In the first round of the NHL playoffs last year, the Anaheim Ducks managed to hold a lead for barely 10 minutes, total, in their first three games against the Winnipeg Jets. The Ducks won all three. In the fourth game, the Jets scored first again. Anaheim would come back and complete the sweep.
None of that was particularly surprising, and it is provided here simply as an example of the following: put a bunch of talented hockey players on the ice, and randomness will have about as much to do with the outcome as skill or heart or pick-your-intangible.
So, the Canadian juniors: a sixth-place finish. A nation mourns. Just one gold medal in seven years. Does the lack of success at the world under-20 championship indicate that Canada is failing to properly identify and develop its best young players, or are gold medals simply subject to too much unpredictability to be an accurate barometer of the national program?
Yes. And probably also yes.
First, the randomness. Heading into last year’s world junior tournament, Canada had gone five straight years without a gold — crisis! — after winning five straight. But three of the five titles came in shootouts or overtime; they lost a gold-medal game in overtime and then blew a three-goal lead in the third period in another title game. The Canadians might have won seven straight. They also might have lost eight straight. Then they fielded a powerhouse team last year that went undefeated, causing the national exhale, but even that team almost blew a big lead to the Russians in the gold medal game.
And then the Horror in Helsinki, where Canada at least managed to retain bragging rights against Denmark. But even with this year’s flat performance, the Canadians have won their group in the round-robin portion of the tournament in six of the last eight years. It’s not like they are routinely falling on their collective face at this thing. And one could argue that if this year’s squad could have managed to stay out of the penalty box against Finland, it would have beaten the tournament darlings and still been in line for a medal. You can’t design a national team program that protects against dodgy whistles in knockout games.
But there’s merit in the counter-argument, too, which is that Canada shouldn’t be satisfied with giving it a good run most years. That argument would say that with such a massive disparity in the size of the hockey-playing public between this country and those like Sweden and Finland, Canada should be flat-out dominant at every under-20 tournament, not just when Connor McDavid and Max Domi show up and dazzle everyone.
Where other nations have developed programs to identify and nurture elite talent at younger ages, Canada essentially lets its massive network of youth organizations and junior programs filter promise upward. An elite young player might end up standing out in a local organization, provided the parents can afford the multi-thousand-dollar annual price tag that comes with just playing on a travelling youth team, and from there would enter the junior ranks at 16 — or in exceptional circumstances at 15 — where the system does not offer any particular guidance to elite prospects during the regular season, other than at the national team camps. A great 16-year-old could just as easily be benched on a CHL team as be groomed by a coach focused on his eventual development into a star. Compare that to a system like the United States, where elite players are recruited to a national development squad for most of their teenage years, or in Scandinavian countries, where the best teenagers often play in elite men’s leagues against the best of their countrymen who are not playing in North America.
Canada has adopted the elite national team model in a different sport. Golf Canada selects the best young amateurs for a team program that gives specialized coaching — beyond what they receive at college programs — to players throughout the year, and it has churned out a record number of Canadian golfers who are either playing on the PGA and LPGA tours or a step below them. Brooke Henderson and Nick Taylor, each a winner at the highest level last season, both came through the national amateur program.
But Golf Canada could develop such an incubator because no one worried too much about what Golf Canada was doing. If Hockey Canada was to try the same thing, it would be removing the country’s best young hockey talent from the current development system, which means the major junior leagues whose coaches and executives also happen to be key participants in the national program. The junior hockey system in this country has come under major scrutiny recently for the fact that lots of people make a lot of money on the backs of teens who receive small stipends and the promise of a scholarship with many strings attached, but blowing it up might also be the best way for Canada to ensure its elite talent is properly developed.
That would, obviously, be rather a bold transformation, which means it’s unlikely. Canada’s junior system serves a lot of purposes, but it doesn’t prize a dominant national team above all else. So we shouldn’t be surprised when the result is not annual dominance.