Hockey carnivores versus the whipping boys

Why would anyone get their garters in a tangle over a hockey tournament held for a television network?

Bruce DowbigginThere are about 5.5 million people in Finland. It’s the most sparsely populated nation in the European Union, with most of its inhabitants shivering away in the southern tier of the nation.

The Finns also eat less red meat than the people of other developed nations.

But you’d think they were carnivores of the first order in the imaginations of Canadians since defeating Canada’s men’s junior hockey team in the quarterfinals of the world junior tournament in British Columbia.

The Finns’ overtime 2-1 win sent Canada to its worst defeat in the tournament since Sidney Crosby wore bob skates.

Granted, the Finns are a tough lot. My bus driver in the 1970s used to pass the hours as we rolled across central Asia telling me how the plucky Finns (then far fewer than 5.5 million) stared down the mighty Soviet army in 1940. As he did, he chewed on some delicacy that was between gristle and a fence post.

And anyone who saw the sharp edge of Esa Tikannen’s hockey blade will attest to the Finns’ appetite for mayhem.

Still. Didn’t they know they were supposed to take a knee at the crucial moment and cede a place in the semifinals to Canada’s wunderkind?

Instead, Canada’s captain Maxime Comtois muffed a penalty shot in OT, allowing Toni Utunen to score the winner in extra time. And, like that, Canada was deader than Jean Sibelius (Finland’s greatest composer).

This set off, in some quarters, an orgy of recrimination and disbelief in the minds of Canadians who see a medal – often gold or silver – as their birthright Christmas cadeaux each year. For some wounded to the quick by this reversal, nothing but a nasty tweet at Comtois would suffice.

“The captain of the Canadian hockey team shouldn’t dive like an Italian soccer player and come up with such a pathetic attempt on an overtime penalty shot,” said one.

Naturally, a few tweets focused on the fact that Comtois is a pure laine product of Quebec. And that led to Quebec politicians hauling out the ‘racism’ defence of their errant shooter.

Now, racism as a defence these days gets used about as often as going low stick side on the goalie in a penalty shot. It has lost all its meaning or potency as a result. It doesn’t help that Quebecers are not a race, of course. They are a culture. And the mean, heartless shots at Comtois qualify as prejudice, not racism.

But in these overheated days, we’re well beyond this nuance. Racism it has been decreed and thus racism it is. Except this is nothing of the sort.

The bigger issue here is why anyone gets his garters in a tangle over the results of a tournament played for the benefit of an all-sports network. While it’s advertised as a world championship, the tournament is something less than global in its scope or import.

A goodly number of the best players who qualify for the tournament are, instead, unavailable to their countries. Their National Hockey League teams profess a greater need. This year that included Swedish sensations Rasmus Dahlin and Elias Pettersson, Russian Andrei Svechnikov, Finn Jesperi Kotkaniemi and Miro Heiskanen, Czech Filip Chytil, American Brady Tkachuk, and Canadians Michel Rasmussen and Robert Thomas.

Still, TSN does a fine job of showing the rest of the eager young men as world beaters, following their every move with documentary crews while also prognosticating their NHL futures (my pal Craig Button is a particularly good scout in this regard). It feels like a world championship, must be a world championship.

So you’re saying, take a chill pill, right? Stuff happens.

Well, no. Canada could still do better than it does at the tournament. As the world’s primary source of quality hockey players, Canada squanders a lot of that talent by spreading it as thin as possible. While nations like Finland, Russia, Sweden and the U.S. identify and concentrate a core group of players for national play, Canada spreads its talent over more than 60 Canadian Hockey League teams, a similar number of junior A teams (plus Canadians in the U.S. college ranks).

While Canada’s elite players in junior hockey do participate in some International Ice Hockey Federation tournaments, much other time is spent as birds in an average cage. They play against maybe a couple of elite players in a week and with a few top players on their own team. Most times they’re playing down to their talent. In short, they’re not pushed as much as counterparts from other countries in national programs in the bulk of their games.

Ask anyone in development which is preferable: lots of games against against average talent or a concentrated schedule against players who push you to be better?

You know the answer to that. Riding buses all winter to fulfil a CHL schedule is hardly a model system.

No one is expecting the dissolution of the current Canadian development structure. It’s built to satisfy team owners, who’ve seen their investments soar in recent decades. Not to create the best players.

So until Canada wants to maximize its potential, let’s go easy on the kids who are sent to represent the country at the world juniors. Forget nasty tweets or tortured claims of racism.

Troy Media columnist Bruce Dowbiggin career includes successful stints in television, radio and print. A two-time winner of the Gemini Award as Canada’s top television sports broadcaster, he is also the publisher of Not The Public Broadcaster.


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