Anthony Wilson-Smith January 25 1988


Anthony Wilson-Smith January 25 1988



For hockey fans around the world, the familiar image was indelibly minted last September. Twentyone times in nine games during the gripping Canada Cup tournament, millions of television viewers in six countries and tens of thousands of spectators in arenas across Canada watched Wayne Gretzky raise his arms triumphantly after scoring or orchestrating Canadian goals.

And in Team Canada’s thrilling 6-5 victory over the Soviet Union, which decided the championship, it was Gretzky’s perfect pass to Mario Lemieux with less than two minutes remaining in the final game that resulted in the dramatic deciding goal. As the international hockey calendar unfolded, that was only the beginning. Within four months three other Canadian teams—including the Calgarybound Olympic squad—had won world tournaments, boosting the conviction across the land that the great Canadian hockey revival was under way.

Taste: Gretzky’s—and Team Canada’s—glorious September was only the first taste of a vintage international season for Canadian hockey teams. Following the Canada Cup victory by the nation’s best professional players, last December the Canadian Olympic team—Canada’s best amateurs bolstered by a few professionals—shocked their Soviet hosts in the 21st annual Izvestia Cup tournament in Moscow. The Olympians defeated the highly favored Soviets—the first victory in Moscow by a Canadian team since the Summit Series of 1972—on their way to Canada’s first title in the tournament.

Then, nine days later, a collection of Canadian college players and European-based professionals won Switzerland’s Spengler Cup for the second consecutive year. And this month a team of Canadian junior—age 20 and under—all-stars followed up by winning the world junior hockey championship in Moscow. Said Sam Pollock, the former general manager of the Montreal Canadiens and now a director of Hockey Canada: “This success is the result of an awful lot of hard work

and dedication by an awful lot of people.”

Indeed, Gretzky’s individual brilliance—and last week’s announcement of his July wedding to actress Janet Jones—has almost overshadowed the recent renaissance of Canadian hockey. In the 1970s and early 1980s, as the defeats mounted, Canadian players

were derided—at home and abroad— for being less fit than their European counterparts. Critics insisted that the traditional Canadian style—featuring hard body checking and often random shooting—would never match the swift skating and intricate passing of the Europeans, particularly the then-dominant Soviets.

Rankle: The echoes of those criticisms still rankle. But some experts submit that the difference between winning and losing has been individual stars on either side, not a superior sys-

tem. Scotty Bowman, the former coach and general manager of the Montreal Canadiens and Buffalo Sabres who was coach of Team Canada when it lost the 1981 Canada Cup to the Soviets, said: “The difference can come down to one player. In the 1970s the Soviets had goaltender Vladislav Tretiak, and he stopped us dead. In the 1980s we have Gretzky, and he kills the Soviets. Both those guys are irreplaceable.”

Canada’s approach to the game has changed dramatically since 1972, when the Soviet Union’s national team shattered the nation’s hockey ego by coming within one game of beating the best Canadian professionals. Now Canadian coaches at both the amateur and professional levels acknowledge that they have incorporated much from the Soviet and European teams. Said Canadiens head coach Jean Perron: “We had catching up to do, recycling the coaches and the whole hockey system. We took some parts of European hockey, adapted those principles to our North American hockey, and we now have a good mix of what hockey is all about.”

Coach: Until the late 1970s most North American teams had only one coach and did most of their physical conditioning in skating drills as part of practice sessions. Now, teams usually have up to three assistant coaches, including a goaltending coach, a spotter who sits high in the stands to study the play and an assistant behind the bench who communicates with the spotter by walkie-talkie.

And conditioning has taken on new importance. Canadian Olympic team head coach Dave King attributes much of his team’s success to the demanding off-ice regimen his players follow. Said King: “We are second to no one when it comes to physical conditioning.” A fitness instructor regularly measures and charts the levels of strength and body fat of each player, and a dietician advises players on nutrition. When they are not on the road, most players spend several hours daily exercising in the team’s fully equipped weight room

at Calgary’s Father David Bauer Arena.

Perhaps the most telling changes in Canada’s approach to the national game are at the grassroots level, the country’s minor-hockey program. Many young NHL players and most of the country’s top juniors are products of an increasingly elitist system that channels talented players into different streams of competition by the time they are eight years old. By 14—the “bantam” category—a talented player in the top-level AAA class could spend up to six days a week, 10 months a year playing and practising. In some cases, these elite teams travel hundreds of kilometres to games.

But in too many cases, talented youngsters must travel considerable distances just to play for their own team. One perennially strong Quebec team, the “midget” AAA Lac-St-Louis Lions, draws players from an area that runs from the western section of Montreal to the U.S. border in the south and the Ontario border to the west. Lions officials estimate that they have more than 600,000 children of minorhockey age from which to form their team.

Camp: Indeed, some teenagers’ teams follow programs that are more demanding than those of professional clubs. On the Toronto Marlies minorbantam team—ages 14 and 15—coach Peter Miller opens his tryouts for the coming season in May. The team is se-

lected by the middle of August. Then players attend a seven-day camp that includes conditioning programs and 2V2 hours of daily on-ice practice. During the team’s season—from the end of September to April—the six-day-aweek regimen includes two games, three practices, regular videotape sessions and weight training. The annual fee per player is $3,500. Miller, 40, who holds degrees in science, physical education and education, says, “Minorbantam is a working year in the long run.”

Debate: Inevitably, the time, money and sophisticated techniques now devoted to minor-hockey teams have provoked a heated debate. Some minor-

hockey officials are openly critical of the present system, charging that it places too much pressure on youngsters. Said David Branch, the commissioner of the Ontario Hockey League and former executive director of the Canadian Amateur Hockey Association: “We have created a monster. We have made winning the main thing in an attempt to improve the game.”

In fact, association statistics show that from 1980 to 1986, the number of players enrolled in minor-hockey programs decreased by 25 per cent in the “peewee” category (up to 13 years of age), 38 per cent in bantam (up to 15) and 47 per cent in midget (up to 17 years of age). Ed Chynoweth, president of the Canadian Major Junior Hockey League, is concerned about those who

remain in the system. “The tail is wagging the dog,” he said. “We are not giving our kids a chance to be kids.” Added Bowman, one of many critics of the present system, which separates youngsters by ability as early as the age of 8: “This whole elitist system means a lot of good kids never get a proper chance because a lot of big, rangy players blossom late. Under the present system, a great player like Canadiens defenceman Larry Robinson might never have gotten a chance.” Ultimately, the nation and its hockey administrators may have to decide what price they are willing to pay for international victories. Declared Pollock: “To get the best international

team possible, you pretty much have to duplicate the Soviet system and do everything for your best players. I choose to think like a Canadian, not a Soviet.”

Triumphs: Canada’s minor-hockey officials, revelling in the recent series of triumphs and looking forward to another in Calgary, must struggle to maintain a balance between a youngster’s enjoyment and the development of his skills. What neither the Canadians nor the Soviets can answer is the question of whether future Wayne Gretzkys or Vladislav Tretiaks will be born or manufactured.


-ANTHONY WILSON-SMITH with LOIS KALCHMAN in Toronto and correspondents’ reports