December 14, 2011
Are we sending our best off ice too?
By RYAN PYETTE, QMI Agency
LONDON, ONT. - The teens selected to represent Canada at the coming world junior hockey tournament are endlessly evaluated, poked and prodded and placed under enormous national pressure.
It's time the men above them took some heat too.
Nobody asked Hockey Canada president Bob Nicholson, head scout Kevin Prendergast or coach Don Hay to jump through the kinds of hoops the kids do every year to be involved with this team.
But maybe, somebody should.
If the Canadians go a third straight year without winning the tournament that only this country cares about, then Nicholson better have some good answers for the processes under which his team operates.
And please spare us the wrinkle he lobbied for earlier this year, that the NHL draft age should be raised, which would, in effect, virtually guarantee Canada landing a half-dozen or so of its elite pro players for this post-holiday puck circus.
That's like a South African billionaire griping his mine's in trouble because six of his biggest diamonds have gone missing.
There's still more than enough talent in this country, an embarrassment of first-round NHL riches, and the bottom line is the tournament deck is stacked in Canada's favour by being held here every other year.
It all comes down to picking the right players and putting the right men behind the bench.
Other top countries aren't fooling around.
The Russians went right back to Valeri Bragin, who oversaw the stunning gold medal in Buffalo. The United States recycled Dean Blais, whose team beat Canada in overtime in Saskatoon two years ago.
Hay gets the call for Canada. He obviously has a fine track record, winning a gold medal a decade-and-a-half ago and a Memorial Cup five years ago at home in Vancouver.
Best of all under Nicholson's structure, he applied for the job.
But then you have two-time defending Canadian Hockey League coach of the year Gerard Gallant in Saint John saying he didn't apply for the job this year and it's not a big goal for him.
Here's the hottest coach leading the team with the most talent on the planet and he just won the Memorial Cup. Shouldn't Nicholson be practically stalking him to help the national juniors?
You never see Quebec Remparts boss Patrick Roy, who has convinced young and talented top scorer Mikhail Grigorenko to buy into back-checking hard, on the Canadian bench. Or, before he went to the NHL last month, London Knights coach Dale Hunter, the OHL's all-time leader in winning percentage who, at times, humourously outcoached rivals that would go on to eagerly represent Canada internationally.
Nicholson has Prendergast comb North America for the top talent. Shouldn't someone also be scouting the coaches and trying to determine the hot hand in the land?
Especially after how they lost in Buffalo, with a coaching staff that had watched Russia win two playoff games in desperate rallies, yet didn't make a goalie change or even call a timeout until it was too late, while everyone in the rink could feel the tide turning in the third period.
Hockey Canada likes to reward men who give up parts of their busy schedules to help the program in some form. If you spend time in the system and go somewhere with the under-18 team, there's a better-than-average chance you'll one day wind up on the world junior bench.
But the puck-following public doesn't care about any of that.
They want the guy who can harness these gifted horses, get them playing the most successful system and put the right kids on the ice in the biggest moments. No one will question anything if Canada wins gold.
But these are certainly the highest stakes for Hockey Canada in some time. The tournament is right in their own backyard. The next two will be in Russia and Sweden.
And if they don't win now with everything in their favour, that should certainly be the ignition for Hockey Canada to start looking at making some necessary, and overdue, changes.