HELSINKI — A day after Canada lost 6-5 to Finland in the quarter-finals and finished with their worst performance at a world junior championship in 18 years, players and coaches were making final preparations to return home.
Carrying equipment bags and hockey sticks, players rode down elevators and walked around the lobby of the Scandic Park hotel looking stone-faced and not saying much. Most appeared exhausted, as though they had not slept since the tournament started.
“Let’s not kid ourselves: it’s not easy,” said Hockey Canada president and CEO Tom Renney, who spoke on Sunday morning. “This is not fun. But we’re not going to stand here and fall on our sword. We’re going to take a real good hard look at this and reflect upon it once the emotions subside.”
From questionable coaching decisions to whether the team was even talented enough to compete for a gold medal to begin with, Renney spoke about what went wrong and what Canada needs to do to avoid a similar result next year.
The defending champions finished in sixth place, ahead of only Denmark, Slovakia, Switzerland and Belarus. It was the country’s worse finish since 1998, when Canada ended up in eighth place in a tournament that coincidentally was also held in Helsinki.
“We’re not happy with our situation, obviously. We’re not happy with where we finished,” said Renney. “This is a competition like any at the world level that will expose deficiencies in teams throughout the course of the competition and also eliminate some of the things that are real good about a federation, ours included. The fact of the matter is we came up short and we have to sit back and evaluate why and come up with solutions and not point fingers.”
Canada lost to the United States, Sweden, Finland, and needed a shootout to defeat Switzerland. The team’s only so-called easy game was a 6-1 win against Denmark.
“If you look at the evolution of the competition, success at world championships is pretty unique, no question,” said Renney. “You want to be on the podium. You want to be in the hunt for a medal every single time, if not winning. We’ll never apologize for that pursuit, which is why as much as anything that bothers us today. This is something we wanted. We always will, we always have. But the bottom line is other countries are getting better. Case in point, Russia, which is a favourite to win this thing, had a real hard game against Denmark yesterday.”
Head coach Dave Lowry has received criticism for how Canada performed, but Renney put the blame on the players, who he said lacked “maturity” and did not have their best games.
“There is a point in time where that transfer of responsibility goes from the coach to the player and that’s the beauty of this event,” said Renney. “We’re talking about teenagers that have to cope and deal with situations in the spontaneity of hockey that sometimes work against you and sometimes don’t. The bottom line is the coaching staff did an excellent job. At the end of the day, our special teams needed to maybe perform a little bit better. When you’re save percentage is under .900, everybody knows that it’s going to be tough to win.”
While Finland made a goalie change after Canada’s third goal, head coach Dave Lowry kept Mackenzie Blackwood in the game for all six goals. It was a decision that Renney supported.
“At the end of the day, I was paying more attention to the way we were playing than the goaltending, to be honest with you. And I was more concerned with the discipline of our team and making sure we could keep a real good power play off the ice by the nature of how we played collectively. As much as we lost that game, we certainly could have won it if we had a little bit more maturity as a group. But that’s the nature of the teenaged player.”
While Finland, the U.S. and Sweden have relied on a top-line featuring their best offensive players to advance to the semi-finals, Canada kept line juggling right until the final buzzer. The result was a lack of chemistry among the forwards.
“The beauty of the game and probably of the beauty of the North American player — certainly the Canadian player — is the capacity to play with anybody … so combinations of players should matter less. I’m not going to tell you the ability to get comfortable with certain players, with a lineup or a defence partner isn’t a good thing. But at the end of the day, that’s a coaching decision and I support what Dave was doing there. You become less predictable that way and that’s certainly one way to look at it.”
Canada has nine players who will be eligible to return to next year’s team, including forwards Dylan Strome, Mitch Marner and Matt Barzal. But the challenge will be to surround them with even more skilled players.
“First and foremost, we certainly tried to put the best team on the ice that we could this year,” said Renney. “What we’ve tried to do is put as much skill on the ice as we can and be a threat that way, as opposed to being regimented and that role-playing type player that might get minimal minutes and not contribute as much as we would like.”