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Canada’s hockey loss to Slovakia cause for concern

Canada's Jeff Skinner (from left), Jay Bouwmeester, John Tavares, Kyle Quincey and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins following …

As hard as it to believe, a hockey team led by Jay Bouwmeester and Dion Phaneuf lost today to one led by Zdeno Chara.

Joking aside, the sensation experienced by waking up to news Canada was sent packing from the IIHF world championship after losing 4-3 in the quarter-final to Slovakia is exactly the same as when the mighty U.S. basketball team got its comeuppance from Greece in the worlds in the summer of 2006.

That's not a comment on the opponent. Slovakia went toe-to-toe with Canada two years ago at the Vancouver Olympics, losing 3-2 in the semifinal. The shock might speak more to how Canada is going about the world championship and the attitude the country at large has taken toward the tournament since Sidney Crosby's golden goal.

It's fine to say it doesn't matter when it's not a best-on-best tourney. However, the worlds are not a nothing tourney. Witness Alex Ovechkin and Alex Semin playing today for Russia in its quarter-final only five days after their Washington Capitals were ousted from the NHL playoffs. Team USA used to regularly give the worlds a lick and a promise, but its attitude has changed even though it also deals with having top players occupied by the Stanley Cup playoffs.

Before anyone goes into a panic about what this means for Canada's chances at the Olympics in two years, presuming the NHLers play in Sochi, some perspective needs to be shared. The same goes for the position that this really doesn't matter, that's it's just one of those upsets. Ryan Getzlaf took a major penalty in the final three minutes, Slovakia scored off the enusing faceoff; move along, nothing to see here.

It is tough to buy the latter argument, though, when you look at the bigger picture. Three consecutive years without making the medal round is glaring for a country that claims to be the best at the sport.

More to the point, the result validates questions of why Hockey Canada turned the team over to executives of the perpetually rebuilding Edmonton Oilers. Well before the event, hockey bloggers such as Tyler Dellow argued that if Canada was serious about winning, Team Canada GM and Oilers president Kevin Lowe would not have put 18-year-old NHL draft prospect Ryan Murray on the roster ahead of a seasoned NHLer. Murray made for a good story, but normally only smaller nations with a lack of depth have to use a junior-aged player in the worlds.

No room for Spezza

The NHL's fourth-leading scorer, Ottawa Senators centre Jason Spezza, was reportedly told there was no spot for him on the team. Yet young Oilers Jordan Eberle and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, who are young pups at 22 and 19 years old, were there. Now you know why the Oilers are bad.

This is also adds to unease about Canada's ability to adapt to the big international ice surface, which it will have to do in Sochi. Even if a few top NHLers — Sidney Crosby, Jordan Staal, Marc-Andre Fleury, Daniel Briere, Scott Hartnell, Roberto Luongo, et al.— opted out of playing, there should be enough depth to at least reach the semifinal. It cannot be called a developmental team, not with Getzlaf and Corey Perry on the roster. It's true Canada sent its youngest team ever to the tournament, but it also sent a very young team in 2007, the last time it won the worlds.

There's nothing wrong with skipping the hand-wringing and saying this is no big deal. This was just the way it goes sometimes. Slovakia has been known to punch above its weight in hockey, plus they had Chara playing half the game on the blueline. The world championship is also a wide-open tournament. The absence of top NHLers who are still playing for the Stanley Cup gives nations such as Norway, Germany and Slovakia more of a chance.

Still, laughing it off as Canadian perspective is shortsighted. The legacy of the 2010 gold medal, Crosby's goal, should have been to make us engage more with the wider hockey world. We can't pick and choose when being on top is important. This is a major tournament to much of the hockey world and it should be for us.

Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Contact him at neatesager@yahoo.ca and follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet.

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