By David Dickenson
Anything less than a gold medal is looked upon as a failure to Canadian hockey fans. We have incredibly high standards and hold our national teams to that honour.
However in the past couple years our failures on the ice hasnít just been lack of a gold medal, but for two consecutive years our World Junior team has failed to even medal.
While itís tough to throw blame at the bunch of 16-20 year old kids who played their heart out, itís clear thereís an issue with the program and how our once proud tradition of World Junior excellence which included five consecutive gold medals could have fallen so mightily.
Hockey has changed, the competition has gotten better, the teams always look at Canada and have a bullseye on their backs as the bully on the block they want to knock off its pedestal. As things have changed, however Hockey Canada has stayed the same and if everyone else is moving forward while youíre standing still youíre bound to be caught and passed somewhere along the line. Itís like everything in life you need to adapt with the times to thrive and Hockey Canadaís program has failed to do that in some respects.
Here are a few ideas in order to get Canada back to their glory days.
1. Install a permanent coach
Each year we have the nonsense of rotating between junior coaches in the WHL, QMJHL and OHL, with assistants being named from the two other leagues. Why not build a team Canada staff which can not only develop their head coaching strategy, but also let their staff scout their potential players. With the coaching staff on the road watching games throughout the season they can see potential players and have feedback for them to keep them in the frame of mind where they are coming in and buying into a role as part of the bigger dream of winning a gold medal as part of team Canada. Weíve already seen in the NHL where coaches in new locations take a while to adapt to the players their stuck with since they arenít his guys. With a permanent coach you can ensure the coach gets his players every year which will fit into his style and system put into place.
2. Earn your spot EVERY year
Currently players who have made the roster in past years are invited back and considered locks to make the teams. Why not treat it like any other team, you have to work hard and earn your place each and every season. Some years there may be a wealth of talented prospects who could grace the roster, but few spots since the coaching staff the previous year chose a number of younger players for their roster and now the new coach is saddled with those guys who arenít his guys. This will also foster a feeling of everyone on the same page without some returning players taking it easy or feeling they are leaders when thatís not the role the coach has in mind for them.
3. Play Canadian brand hockey
In recent years weíve seen the Canadian roster look less and less like the Canadian roster of old which brought five consecutive gold medals back home. The roster in the past few years looked like it was built to play a more European style game and thrive on the larger ice surface instead of sticking with what has always worked for Canada on the big stage. One things are teams have always had which has been successful is a crop of big blueliners who excel at keeping the front of the net clear. In recent years however, that has changed to a shutdown pairing and now to very little physical presence and size in our own end. Most will argue that any hit in international hockey means a penalty will be called, but a big smart defenceman can keep his crease clear and intimidate enough to make opponents think twice whether they want to go hard to the net or even make that extra poke at the puck before the whistle is blown.
4. Take an underage goaltender where possible
This wouldnít always work out since you want the best players for each specific role, but the chance to have a younger goaltender so you can have a succession plan in net each year may help out the Canadian program. This way you are guaranteed to have some experience almost every year for the most important position on the ice. You want someone who has faced the pressure and knows what to expect between the pipes even if they only got marginal time the previous year. Just being part of the team and sitting on the bench is a great learning experience to bring to the table next year and it could mean the difference between a medal and going home empty handed.
5. Summer elite skill position camps
One thing the NBA has done to help develop high school basketball players is elite skills camps for positions run by the best players the game has to offer. Why not apply this concept to the national junior team program. Take the best 16-19 year old Canadian kids each summer and invite them to a Canadian skills camp run by the likes of Jonathan Toews, Sidney Crosby, Steven Stamkos, Shea Weber, Drew Doughty and Carey Price. Forwards can focus on not just the offensive side of the puck, but a two-way game and helping kids learn from the best, while blueliners can learn the tricks of the trade with the best and the same with our goaltenders. The camp would be invite only and you could also include some younger players who may not be on team Canada that year, but are likely players down the line. This way not only are you ensuring your young players are receiving better development which is better for the NHL, Hockey Canada and the kids, but youíre also creating a nurturing environment with mentor-ship from some of the gameís best players.
Follow Dave on Twitter: @Dickie_D26