Home > Uncategorized > Why Canada will not win gold in Sochi

Why Canada will not win gold in Sochi

The Canadian Press Sidney Crosby of Team Canada, right, and Alex Ovechkin of Team Russia shake hands following a game at the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver. These two NHL superstars will captain their respective countries at the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, Russia, this month.

The Canadian Press
Sidney Crosby of Team Canada, right, and Alex Ovechkin of Team Russia shake hands following a game at the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver. These two NHL superstars will captain their respective countries at the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, Russia, this month.

We’ve all heard it before — heck, most of us have probably said it: Canada is so deep in hockey talent, we could likely put two teams on the Olympic podium.

Maybe the brain trust at Hockey Canada should just continue to concentrate their efforts on getting one team there.

Josh Aldrich

Josh Aldrich

Canada has not won gold in back-to-back Olympics since 1952 in Oslo, Norway. That was also the last time the Maple Leaf earned gold in a country other than our own or the U.S.

Check that. That first place even predates the maple leaf as our national symbol.

It’s been a long time.

The big shift? Russia started sending teams to the Games.

Now this blog could get bogged down in the legitimacy of those tournaments — Russian and European pseudo-professionals against North American amateurs — but the trend has continued on since NHLers were given the green light to participate at the Olympics in 1998 in Nagano, Japan.

In fact, Canada has failed to even medal at both Games on the other side of the pond.

For the sake of the modern pro-Olympic Games, I’ll focus more on what went wrong then and why it can happen again in Sochi when the puck drops on the men’s tournament early Wednesday morning.

The first thing to remember is Canada — according to just about every pundit then as they are this year — was the overwhelming favourite heading in, even in 1998 despite losing to the United States in the World Cup in 1996.

Nagano was Canada’s chance at redemption.

But a couple of things went terribly wrong.

The Associated Press/Kathy Willens Team Canada's Wayne Gretzky, right, congratulates Jaromir Jagr of the Czech Republic after Canada suffered an upset loss, 2-1 in a shootout, during the semifinals of the 1998 Olympics in Nagano, Japan. Gretzky, the greatest hockey player of all time, was not selected to shoot in the tiebreaker, while Jagr is still going strong some 16 years later as he'll suit up for his fifth Olympics at age 41 this month. Canada ended up finishing fourth in 1998, but has much higher hopes as the defending Olympic champion from the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver.

The Associated Press/Kathy Willens
Team Canada’s Wayne Gretzky, right, congratulates Jaromir Jagr of the Czech Republic after Canada suffered an upset loss, 2-1 in a shootout, during the semifinals of the 1998 Olympics in Nagano, Japan. Gretzky, the greatest hockey player of all time, was not selected to shoot in the tiebreaker, while Jagr is still going strong some 16 years later as he’ll suit up for his fifth Olympics at age 41 this month. Canada ended up finishing fourth in 1998, but has much higher hopes as the defending Olympic champion from the 2010 Vancouver Games.

Most glaringly, some of Canada’s best players were left at home because the collective brain trust got too cute.

Rob Zamuner is remembered for one thing, and one thing only: Shocking the hockey world by being selected to Team Canada as a defensive forward instead of Mark Messier.

One can argue that the Moose was over the hill and would not be able to perform on the larger Olympic ice surface, and I think there is definitely some merit to that. But his leadership attributes cannot be denied, nor can the fact he had just scored 80 points the previous season and had a long-storied career with the national team.

Zamuner never played in an all-star game and was never a finalist for the Selke trophy as the NHL’s top defensive forward.

Despite all of that, Canada rolled along to the semifinal where it skated smack dab into arguably the greatest goalie of the generation playing at the top of his game, Dominik Hasek and the Czech Republic.

In a one-game elimination, any team can win.

But it was no fluke for the Czech’s either, who went on to beat Russia for the gold — 1998 marked their high watermark in international hockey.

They were more than just Hasek. They had players like Jaromir Jagr — who will play in his fifth Olympics this year — Robert Reichel, Martin Rucinsky, a young Milan Hejduk, Roman Hamrlik, Martin Straka, Peter Svoboda and a few others who carved out solid NHL careers. Not all of them were future Hall-of-Famers, but they were not pushovers either. And Hasek gave them a puncher’s chance.

Much has been made about leaving Wayne Gretzky on the bench for the shootout, but the Great One was never great in the 1-on-1 showdown. Though one has to believe he had a better chance than defenceman Ray Bourque or Joe Nieuwendyk or Brendan Shanahan.

Again, Canada got too cute. They out-thought themselves.

In Turin in 2006, as defending Olympic champions, Canada had several problems.

Instead of taking budding superstar Sidney Crosby, who was in the midst of a 102-point rookie season, Team Canada’s brass out-thought themselves again. This time, taking not one but two defensive specialists: Kirk Maltby and Kris Draper.

Russia, for example, did not worry about putting their young future NHL MVP, Alex Ovechkin, in the spotlight and they led the round-robin portion of the tournament in scoring. Ovechkin ended up leading the Russians with five goals in Turin.

This flows into Canada’s next big issue: Its inability to score.

Canada managed just 15 goals in six games — finishing seventh in the 2006 tournament in terms of putting the puck in the net, which is also where Canada finished overall.

Well out of medal contention. Way off the podium.

Some of Canada’s offensive woes were due to, once again, leaving some of their best weapons on the shelf. And some of it was due to a difficulty in adjusting to everything from time changes to each other.

For one reason or another, Canada flopped.

Getty Images file photo Jussi Jokinen of Finland skates around Team Canada goaltender Roberto Luongo at the 2006 Olympics in Turin, Italy, where the bigger ice surface caused problems for Canada en route to a seventh-place finish. Luongo and Jokinen will once again represent their respective countries in Sochi, but the other two Canadian players in this photo — defenceman Chris Pronger and winger Shane Doan — will not be participating.

Getty Images file photo
Jussi Jokinen of Finland skates around Team Canada goaltender Roberto Luongo at the 2006 Olympics in Turin, Italy, where the bigger ice surface caused problems for Canada en route to a seventh-place finish. Luongo and Jokinen will once again represent their respective countries in Sochi, but the other two Canadian players in this photo — defenceman Chris Pronger and winger Shane Doan — will not be participating.

In 2002 in Salt Lake, they didn’t pussyfoot around. They took the best of what was available, even their defensive forward — Michael Peca — was an all-star calibre player and a multiple Selke trophy winner. They didn’t worry about Mario Lemieux being too old or being able to withstand the grind. They didn’t worry about a lack of experience among their young stars like Simon Gagne, Jarome Iginla and Eric Brewer, who at the time was a top up-and-coming defenceman.

In 2010, same thing — and that Vancouver result is still fresh in everybody’s mind. Who could forget Crosby’s Golden Goal?

Arguments can always be made due to Canada’s depth in regards to omissions, but looking at the 2002 and 2010 rosters, there were no purple sheep.

Everybody belonged.

Another big issue, is the size of ice.

Olympic ice is, of course, much bigger than what North Americans are used to. And absolutely, most of the international teams’ stars have spent almost all of their professional careers playing in small boxes in the NHL.

Where the difference comes in is style of coaching. Bigger ice does not necessarily translate into more room to skate. It is defended completely differently than in North America. Pro hockey in Europe is not wide-open, firewagon hockey.

Instead of defending players 1-on-1, they defend zones.

Think trap hockey.

Like any other sport, there are different styles with different countries, but coaches in those countries spend their entire career figuring out the strategy involved in defending that ice. Generally, these are the coaches that get tabbed to lead their national teams at the Olympics.

Canadian coaches, for the most part, haven’t spent their careers devising plans and gaining experience in defending big ice surfaces.

It’s a precision-based, strategic game, as opposed to one dominated by brute force with glimpses of high-end skill and finesse.

The size of the ice has not shrunk for Sochi as it did in Vancouver.

It’s just one issue facing Canada this year.

Jonathan Nackstrand/Getty Images Steven Stamkos, right, seen here representing Canada against Belarus in international competition, won't be making the trip to Sochi. The Tampa Bay Lightning sniper was not cleared by doctors as his attempted recovery from a broken leg fell just short and his spot on Canada's roster was awarded to Tampa Bay teammates Martin St. Louis. Stamkos will certainly be missed as he was expected to complement Sidney Crosby on the team's top scoring line.

Jonathan Nackstrand/Getty Images
Steven Stamkos, right, seen here representing Canada against Belarus in international competition, won’t be making the trip to Sochi. The Tampa Bay Lightning sniper was not cleared by doctors as his attempted recovery from a broken leg fell just short and his spot on Canada’s roster was awarded to Tampa Bay teammate Martin St. Louis. Stamkos will certainly be missed as he was expected to complement Sidney Crosby on Canada’s top scoring line.

As always, there are roster issues. The injury to Steven Stamkos (broken leg) will be difficult to absorb, as was Paul Kariya’s in Nagano. But so is the omission of Claude Giroux in favour of Jamie Benn, Patrick Marleau and Rick Nash, who has started playing well again since being named to Team Canada but had been slumping for the last few years since Vancouver.

Still, it’s easy to look at the Canadian roster and proclaim them prohibitive favourites. However, like in 1998 and 2006, they’ve got to remember they are not alone in the hockey world.

Regardless of how much stock you want to put in the IIHF world rankings, Canada still only sits fifth.

Sweden is No. 1, followed by Finland, Russia and the Czech Republic in that order. The U.S. is behind Canada in sixth.

It is easy to make arguments for a few of those teams — like Sweden and Russia, or even the Americans — to pull an upset. All it takes is one off-game, or a red-hot goalie, or for the offence to dry up for Canada to come home empty-handed again.

They will once again have to deal with the time change, being away from family and interesting living conditions in the Olympic Village, to say the least.

But there is one added element that Canada will be forced to weather that it did not have to deal with in Japan or Italy: Russian nationalism.

Canadian pride undeniably played a huge role in Canada’s rise to gold in Vancouver, but now the shoe will be on the other foot. Canada’s ability to deal with this wave of emotion against them will go a long way to even finding a spot on the podium.

So, there you have it. Am I guaranteeing no gold for Canada? No. But you may want to wait before you start counting on any colour of medal for our home-and-native land in men’s hockey.

Josh Aldrich is an award-winning sports editor at the Nanaimo Daily News with more than a decade in the newspaper business. In March, he will be joining the staff at the Red Deer Advocate. Follow him on Twitter: @JoshAldrich03.

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