MALMO, Sweden — For the second consecutive year, Canada is coming home empty-handed from the world junior championships.
It’s the first time since 1978-81 that Canada has been left off the podium in two straight tournaments. And, just like last year, it was the Russians that skated away with bronze – beating Canada 2-1 – in a game that didn’t really find its energy until halfway through the third period when defenceman Josh Morrissey scored Canada’s lone goal to cut the deficit.
Too little, too late.
"There’s not much mood right now," said Canadian captain Scott Laughton. "It’s tough. You can’t put it into words when you put on this crest and try and represent your country and you can’t even bring a medal back to Canada for the people who have been cheering for you and have 4,000 fans come down here, it’s…"
Laughton took a pause.
It was the first time since 1998 that Canada has lost three games in a tournament. Against Russia they’ve lost four out of their last five meetings – including last year’s 6-5 loss in overtime for bronze.
Heart break for the players and a lot of soul searching for Hockey Canada’s management team. With the tournament being hosted in Canada next year in Toronto and Montreal, the pressure will be on for improvement.
"It was the best we had in our country," said head coach Brent Sutter. "It’s where we’re at in our development stage in our country and there’s nothing you can do about it. We brought the best team we could over here – we’re not questioning any of our decisions made. All the decisions made were the right ones."
So if this was the best Canada had to offer and the decisions were right, what happened?
Sutter and Scott Salmond, Hockey Canada’s senior director of operations, both said that the rest of the world has caught up to Canada in terms of development. So what is being done to make sure Canada stays out in front of the pack?
"We have work to do," said Salmon after the game. "We need to look at our program and it’s not just one team. I think we need to look at our overall program and how we are doing things and try to get better."
Recently the Canadian Hockey League – the predominant supplier of players to Canada’s world junior team – put a grandfathered restriction on drafting European goaltenders to play on CHL teams via the league’s import draft. Eventually those spots will only be open to Canadians and Americans. The decision was made so the league could better develop North American goaltenders, instead of ones from other countries.
In the gold medal game between Finland and Sweden, there were six players – five skaters and one goalie – who are currently playing in the CHL. Is banning all imports from the league an option to help Canada in the future?
Sutter, who is coach, GM and owner of the Western Hockey League’s Red Deer Rebels, doesn’t think so. He believes that the top European talent is being developed long before they reach the CHL."Development starts at 10 years of age," said Sutter. "It’s not about Xs and Os and those types of things – it’s with skills and skating. You see how these teams in Europe, how they’ve done a remarkable job with that.
"It’s something in our country we have to evaluate. There’s too much focus on winning and losing at a young age and not enough about the skill part of it and the skating part of it. That’s truly how it starts."
Salmond said Hockey Canada was looking at the European model of international breaks. He notes there has been discussion with the CHL about the possibility of a league-wide shutdown in November or potentially borrowing players at different times during the year.
"That would be really neat," said Salmond, in an earlier interview with Yahoo Sports. "But again tough for the CHL because they’re a business, but those talks have happened and that might be more of a model to look at as opposed to trying to do it full-time."
He added one of big advantages teams in the tournament have is spending more time together, as opposed to Canada which only has a summer camp and a selection camp just a few weeks prior to the start of the tournament.
"You can see that in their structure and in the way they play," said Salmond after the game. "We need to find ways for our best players to play together more often. We’re going to do that in under-17. The changes we are going to make in under-17 with three national teams and how we are going to influence those kids at a younger age and send them a strong message at earlier ages, is going to bear fruit, and that unfortunately is not today and it might not be next year."
The good news for next year’s world junior squad is that Canada could potentially have 11 returning players to their lineup. Sutter said whether or not he would return to coach that team would be up to Hockey Canada, but added this experience will be invaluable to next year’s returning players.
As a group this is the second-youngest team Canada has ever sent to the world juniors. But, as Sutter astutely points out, if Canada wants to improve in the future they might have to take a look at starting even younger to keep pace with the rest of the world.
"We do a great job," said Sutter. "But where are the areas we can be better? How can we be better?
"That's my feelings. There are probably a million people out there thinking I'm full of crap. That's fine. When you're in this, you see it first-hand. You see where the skill-sets are in some of these other countries and the speed of the game they play at.
"It's pretty astonishing how some of these teams have grown in that area."