CANADA ON ICE

TAKE A BREATH CANADA. NO, NONE OF YOUR TEAMS MADE THE NHL PLAYOFFS FOR THE FIRST TIME SINCE 1970, BUT YOU’RE STILL THE BEST AT WHAT YOU DO

Take a deep breath Canada. It isn’t that bad.

When the 2015-16 NHL regular season wrapped up, Canadians faced a spring with no playoff hockey played north of the 49th parallel for the first time in 46 years. The last (and only other) time was in 1970, when Toronto and Montreal were the only Canadian squads in a twelve team league. The sting was a little sharper considering that last year, five of Canada’s seven franchises fought their way into the playoffs, with Montreal and Calgary advancing to the second round. How much have Canadian hockey fans been turned off by the absence of their teams in the playoffs? Rogers reported a viewership drop of over 60 percent for the first round of the playoffs versus last year and the St. Louis Blues have been running an add campaign to convince disenfranchised Canucks to support their post season drive. And Canada’s absence from the NHL playoffs has provided plenty of fodder for the prophets of doom who, without fail, herald the end of Canada’s hockey superiority this time every year. In fact, 2016 has been a banner year for the doom and gloomers so far.

When Canada’s 2016 World Junior team finished sixth last January in Helsinki, the caterwauling from coast to coast to coast was as predictable as it was deafening. The entire hockey blogosphere was running around like the world’s biggest headless chicken jumped up on bath salts screaming that the sky was collapsing, the typical Canadian reaction whenever one of it’s national entries doesn’t win gold in an international tournament.

Canada’s poor finish was a “debacle” according to the legions of fans who flocked to the Internet to voice their disgust. Its elimination was a national embarrassment and the players should have been ashamed that they disappointed an entire country. There was the inevitable finger pointing; according to the armchair GMs, Hockey Canada didn’t know what it was doing and selected all the wrong players (an opinion held about any international team Canada assembles even when the Great White North wins gold). The coaches were incompetent and the selections were all about politics and on and on (and mercilessly on). But the same message resonated beneath each accusing finger and every outraged breath; the players weren’t good enough.

If that wasn’t enough, American born sniper Patrick Kane lead the NHL scoring race all season long and is this year’s favourite to win the Hart Trophy as the NHL’s Most Valuable Player. And the Nostradamus collective of the hockey world will drag out their tired prognastations this June when the name of a Canadian born and trained player probably won’t be called until the sixth selection in this year’s annual entry draft. All are signs, they say, that Canada’s global hockey dominance has come to an end.

But relax Canada. It’s human nature to view the entire world through apocalyptic glasses, especially about something so deeply embedded in your sense of national self-esteem. Despite all the ominous portends you’ve suffered this year, Canada is still the apex predator of the hockey world. So calm down and consider the following.

First, let’s add a little perspective to this year’s World Junior’s performance. This year’s team had its issues; goaltending was suspect from the first puck drop, the team wrestled with on ice discipline-often taking bad penalties at the worst times-which wouldn’t have been the worst thing in the world except it’s penalty kill struggled. But despite all that, this team was better than its sixth place finish indicated. Canada was eliminated by Finland in a sudden death tournament. By one goal. In overtime. And Finland, you may have noticed, went on to win gold, defeating Canada’s arch nemesis Russia to win the title. Canada was narrowly eliminated by the eventual world champs (that were powered by a top line that challenged just about every offensive record in the tournament’s history), meaning if the teenage Canucks had one or two lucky breaks they could have had a date with Russia in a rematch of 2015’s gold medal game.

Canada’s place atop the global hockey food chain is as healthy as it’s ever been. Not only is Canada the defending Olympic champions, having won gold in Sochi in 2014 and Vancouver in 2010, but it’s also the defending World Champion, winning the tournament in 2015 and again this year in dominating fashion. Canada is the odds on favourite to win next September’s World Cup and while the country was having a meltdown about the 2016 World Juniors, Canada was quietly winning the Spengler Cup, a tournament it wasn’t expected to do very well in this year.

A healthy chunk the NHL’s top twenty scorers are Canadians (during a season when Cole Harbour’s favourite native son, Sidney Crosby, considered the best hockey player in the world for the past decade, had a down year and his heir apparent, Connor McDavid, missed three months because of a broken collar bone) and as far as the draft is concerned, seven of the last ten first overall picks have been citizens of the Great White North and Nolan Patrick, currently projected to be taken at the head of 2017’s draft class, has a Canadian passport.

Besides, it wasn’t as though any of the Canadian teams were cup contenders this year. If one or two teams had managed to sneak in, they were destined to be first round casualties. Being represented in the post-season 46 of the last 47 years is nothing to sneeze at, so consider Canada’s one-year absence a well deserved nap.

The point is, Canada is still producing the best players on the planet, providing over half of the players (and over forty percent of the revenue) to the best hockey league in the world despite hosting less then a third of is teams. We should take pride in the fact that our greatest export is the best players in the game we love.

In the meantime, enjoy the rest of the playoffs and the story lines that are still unfolding (Will St. Louis win enough games to save Ken Hitchcock’s job? Will Tampa Bay be able to go all the way this year and capture the Stanley Cup without Steve Stamkos? And if so, does that seal his fate as a member of the Lightning? Can San Jose shake their rep as playoff chokers? How much crow will Phil Kessel force Leafs Nation to eat after they ran him out of down on a rail last July?). And all the naysayers can stick their stupidity in their pipes and choke on it.

Shayne Kempton

Photo: S. Yume Standard Flikr License

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