When Canada’s juniors lost to Russia in the bronze medal game of the World Junior Hockey Championship on Sunday, it felt like a good segment of the country was about to implode. Everyone from fans to players to pundits immediately offered their overhaul strategy for fixing an allegedly “broken” Team Canada. Some declared shoddy goaltending to be Hockey Canada’s fatal weakness. Others, like Team Canada’s own head coach, Brent Sutter, suggested the juniors were in need of “more skill” and “more creativity.” Don Cherry chimed in too, of course, with his typically idiosyncratic bluster, blaming our fourth-place finish (Finland took gold for the first time since 1987) at least partly on “political correctness.” (Cherry’s theory is that in some cases Hockey Canada is more concerned with regional equality in selecting their world junior roster than they are with sheer skill.)
I learned the news about our nation’s “heartbreaking” loss on my way out of the Royal Alexandra Theatre in Toronto, where I had just seen what has to be one of the worst plays ever hyped as a good one—a musical called Once, about a love-sick, Irish vacuum-cleaner technician struggling to make it as—what else—a singer-songwriter in Dublin. I’m not exaggerating when I say that I heard more whining about Canadian hockey that afternoon than I did during an entire 3½-hour production of Once. Whining, plus general doom-intoning, not from Toronto Maple Leaf fans—which might have made sense—but from followers of a national franchise that holds the all-time gold medal record in a tournament it’s dominated for decades. (Canada’s junior men’s team has racked up 10 gold medals in the past 20 years, during two five-year runs in 1993-97 and 2005-09, failing to medal only three times, including last week.) Canadian hockey fans are clearly, hands down, the most spoiled in the world.
It’s undeniable. We want our international hockey to hew as close to a Mighty Ducks movie as possible: a never-ending string of victories in which our one true adversary (preferably the U.S. or Russia) falters in our presence again and again. We expect a win at every level, at every tournament, for either sex; and the second our guys or girls screw up or another nation shows promise, we question our country’s commitment and legacy to hockey, or worse—we call for some kind of massive soul-searching effort around effective strategy at the youth level. Scott Salmond, Hockey Canada’s executive director of hockey operations, warned recently that “other countries get better,” and “we have to get better” too. He’s right. We shouldn’t rest on our laurels. But we shouldn’t be hostile toward balanced competition in our sport either. Losing occasionally is a boon—especially from a fan’s perspective. I’m on intimate terms with this truth, because I’m a fan of women’s hockey—and you have to go no further than women’s international hockey to prove how true the maxim is.
There are—and always have been—two consistently competitive teams in international women’s hockey: Canada and the U.S. Competition wise, women’s hockey is the Mighty Ducks incarnate. Sports journalist Jeff Passan cited this disparity in 2010, when he made the apparently scandalous suggestion that the International Olympic Committee should either ensure teams outside North America improve or remove women’s hockey from the Games altogether. It’s hard to agree with him (the sport’s inclusion at the women’s level raises its profile in countries where women don’t or can’t play hockey.) But it’s hard to completely disagree with him, either. At the Vancouver Olympics, Canada’s women’s team defeated Slovakia by a score of 18-0—“the same Slovakia team,” Passan noted, “that, in an Olympic pre-qualifying tournament, beat Bulgaria 82-0.”
Our men’s teams are currently in no danger of beating anyone 82-0—or 18-0 for that matter—and that is overwhelmingly a good thing. Without meaningful competition, sport itself turns meaningless. This is why the Canadian and American women’s teams play each other so often these days that the rosters are now mutually sick of each other (attested to by the rise in chippy play). It is also why a recent exhibition game between the two teams in Toronto and Calgary drew over 17,000 rabid fans: any game between the two, Olympic or exhibition, is more meaningful and compelling than any game either plays against anyone else. Why? Because there is a chance the good guys—us—might lose.
But Canada’s reaction to the juniors’ recent failure reveals an unnatural aversion to healthy competition. Not just unnatural, but delusional. We came in fourth. Not 40th. The score was 2-1, not 82-0. Experts were actually lamenting the fact that Canada was “outclassed” at the tournament. As Don Cherry pointed out: “That’s just wrong. We were beaten, okay. But not outclassed.” Who would have thought we’d have to look to Grapes for a sense of proportion? Perhaps the only remedy in order, here in these jangled, hockey-nervous pre-Sochi days, is to use the junior championships to help us all gain a little perspective. England is the birthplace of soccer. The last time it won the World Cup was in 1966. Do English fans gnash their teeth and tear their hair? Of course. Do they see doom and catastrophe in every international corner kick? Definitely. Do they still watch? In droves. Does England still live? It does.
As will we.