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Team Canada’s bronze at the World Championship was a long time coming

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Finland’s wonderful performance was a great story, but Canada’s slide continues.

Ice Hockey - Winter Olympics Day 13 Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

For some, Canada’s semifinal loss on April 13 at the 2019 World Women’s Hockey Championship was shocking. But that kind of reaction would show the same complacency that Hockey Canada has shown in recent years. The fact is this has been the direction the women’s program has been trending in for about a decade.

Let me begin by saying that Finland has emerged as a women’s hockey contender. It wasn’t just their win against Canada, it was also their win shootout loss in the Gold Medal Game against the United States. They proved they belong.

I have written twice (in 2016 and 2017) about how Hockey Canada’s complacency and mismanagement was clear, but they were able to deflect such criticisms by pointing at their Olympic wins.

The country’s slide started in earnest in 2008. They started losing multiple tournaments consecutively, but were still able to pull off the marquee Olympic wins. In 2008, 2009 and 2011, the United States won the World Championship, but that was fine because Canada won gold in Vancouver in 2010. Since 2010, Canada has one World Championship win, two of the eight 4 Nations Cup wins, and that one game in Sochi.

Well, now they don’t have any Olympic wins, or World Championship wins for that matter, to point at. Since sweeping the Olympics in Sochi and 4 Nations Cup in 2014, they have no senior championship titles. Zero. If you add in the Under-18 World Championships, they have one, won in 2019. That’s an entire Olympic cycle - nine tournaments - without a gold medal.

Like the Finns, the Americans deserve some credit here. But the fact remains that a losing streak in championship games — or before — has now become a glaring, unavoidable issue.

The question is: How did Canada get here?

Management

This trend started going down after the Vancouver Olympics. We could, perhaps should, have been having this conversation much earlier, but one game and a “Miracle” in Sochi allowed Hockey Canada to skirt the questions.

In fact, there were warnings within that 2014 centralization period. In November, the team surprisingly cut Tessa Bonhomme. She was listed as the “face of women’s hockey” by The Hockey News the year before, and was among the best defenders on the team at the 2013 World Championship. She was not named to the Olympic Team.

In the previous World Championship, with forwards Hayley Wickenheiser and Caroline Ouellette hurt, Bonhomme actually played a game at forward. Many at the time thought it was to evaluate the young defenders. In the end. it ended up being a sign she was being replaced.

The team had controversial cuts ahead of Olympic tournaments before. In 1998, Angela James was released. In 2002, they cut Nancy Drolet, and in 2010 Olympic veteran Gillian Ferrari was sent home from the team.

Then more controversy. During a centralization period where many felt he worked the team too hard, Dan Church resigned as head coach in December — two months before the Olympics. Six days after Kevin Dineen was hired as Canada’s Olympic coach, the team announced their roster.

The controversial decisions obviously didn’t stop at Sochi. At the 2017 World Championship, Canada lost a game against Finland in the preliminary round. Emerance Maschmeyer started that game, but didn’t finish it. She was obviously the scapegoat for the loss. She wouldn’t start another game for the rest of the tournament and was left off of the 2018 Olympic roster despite being Canada’s top goalie in 2016.

One of the defenders who had replaced Bonhomme was Lauriane Rougeau. Rougeau would play in the 2014 and 2018 Olympics, and has been one of Canada’s most reliable defenders and one of the best CWHL defenders. This year, while Ann-Sophie Bettez finally made the team at 31 years old after an exceptional CWHL career, Rougeau, her Canadiennes teammate, was nowhere to be found.

Rougeau has been left off the Canadian roster for the entire 2018-19 season. No 4 Nations Cup, no Rivalry Series, and no World Championship. She was the only active and healthy player from the 2018 Olympic roster to not play for Canada this season. She was outstanding for the Canadiennes in Montreal this year, and absolutely would have made Canada’s roster better.

Gina Kingsbury has taken over from Melody Davidson as the general manager this year, and it will be interesting to see what changes are made throughout the program. The 2018-19 season was her first.

Coaching

The players will take a lot of the blame for this downturn, but I don’t think that is fair. The in-game management of Canada’s women’s team has been just as questionable as the decisions on the roster.

Laura Schuler was the first Canadian National Team player to become head coach. She played on the 1998 Olympic Team, and took over behind the bench in 2015. She had some very good moments as coach. After calling their pre-Olympic series opener against the United States “an embarrassment to our country,” Canada rolled off five straight wins to finish off the pre-Olympic schedule, and then in the preliminary round at the Olympics before their shootout loss in the Gold Medal Game.

And yes, the losing streak I’ve mentioned throughout includes a lot of overtime and shootout losses. That cannot and should not be blamed on the coaches. But when games are close, small decisions become more important.

That takes me to the Gold Medal Game loss in PyeongChang. Canada chose to play four defenders in the 20-minute overtime period, including Laura Fortino playing over 12 minutes in overtime alone. Renata Fast and Brigette Lacquette played under two minutes combined in overtime. Lacquette’s one shift at the end of overtime - on a power play - came after she played nine seconds in the third period.

Schuler was replaced by Perry Pearn, who hadn’t been a head coach since his season with the Medicine Hat Tigers in 1994-95. In this year’s semifinal loss to Finland, Canada lost Blayre Turnbull late in the first period. Turnbull’s injury forced Emily Clark from the fourth line to the third line, which set in motion a downward spiral that led to Pearn keeping Jamie Lee Rattray (who scored Canada’s first goal) and Laura Stacey on the bench. Rattray played 11 seconds in the second period, and just over two minutes in the third. Stacey played 16 seconds after the first period.

Pearn sacrificed what was an effective fourth line to roll three lines instead of double-shifting a centre with two players who could generate offence. It didn’t help that Canada was already without Marie-Philip Poulin, but that just made the need to share the load that much more vital.

Rattray would go back to a regular shift in the Bronze Medal Game against Russia. She scored a goal and added an assist.

Jaime Bourbonnais — who was selected to the roster over Rougeau — didn’t play a shift in the entire game. Micah Zandee-Hart played under 10 minutes.

This is where the two issues intersect. Canada regularly chooses to not bring their 23 best players. In a best-on-best competition, bringing players the coaches don’t trust makes it very hard to have success. Finland, a team with less depth than Canada, played every player on its roster.

We know Canada has a lot of talent. That is both a blessing and a curse. It’s not unique to the women’s program. Canada’s failures at the men’s and Junior level have also been because they try to fit people into specific roles as opposed to bringing the best players.

With Finland’s emergence, we will have to adjust to Canada and the United States not being guaranteed finalists in whichever tournament is being played, and that’s a good thing for the growth of women’s hockey. It also means that Canada will be forced to work harder to correct the path they’ve been on.

In the last nine years, Canada has as many bronze medals as gold medals at the World Championship. For a country that prides itself on hockey success, that’s simply not good enough, and Hockey Canada needs to be held accountable.