Cam Cole has a column up on Canada’s defenestration at the hands of the Americans (and Ryan Murphy) in the World Junior Championship yesterday, condemning Canada to a fourth year in a row without a gold medal, albeit with a shot at extending the 14 year long streak of winning medals at the WJC. Cole’s column is drawing a fair amount of praise. It’s actually pretty terrible.
The loudest of our jingoistic boosters say we ought to own the IIHF’s under-20 title every year because the Canadian Hockey League is the best junior league in the world and no other mechanism produces National Hockey League-ready talent so ably. Statistically, that statement is still true, which is why junior-aged players from Russia and the Czech Republic, and the U.S. (not so many, though some, from Sweden and Finland) come here to refine their games to NHL specifications.
But that’s like saying the English Premier League is the world’s best football circuit, and shouldn’t let foreigners benefit from playing in it. It may or may not be the best, though it’s certainly the most physically punishing – Spain’s La Liga isn’t too shabby, skill-wise – but it has nothing to do with national team success, otherwise it wouldn’t be 46 years since England won the World Cup. Spain, on the other hand, with a league that also features tons of foreign-born talent including the world’s best player, Lionel Messi, won the last World Cup.
Let us be clear: the loudest of our jingoistic boosters are wrong if they think that having the most junior hockey teams in the world means that Canada ought to own the WJC. You only need 20 players for a junior team and Canada’s producing a massive surplus of them. Are we really losing some potential Crosbys because each team is allowed to have two Europeans? I mean, it seems awfully unlikely to me that we’re losing WJC class players. Here’s where the Team Canada players went in their respective junior drafts:
Ryan Nugent-Hopkins – 1
Nathan MacKinnon – 1
Ty Rattie – 2
Morgan Rielly – 2
Jonathan Drouin – 2
Griffin Reinhardt – 3
Ryan Murphy – 3
Boone Jenner – 4
Mark McNeill – 4
Ryan Strome – 8
Phillip Danault – 9
Brett Ritchie – 12
Anthony Camara – 14
Xavier Ouellet – 14
Jonathan Huberdeau – 18
Scott Harrington – 19
Tyler Wotherspoon – 23
Dougie Hamilton – 27
Jake Paterson – 31
Jordan Binnington – 40
Mark Scheifele – 134
Malcolm Subban – 218
JC Lipon – Undrafted
I have no reason to think that this year is in any way unusual. If you can play at 19, you can probably play at 15 or 11 or whatever vaguely unseemly age the Dickensian junior hockey leagues in Canada draft children. Nine of Canada’s skaters were drafted in the top four picks in their respective junior drafts. Only two were drafted beyond number 27 in the draft. If the CHL was a development league, as opposed to a way for adults to turn profits on kids, you might expect that more guys from further down the draft order (or who were even undrafted) might make Team Canada, as the development work done by their teams pays off. Instead, it looks like the top players tend to be guys who were top players when they were drafted. Quelle surprise.
Rolling back around to Canada’s WJC failure though, bickering about European players coming over here is stupid though. They aren’t really taking spots from Canadian kids who have any kind of a shot at anything beyond junior. Those players are top players already and are going to get their shot.
Coming back to Cole: his reference to soccer in Europe is a trainwreck. To start with, many, many English people complain that the Premier League should not have so many foreigners in it because it prevents good English boys from getting their shot. This seems insane to me, for much the same reason that it seems insane to complain about foreigners in the CHL. If anything, those Englishmen who do play in the Premier League are better served by the higher level of competition, which forces them to improve. Also, the guys who have a realistic shot at playing internationally are good enough to play in the Premier League, just like how the guys who are good enough to play in the WJC are good enough to play in the CHL, even with the odd foreigner kicking around.
Cole’s contrast between La Liga and the Premier League doesn’t really make his point either. The Premier League has about twice as many foreign born players as La Liga. If your argument is “Foreign players don’t matter because La Liga has lots of foreigners and Spain does just fine” that seems like a fairly critical point. There’s a massive difference in the foreign content in the two leagues.
This is the part that really makes no sense though, and ties into the central point of his column:
The difference is that it is well understood, even by the most rabid of Brits, who feel they invented soccer, that the game has grown far beyond their borders now.
It’s totally not! There is a segment of English people (as was pointed out to me on Twitter, no Northern Irish, Scots or Welsh labour under this delusion, despite being Brits) that gets that England isn’t a particularly large fish in world soccer these days. There’s an awful large group of them though that don’t, to the point that the former make the latter the butt of jokes that don’t even require any explanation because “Englishman who harbours absurd delusions of English grandeur” is such a well known character in their society. I’ve mentioned before that I listen to a soccer podcast called the Football Ramble – when they were reviewing their 2010 World Cup predictions and one of them sheepishly admitted he’d had England in the semi-finals, the rest of the group responded by singing Three Lions, which is basically a song about precisely the kind of guy whose existence Cole denies.
That song was ubiquitous at the 1996 European Championships, which were played in England and led to the Germans (who won) signing the chorus at their celebration, which was hilarious. In other words, there is a large chunk of English people who are EXACTLY like the stereotypical jingoistic Canadian hockey fan, to the point that they write songs about them. If anything, they’re even funnier, because the English haven’t won anything of note in soccer since 1966.
Which brings me to the main thesis of Cole’s column. Canada isn’t the best at hockey anymore and we need to get used to being one medium sized fish in a pond, instead of the big fish that all of the other fish fear.
On the whole, it might be easier on the psyche from now on to hope for the best, rather than expect it. It’s not Our Game anymore, and only a romantic would tell you it is.
This sounded suspiciously familiar to me, so I went and took a look back at some other Canadian hockey writing. Here’s Cam Cole in 1998.
If the Olympic tournament accomplished anything, that quote said it all. Our remaining illusions of superiority should now be gone.
This is not a condemnation of Canadian hockey, but a tribute to the Europeans. They’ve figured it out.
That doesn’t stop it from hurting. Fourth place is a slap in the face.
Since Cole wrote that, Canada’s won three of the four best v. best tournaments that have taken place. In the fifteen WJC that have taken place, Canada’s won five gold, six silver and three bronze, with a chance at another bronze against the Russians tomorrow morning. Since the Europeans figured it out, North America has finished in the top two five out of a possible eight times at senior level tournaments.
You tell me. Who’s been superior to Canada in best on best tournaments at the junior and senior level since the last time that Cam Cole declared that Canada wasn’t superior at hockey? Russia, with their four gold, five silver and two bronze medals at the WJC since then? The Finns with their five medals? The Americans with four? The Swedes with four? The Czechs with three? The Slovaks with one? At the junior level, it looks to me like there are two countries that matter – Canada and Russia – with other countries hitting a concentrated vein of talent every so often.
If anything, the gap looked to be increasing between Canada and the rest of the world in 2010. There was precisely one team that was crazy enough to try to go toe to toe with the Canadians, as opposed to sitting in a shell and hoping to score off counter-attacks. They lost 8-1.
One point Cole made that I sort of agree with:
A loss in a big game at any level – junior, world, Olympic – should no longer come as a shock. It’s not even a 50/50 proposition to win an elite international tournament now, it’s more like 1-in-4. And more than any other threat to Canada’s predominance as the fount of professional talent, it’s the United States, with its 22 NHL teams and mushrooming participation numbers and college programs that prize speed and skill that may well be passing us within a decade.
It’s been a long time since a single loss in a big tournament should have come as a shock to Canadians. Hockey being what it is and single games being what they are, it’ll happen. BUT…that’s why it’s so silly for anyone to declare that Country X is the best or Country Y is in decline off the back of a single tournament, which is what Cole is doing here. I’d figure Canada’s odds of winning an elite international tournament at probably better than 1 in 4 – 5 golds in 15 WJC suggests that that’s the case. Three wins in the five senior best v. best tournaments that have ever been played suggest that that’s the case.
Some day Cole might be right and Canada may no longer be the best country in the world at hockey. Repeating it whenever Canada suffers a particularly disastrous loss probably ups the odds of that but it doesn’t make it true today.Email Tyler Dellow at firstname.lastname@example.org