It is easy to look at the incredible quality of the Canadian roster and think that there is just no way that team should be able to lose. This is the team that boasts the best player in the world, the team that won gold the last time out and the team that just named last year’s leading NHL scorer as an injury replacement because there were 14 forwards the management group liked better than Martin St. Louis when it named the team.
It is certain, however, that Canada’s opponent harbor no such illusions about the team.
The Canadian entry in 2006 was blessed with similar amounts of talent and finished seventh in the Turin Olympics, shutout three times in a stretch of four games. And while the Canadians have been careful to try to avoid the mistakes of that tournament—even enlisting the aid of Ralph Krueger, who was behind the Swiss bench for one of those Canadian losses—Turin offers both hope to Canada’s rivals and a realistic approach to beating the favourite.
Ken Hitchcock, who was an assistant coach with the 2006 team and will be behind the bench again for Canada this year, explained to The Globe and Mail’s Eric Duhatschek that a big part of the problem was Canada’s inability to handle the passive defensive system deployed against it in Turin:
Three or four countries barely sent one guy in. Some countries sent nobody in. And so they made us skate through them in the neutral zone and we didn’t necessarily have the foot speed to get through. Teams basically backed off. It was hard slogging for us. I’d never seen that before—and you have to make a lot of plays to get through that type of check. It was a real eye-opener in how different the game was, from the small ice to the big ice. People got a 1-0 lead and they just played defence to win 1-0.
The Canadian coaches and management have made efforts to adjust to that style of game, relying heavily on speed and puck-moving ability in putting the roster together and pre-scouting the opposition so as to have a better idea of the tactics the team is likely to face.
There are two key lessons to take away from Hitchcock’s comment.
The first is that Canada, until it shows otherwise, may still be vulnerable to the passive defence popular in European leagues. The other is the extent to which the Canadians were neutralized by being caught by surprise.
For Canada’s opponents, both revelations are valuable in that they show the importance of having dynamic coaches capable of presenting Team Canada with strategies it has not anticipated and which are less popular in the NHL than overseas.
Another factor contributing to Canada’s loss in Turin was poor discipline, as players accustomed to the looser standard of officiating prevalent in the NHL struggled to adapt to stricter IIHF rules. In the deciding game in 2006, Russia’s winning goal came on the power play after Todd Bertuzzi took an interference penalty miles from the defensive zone.
In fact, encouraging the Canadian team to play as physical game as possible is likely to work in the favour of the opposition. Not only are hits more likely to result in penalties in the Olympic game, but because of the bigger ice there is generally plenty of time to get the puck away before a player from a team intent on finishing every check arrives.
Additionally, while North American hockey exalts dirty goals and just getting pucks on net—because that is what works on an NHL rink—the European tendency to "pass the puck into the net" is something Canada’s opponents should embrace. It is harder to get the puck back once surrendered on the bigger ice, so just blasting it from everywhere is a suboptimal strategy, and it's one Canadian players may default to.
There is a broader theme to all of these individual points.
Canada’s players have played the majority of their careers on NHL ice, under North American rules, and while hockey is hockey, the differences between the North American game and the European game are very real and very relevant. The job of Canada’s opponents is to play to the strengths in their games that make them better-suited to the big ice than Canada.
Those strengths include coaches who have spent the majority of their careers devising and defeating big ice systems, players who were schooled in a system that encourages east-west rather than north-south play and an overall philosophy that encourages puck possession and creativity over finishing checks and making the simple play.
Ultimately, the way to defeat Canada is not by embracing the things Canada does. The road to victory over the Canadians lies in executing a European game better than Canada can adapt their own game to Europe.
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