Sunday, January 04, 2009

HOCKEY: Proud To Be a Canuck

My brother Wayne is depressed about 50 weeks a year. But during the fortnight starting Boxing Day, Wayne lights up like a Christmas tree. It's time for the World Junior Hockey Championships and time to wear the flag and strut around.

This year's Canadian squad at the World Juniors was not at the expected strength we've come to expect from the eight-time straight gold medal finalists. Specifically, a whole raft of defencemen unexpectedly made their NHL teams, creating potential problems on the blue-line. It's been an area Canada has used to dominate teams from the northern hemisphere annually for the last couple of decades.

Instead of Luke Schenn and Drew Doughty being the shutdown Canadian pair, this year's team has Thomas Hickey and Colton Teubert. And frankly, team captain Hickey has been awful. In fact, no Canadian defenceman has been anywhere close to being the best defenceman in the tournament, although P.K. Suppan (a Montreal draftee) and wunderkid Ryan Ellis have been good offensively.

Add that to Vesa Toskala-like goaltending from Dustin Tokarski and some real bone-headed misplays by forward Steffan Della Rovere and you have a formula for Canadian disaster.

But the reason why this tournament lights Wayne's life up is that in the midst of all that's wrong with the current Canadian team, the thing's that right is that they play with passion and grit ... and luck.

Luck, the residue of effort and design, goes Canada's way. It certainly did last night in the Houdini act of dispatching the Russians by the famously lucky score of 6-5 in the semi-final game. But that luck was manufactured by Jordan Eberle, John Tavares and a crew of kids who fumbled and flounced until there was no time left to other than buckle down and win the game. Eberle's goal with a tick under six seconds left was (Paul) Henderson-esque and will put him in the pantheon of famous Canadian goal-scorers. Mind you, a loss to Sweden Monday night will put a pale on that accomplishment. But if the Canadians win (and they certainly believe they will ... and so do I), then the goal retains it's lustre for all time.

That goal effectively won the game for Canada. Sure, there was 10 minutes of obviously scoreless overtime that was mostly downhill for Canada. Then came the shootout, with Eberle and Tavares neatly depositing the puck in the Russian net while both Russian shooters failed. But there wasn't a single moment where you feared the Russians, so obviously depleted for having come up five or so seconds from pulling off the upset on Canadian ice.

And that's why you have to love this tournament. It's played by kids and kids make mistakes. The difference is how you react to those mistakes. The Canadian way is to pull the boot laces a little tighter and get on with the task of recovering and then thriving.

We Canadians might have a milquetoast reputation around the world. We are the 'nice' North Americans. But when it comes to hockey, we're anything but nice.

It's a good time of the year to be Canadian.

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