Is Canadian hockey in decline?

Alex Livesey - Getty Images

There has been much fuss made about Canada not winning gold for 4 straight years, but are we freaking out for good reason?

For the first time in 15 years, Canada didn't medal at the IIHF's World Junior Hockey Championships. To put that into context, there are likely 18 year old Canadian hockey fans who don't remember a tournament when Canada didn't medal. Maybe older. It is the fourth straight year Canada has failed to win gold in this tournament. It is the second straight year Canada has failed to make the gold medal game. The pattern seems to be one of decline.

If you listen to Canadian hockey media, the era of Canadian dominance of the international game is over. The Americans are bound to take over. They have more people, more money, and more room to improve. The one thing Canada has dominated for it's entire existence is about to no longer be ours.

Bull. Shit.

No one is going to argue that this year's tournament wasn't an unmitigated disaster for Canada. They came in with undeniably the strongest team, including a captain who was on a near 70 point pace in the NHL last season in Ryan Nugent-Hopkins.

As always with Canada, they entered the tournament as favourites, gold or nothing. Well they got nothing. A lot of the blame can be put at the feet of coach Steve Spott, but at the same time fans and media have to begin to understand something; shit happens.

Tournaments like the World Juniors don't always go the way you want. There are so many things that can go wrong at the wrong time, and just one can kill it for you. In Saskatoon Canada probably should have won gold, but a bad game by Jake Allen and a mental mistake by Alex Pietrangelo lead to John Carlson winning it for the USA in OT. In the round robin of that tournament, Canada scored 36 goals in 4 games. But when it comes down to one game, one mistake by Pietrangelo meant silver instead of gold. That's all it takes.

There is no forgiveness in a short tournament.

But that's something a large portion of the Canadian public doesn't seem to understand, having the best team doesn't mean you win all the time. The same applies to the NHL to a lesser extent. Other things can factor in and the best team doesn't always win. I think you would be hard pressed to find many people who believe that the New Jersey Devils were the best team in the Eastern Conference last year for example, because they weren't.

What you do get with the best team though, is long term success. Canada has now won 19 medals in the World Juniors in the last 21 years. 10 gold medals, 6 silver medals, and 3 bronze medals. In that time, the Russians are second best with 4 golds, 7 silvers, and 6 bronzes. The Americans have 3 golds, followed by the Czechs with 2, with Sweden and Finland with one each.

Is that not dominance? Oh but it's fading you say? Well, we've heard this refrain before.

In 1998 Team Canada lost in the Nagano Winter Olympics, when professionals were allowed in for the first time. Not only did they not win gold, but after the were eliminated by the Czech Republic in a shootout, they didn't even try in the bronze medal game and placed 4th (sounds familiar). That same year in the World Juniors, Canada had it's worst finish ever, 7th place.

As you would expect, it was full blown panic in Canada. Our national game was no longer ours. It was never going to be ours again. Then what happened?

Well it was a long drought for the World Juniors, and panic was still there. In 2002 after getting pounded by Sweden to open the tournament, struggling to beat Germany, then tying the Czechs, the world was ending. But by the end of the tournament Mario Lemieux was flying a Canadian flag around American ice in Salt Lake City, Joe Sakic given the tournament MVP honours, and a lucky loonie was about to be enshrined in the Hockey Hall of Fame, and in stories that will be passed down for ages.

Two years later the first World Cup of Hockey was played since 1996 in the midst of an NHL lockout and canceled NHL season, and once again Canada was on top of the hockey world.

Over the holidays that same year, Canada would snap it's 7 year gold medal drought in the World Juniors, and follow it up with 5 straight golds.

Perhaps there's a downside to winning that often, and that's that people expect to win every year. It's important to remember that in some of those years, it was close. When Jordan Eberle tied the game against Russia, it was amazing because everyone thought we were going to lose.

There were close calls in there. Dominance in a sport isn't obliterating the competition in every game, in every tournament, it's the long haul. It's wracking up wins and getting to the end time after time after time, and winning more than everyone else.

And no one stays at the top forever. There are cycles where things go wrong, or the people picking the team make a mistake, like in the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin.

And then there are times when even though the pressure is on, things go right and you get the Vancouver Olympics. You get Sidney Crosby scoring the golden goal, heard around the world. You get to bring home the ultimate international prize, on home ice. Something to remember forever. And again, it wasn't a blowout, it was in overtime.

All the talk about American development programs getting better shouldn't worry Canadians, it should thrill us. For too long the USA has scoffed at hockey, and now they actually take it seriously. They want to beat us, not the other way around. They're trying to catch us, not the other way around.

Those who look back to before the Soviets entered the arena of international hockey and Canada dominated every international event, longing for a time they don't even remember, are blind. What is the point of winning something no one else was good at?

If in 2010 Canada had beat every team 15-0, would we have celebrated like it was something so special? No. For something like this to be important, for it to mean something, you have to have competition.

I hope the Americans keep getting better, because it will force us to get better too. And it will produce better hockey. And when we beat them, it will mean even more. And when they beat us, it will be even more painful, because they will beat us sometimes. Only children expect to always get what they want.

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