Sports

The road to hockey redemption

As officials rebuild the sport at home, Canada’s juniors take on the world

James Deacon January 1 2000
Sports

The road to hockey redemption

As officials rebuild the sport at home, Canada’s juniors take on the world

James Deacon January 1 2000

The road to hockey redemption

As officials rebuild the sport at home, Canada’s juniors take on the world

Sports

When pushed, old-time hockey has traditionally pushed back. Challenged in the 1970s by highly skilled, better-conditioned Soviet teams, the National Hockey League responded with an era of unparalleled goonery. And even after rules reduced the incidence of fighting and Europeans began to infiltrate NHL rosters, many Canadian officials continued to espouse a plodding, dump-and-chase, bang-along-the-boards style—one promoted most influentially by Hockey Night in Canada analyst Don Cherry. The defiant message to minor coaches and players alike was clear: might means right.

Wrong. That reluctance to change cost Canada its hockey supremacy, even though it produces more players than any other country. Only the national womens teams have consistently won on the world stage in recent years. The men have suffered heartbreaking losses at the 1996 World Cup, the 1998 Winter Olympics and the last two world junior championships, and Europeans have won most of the top NHL awards in recent years.

On the eve of another international showdown, though, it appears the Canadian Hockey Association is finally changing direction. Last week, before sending off its entry to the world junior championships in Skelleftea, Sweden, the CHA began soliciting public input on how to improve the minor-hockey system. The campaign follows last summer’s Open Ice hockey conference in Toronto, where authorities at all levels of the sport agreed to institute reforms—27 years after the

summit series demonstrated there was another way to play. “Open Ice was a good start,” CHA president Bob Nicholson told Macleans, “but we have to get the message all the way down to the grassroots level. That’ll take time.”

There is already evidence of change at elite levels. The most successful NHL teams the past few seasons—including the Detroit Red Wings and Dallas Stars, winners of the Stanley Cup the past two years—have been ones that blended oldtime toughness with the speed and puck handling skills to break through opposing teams’ choking defensive strategies.

As well, reformers are challenging longheld conventions on fighting. A recent brawl in a game between Toronto and Philadelphia was the talk of the NHL, not for the fisticuffs, but rather for the stand taken by Leafs coach Pat Quinn. With the Leafs leading by three goals, Flyers coach Roger Neilson sent out four noted “enforcers” to provoke fights and interrupt the Leafs’ momentum. Quinn had the final change, but refused to send out players of like abilities, and the ensuing uneven brawl simply made Neilson, his henchmen and the fights look ridiculous. Leafs president Ken Dryden, who initiated Open Ice, praised his coach. “The easiest thing Pat could have done is send out inkind players, but he didn’t,” said Dryden. “He handled it really well.”

It may take years for the CHA’s minorhockey initiatives to begin paying off. Still, fans hope the road to redemption begins this holiday season at the world

junior championships. They may get their wish. The larger international ice surfaces leave more room to manoeuvre, and that suits what promises to be a high-scoring Canadian team. “If you can’t get to the puck first to create turnovers and scoring chances, nothing else will happen,” says Nicholson. “This team has the fastest group of forwards that we have had in a while.”

And in a rare move, the team kept two 16-year-olds—forward Jason Spezza and defenceman Jay Bouwmeester— on the roster. At the pre-tournament evaluation camp in Kitchener, Ont., Spezza flashed the scoring touch that has made him a phenom with the Ontario Hockey League’s Mississauga IceDogs. Bouwmeester, meanwhile, was a surprise. The Medicine Hat Tiger is in only his first major-junior season, yet he showed poise playing among players three years his senior. Barry Trapp, the CHA’s director of scouting, said both youngsters improved in the company of top players. “Their skills, their talents, they’re both excellent,” Trapp said before the team left for Sweden. “Now, we just have to know, can they can handle the strength of the European players?”

Canada’s juniors had won five straight world tides before a disastrous eighth-place finish in 1998 and a stunning gold-medal-game loss to the Russians in Winnipeg last January. So, head coach Claude Julien will be looking to established junior stars, such as forwards Manny Malhotra and Mike Ribeiro, and goaltenders Brian Finley and Maxime Ouellet, to help retrieve this year’s junior crown. Still, Canada’s long-term hopes lie with the likes of Bouwmeester and Spezza. They will be eligible to play world championships until they are 20. And if precociousness is an indication of what kind of players they might become, then Canadian fans are in for a treat. After all, only two 16-year-olds had ever played on Canadian world championship teams prior to this year. Their names are Wayne Gretzky and Eric Lindros.

James Deacon