Sunday, February 23, 2014

Welcome .... To The Machine




 Have not seen a game or tournament like this in over twenty years really. Best on bests are never a cakewalk. 2004 was pretty close to it but the semifinal saw Roberto Luongo's first true star turn as the Czechs badly out shot a Canadian team which had until that time not been seriously challenged. It took an overtime goal by Lecavalier to put them into the final against (who else) the Finns. That game had the look of many of this tournament. Canada was in control the entire way and the 3-2 score flattered the Finns but the danger was always present. The one mistake loomed.

 No you have to go back to 1991 to see such a dominant performance. No Ray Bourque or Patrick Roy or Mario Lemieux (though there was an 18 year old Eric Lindros) and no real challenge despite two ties, I was lucky enough to witness a few of those games live, including the semifinal. There was tension, of course, but when it came down to it there was no doubt.

 And this year, these Olympics, the same.

 Surely there were nervous moments early in the final and a 1-0 lead is not the most dangerous lead in hockey but its certainly unsettling, even more so when the opponent's roster includes Patrick Kane and Phil Kessel.

 The reality though is that if this team had lost it would have been due to a serious miscarriage of hockey justice.

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 In 2010 we watched the gold medal game at the home of very good friends, really very dear friends who I have known for (gulp) over twenty five years. We suffered through the tension of a game in which Canada was the better team, were devastated by the Parise goal and then elated at Crosby's overtime winner, jumping up and down and hugging and roaring our approval, standing and singing the anthem with that great team after the gold medals were presented.

 After the win over Latvia we exchanged texts and I wondered if Canada were to beat the Americans on Friday whether we should reconvene and the answer was 'FUCK YEAH' and so on Sunday morning at 6:25 am I dragged the kids from their beds (though honestly the boy was up and ready when he heard me stir), put on our Canada Best shirts (The boy and I wore ours for every game from Finland on) and we drove across town ahead of the sun's rise. As we drove down the Danforth we saw people in jerseys making their way to bars and out of Tim Hortons in preparation. Seriously. We arrived in the Annex with time to spare and sat us down. While last time around it was the dads and moms who sat and watched this time all of the kids did as well with the exception of our youngest who made mischief elsewhere.

 The Swedes had their moments early and at first it seemed that this game might be a battle. Bergeron missed his early chance and then Hagelin hit the post and the game was even steven and then, well, then Canada rolled over Sweden just as they had rolled over everybody. Lundqvist and his posts were all that came between the Canadians reaching double figures. Toews' goal gave them the dreaded 1-0 lead but the dreaded Swedish power play was nullified and the Swedes never got a sniff really. When Crosby scored it was over. There was little tension and so we ate our pancakes and drank our coffee cheerfully and while my nerves kicked in briefly before the third started (it was for the gold medal for Christ Sakes!!) it became clear that the Swedes could not keep up. Lacking Zetterberg and Sedin and Backstrom did them in but then again Canada was missing Tavares and Stamkos and Subban was in the pressbox and Hall and Thornton and Seguin and Neal were all at home.

 But of course as we know that is the depth that Canada has, its the advantage we have over everyone, the odd time a country will have a golden generation such as the Americans in the 90s or the Swedes in the oughts and then maybe we will see a team that can match the talent that Canada can run out there but decade after decade we do the same thing. We produce hockey players.

 The only lull in my lifetime was the late nineties between the 'Oilers' generation and what followed when the offence seemed to dry up and even then, even then, it was Mike Richter in 1996 and Dominick Hasek in 1998 and without these two even that lull would have produced champions.

 Watching this team and its perfection, for that was what it was, perfect, I began to muse, is this the greatest generation of players? For a moment I thought there is no doubt. I think of '87 and Crossman and Rochefort on the blue line and look at '91 with Corson, Dirk Graham, Tinordi and Russ Courtnall and I think that other than 1976 there may not be a better collection of talent than what we saw this time around. 76 will always be the gold standard for a team but they were a one off really.

 Of course the tale is yet to be written. There is no doubt that we produce elite hockey players like no other country but the Gretzkys did win three of these tourneys in a row. I don't doubt that if the NHL goes to Korea or if its a World Cup that comes next that we will see Crosby and Toews and Doughty make it three in a row but until that time we must reserve judgement.

 There have been thirteen of these best on best tournaments and Canada has now won nine of them. Since the Olympics became best on best Canada has won three of five and with this victory, in Europe and on the big ice, the last dragon has been slain. Results are results and its hard to argue with them. The Czechs are no longer the Czechs. The Russians haven't won since 1991. The Swedes have seen Sundin and Forsberg and Lidstrom go and soon the Sedins and Alfredsson and Lundqvist will follow. The Americans are coming but they lack the talent up the middle and on the blue line to be a serious threat right now.

Yzerman is done and his successor will have a tough act to follow. One could quibble with Yzerman's selections and with Babcock's deployment of these selections (Subban being the major question) and while the lazy amongst the media might say that a gold medal means there should be no questions I prefer to look to the process and think could this team have been better? I believe that probably the answer is yes. Chris Kunitz had a very good tournament from the Finland game on and good for him. He's an excellent player of course and he proved his worth but even with all of that said I think a better player might have been chosen over him. And I think Subban over Bouwmeester is a no brainer although I've always liked Bouwmeester who now has two golds in best on best. He's a guy who can play.

 Canada's greatest strength is its depth of talent. Happily we are beyond bringing Rob Zamuner and Kris Draper and Kirk Maltby to these tournaments as we have learned (remembered) that if you bring Dale Hawerchuk and tell him to check that indeed he can check and on top of that he can provide offence as well and so Nash and Carter and Sharp and Marleau were brought along and played the roles that those who run the junior selection process still like to slot with actual junior role players.

 It was a wonderful day today, one to celebrate. Its just a game of course, a distraction, but a wonderful one all the same. I'm a proud Canadian, I'm not afraid to say so. I think this is a great country. Some of this is due to luck and some is due to good policy and much of it is plain old geography which provides us with great wealth and a history of peace. Like all nations much of our history and national mythology is littered with shameful acts and lies. This is true. But it is a great country all the same and its wonderful to have a game which we do well at and which can bring us together on days like today.

 Go Canada. Until next time!

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