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Kelly: Canada’s well-earned hockey smugness affords juniors a quiet exit

It's hard to say what's more annoying about Canada's failure at the world junior hockey championship – the quiet exit or the fact that Ron Wilson called it.

When he was coaching the Maple Leafs, Wilson proved spectacularly incapable of subtlety or gamesmanship. He was perpetually baffled by the passive-aggressive nature of local fandom. That tone deafness is what killed his career in Toronto.

But over in Finland, leading a U.S. team that handed Canada an opening-game embarrassment, Wilson had suddenly turned into the Richelieu of teenage hockey.

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"[Canadian tournament broadcaster] TSN has created this unconscionable amount of pressure on these young guys," Wilson told the Toronto Star's Kevin McGran. "They're expected to win. Here, they've lost their first game and the world's ready to end."

One can almost imagine Wilson caring about the emotional state of the flower of Canadian youth. And by "almost," I mean "absolutely cannot."

This was Wilson's transparent effort to get Canada gnawing on its own hind leg. Depressingly, everyone began chewing.

The talk got tougher – a steady stream of kids in red banging on about this country refusing to accept failure in tones so brittle and serious, one supposed they'd all seen action in the War of 1812.

Meanwhile, the level of play got looser. In five raggedy games, Canada had one regulation win. It ended Saturday with a 6-5 quarter-final loss to the host Finns.

The best thing one can say about the earliness of the exit is that everyone involved – participants and supporters – is spared the effort of pretending to care about a third-place contest.

Once they'd been knocked out, the players seemed to lose all interest.

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Nobody bothered defending their effort or ripping the officiating or any of the usual diversionary tactics. They shrugged and left. This is how backlashes start.

Since no one does auto-schadenfreude as well as Canada, everyone at home rushed out to pre-emptively douse the hair-on-fire types who will see this as the first backward step toward the Decline of The Game.

One problem – there aren't any of those people left.

Some time over the past decade, Canada got past its hockey small-man syndrome. It wasn't just a function of winning Olympic golds. It was the overarching feeling that we were getting better while everyone else got worse. It was everywhere in Sochi – teams had lost to Canada before they'd got out there for the warmups. By the end, it was more suffocation than domination. A huge part of it was reputation.

Since then, we've moved beyond trophies. The local answer to "Why's Canada the best at hockey?" is "Because." That feeling won't last forever, but we're good for a few more years regardless of how the country performs on the international stage.

One – perhaps the only – salutary side effect of that well-earned smugness is that we can now lose with something that looks like grace.

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Every international tournament in every sport is a functional crap-shoot. You put a team together on the fly. You hope they gel. You hope a couple of the stars play like it. You hope that the luck either goes with you or against your opponents.

Canada got none of those things this time. Everyone looked as though they'd just met, and continued to look that way in every game. Everything that could go wrong did. It's not an excuse. It's an objective assessment.

It's also no comment on the state of Canadian hockey or the quality of our youngest professional generation. Rather, it's proof that there is more to winning than "wanting it" – though I'm not sure what that means.

I want to fly. A lot. Yet I won't be jumping off any roofs in the near future.

The way Canada departed the tournament also disproves Wilson's thesis – that this country's teenagers are under too much pressure to win.

It goes without saying that too much is made of the world juniors in Canada. There is no international equivalent in another sport.

Brazil does not care how its U-20 team does in a World Cup. The Unites States does not care how far its Pan-Am team goes. They care about the results of their senior teams, exclusively. It's a healthy way to be.

They would care if broadcasters could figure out a way to make them. TSN's managed the trick. Since it has lost the NHL, it's one of the few tricks left to it.

The blanket coverage isn't patriotic bullying. It's a transparent money play.

But despite all the airtime, there is no sense that the country is living and dying with the results. If it works out, great. If it doesn't, we'll get 'em next time. When it matters. At the Olympics or the World Cup.

That isn't pressure. It's preparation. Most of these kids are already or will soon be playing in the NHL. A quarter-final loss at the worlds is no worse than a very bad night in a Game 7. As such, this experience isn't a chore. It's professional development.

It works because Canadian fans understand perhaps better than the players that the world juniors are practice for the real thing. Winning isn't what's important. Learning is.

In order to manage that, you must lose occasionally. Sometimes badly. It teaches you a great deal more than the other thing.

Once we'd pooched it, Wilson remained curiously fixated on the other guys.

"Canada was so close, but they shot themselves in the foot," he said Sunday. "I mentioned to their coach before the game that you've got to make sure you don't take any penalties because penalties will kill you, especially against Finland."

Wilson, the cheeky bugger, has moved from needling the competition to kick-starting a job-interview process. I look forward to the safe space he'll create for Canada's high-school-aged stars. Mostly, I'm guessing, by screaming at them via text.

Wilson didn't get us then. He doesn't get us now. Unlike the United States, Canada doesn't need to win to feel it's the best at the game. It just needs to feel capable of peaking when it counts.

Since the world juniors wasn't one of those tournaments, nothing that happened there has changed that feeling.

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