Wanted: Hockey goaltender available for term work beginning Boxing Day 2013 and finishing up first week of January, 2014. Location: Malmo, Sweden. Must be Canadian and under age 20 at time of employment. Must be willing to withstand unreasonable expectations and crushing pressure. Must be willing to take blame if necessary. Remuneration: none. Cost: potentially devastating.
Who would strap on the big pads after this?
Canada, the country that eats its goaltenders alive, has created a situation so untenable it would be laughable if it weren't for all the potential for hurt feelings and even de-railed careers.
You have this on the one hand: a country that prays to an absurd mantra that says "Gold or Nothing" when, in any other sport but the national one, merely making a podium is usually cause for national cheering.
And you have this on the other hand: a "national" game that is today truly "international" – a global sport where any one of six nations, in any given year could win the World Junior Hockey Championship, which next year will be held in Sweden.
Just consider for a moment: Canada won in Ottawa in 2009, U.S.A. won in Saskatoon in 2010, Russia won in Buffalo in 2011, Sweden won in Calgary in 2012 and now U.S.A. again in Ufa in 2013.
Isn't it about time to put that silly "Gold or Nothing" talk to pasture?
Aim for gold, work hard for gold, but be honoured just to stand on the podium. And if you don't make the podium – as has happened here in Ufa – then get to work getting back up on it.
When you play the "Gold or Nothing" game, you ultimately single out the one player whose singular play or misstep most often decides a championship: the goaltender.
The popular saying in hockey is that "we win as a team and we lose as a team," but that is merely a bromide easily passed about. More accurately, "we win as a team and when we lose it's usually the goalie who wears it."
Goaltenders take that position because they like that singular responsibility, but what goaltender in his right mind – go ahead, say it, find one that is – would accept such responsibility knowing that the chances of being blamed and crushed for a significant loss are unreasonably high in Canada.
Canadian head coach Steve Spott said after Canada's loss that there would be questions and that he and the players and Hockey Canada would have to be prepared to accept this and deal with it.
Some of the questions raised are obvious and have been known for some time:
Is it true that Canadian goaltending – once the gold standard of hockey – has slipped in recent years? Or is it just that goaltending in other countries has caught up and in some instances surpassed? Should the development of Canadian goaltending be examined? Or is the real problem the ridiculous pressure put on this pivotal position every Boxing Day through the first week of January?
The Americans won with 15 college kids on their roster. Canada used none. The argument is made, year after year, that the major junior kids were simply superior talent, but that seems at the very least debatable given that so many Canadians are starring at the same colleges these Americans attend. Should Canadian college players be scouted more diligently? Should major junior hockey have a virtual "lock" on roster positions year after year after year? Perhaps the best teams possible do indeed come completely from junior hockey – but that does not mean the scouting and selection system cannot be re-examined.
If you speak to European hockey people, they will always say that the Canadians make the mistake of building a team as they would for major junior or the NHL by insisting on a "grinding line" of checkers. They say a smarter system would be to go with all skill players. Their argument lies in the fact that these tournaments are over so fast and teams might play each other at best twice, meaning no real rivalries and resentments build which would cause a team to want that tough, intimidating presence. If you want to intimidate, they say, do it with speed.
Canada has not won a gold medal for four years – Saskatoon, Buffalo, Calgary and now Ufa – and has stuck with the junior coaches that in the past proved, usually, ideal for the position. After all, they know the players best, having coached them and coached against them. But here the ice surface is different and, consequently, the style of play quite different. There is more cycling, more transition, more strategic attacking and defending. Without a word of criticism for what the likes of Steve Spott (Ufa), Don Hay (Calgary), Dave Cameron (Buffalo) and Willie Desjardins (Saskatoon) brought to the table, perhaps the 2014 coach, whoever it might be, could be teamed with a coach somewhat more familiar with the European teams and the current big-ice styles of play.
The Country's Responsibility:
Yes, hockey is the national sport. Yes, Canada has done exceptionally well at the World Juniors. And yes, Canada will do well again.
But it's just a game. And these are just kids.