Hockey Canada president Tom Renney. “We have to look for ways and means to become better, to grow the game through kids.
“I’m not happy with this result. We have to own this. We’re going to take a real good hard look at this. We’re going to reflect on this. And once the emotions subside, recognize how we can continue to inspire kids to play hockey because of the values it can teach.”
This group of Canadians failed to defend the gold won last year. That team was loaded with huge talents like Connor McDavid and Max Domi and still only barely beat the Russians in the gold-medal game.
This team, with nine players eligible for next year’s team, failed to reach the medal round, ending a run of 17 years with Canada at least in the semifinals.
“We’re dealing with it,” said Renney. “We’re not happy with our situation, we’re not happy with how we finished. We came up short. We have to sit back and evaluate why and look for solutions and not point fingers.”
There were plenty of places to point those fingers: undisciplined play, suspect goaltending, odd coaching decisions, perhaps even the selection process itself. But Renney urged for Canadians to take a realistic look at the hockey map.
“How long can we say other countries are getting better? I’ve been doing this for 25 years. Other countries have been good for a long time,” said Renney. “If you look at the evolution of the competition, successive world championships is pretty unique. You want to be on the podium. You want to be in the hunt for medals every single time.”
The world juniors haven’t had a repeat champion since Canada won five times from 2005-09. Canada has won gold, silver, two bronze and missed the podium three times since then. The U.S. has won twice, earned a silver but missed the podium the rest of the time. Russia might be the most consistent lately, winning a medal in each of the last five years (gold, two silver, and two bronze).
Canada’s senior men’s team, meanwhile, has won Olympic gold twice and is the defending world champion. But that group is getting older. This group had trouble beating Switzerland. Then again, Russia had trouble beating Denmark.
“That just goes to show you it’s a game of inches and milliseconds,” said Renney.
Many back home were pointing fingers at coach Dave Lowry, who constantly juggled lines and who didn’t bench players who repeatedly took foolish penalties. Renney came to his defence, suggesting the players deserve some of the blame.
“I thought we had as good a coaching staff in the competition as anyone,” said Renney. “There is a point in time where that transfer of responsibility goes from the coach to the player. We’re talking about teenagers that are having to cope with situations and the spontaneity of playing hockey that sometimes work against you.”
Renney said when Hockey Canada put the team together, he believed it was good enough to win gold.
“The trick of the short-term competition is to grow with the tournament, build a period at a time,” said Renney. “The teams that get their head around that quickly end up playing in the end. The U.S. (is in the semifinal) for a reason.”
Next year, the tournament will start in Toronto and finish in Montreal. As a result, the pressure will be far more intense than usual.
The Canadian template is speed and skill at the national level. Role players are a thing of the past. Physical play — to the point of intimidation — is also no longer part of the Canadian team resume. But returning players, such as Mitch Marner and Dylan Strome who will only be 19, will be a key.
“We want the game to be played fast and exhibited through skill,” said Renney. “We need character, we need discipline. Whomever is part of this program next year that experienced this tournament this year, that’s real important to us.”