The Realities Of The Situation

As always, anything less than gold will be regarded as a failure for the Canadian hockey team.

The rewards of success are many. A gold medal win will reaffirm that Canada is indeed the world’s dominant hockey nation, and everyone on the team will bask in reflected glory. Steve Yzerman will be praised for his managerial genius. We will be regaled with tales of Mike Babcock’s coaching prowess. The offensive stars will be feted. The players who don’t put on an offensive show will be praised for either their defensive game or their willingness to buy into the team concept at the expense of personal glory. ‘The way they did it in Vancouver’ will be held up as a model for every team, be it international or NHL.

The perils of failure are as extreme. A loss will spark soul-searching in the columns of newspapers nationwide. Questions will arise as to whether Canada really is the world’s first nation of hockey. Yzerman’s strategy will be dissected and second guessed; questions about youth, character and the value of chemistry will abound. Every decision made by Babcock will come under intense scrutiny, and he’ll invariably be found wanting for mistakes real or imagined. The players involved will be questioned: the young ones for their inexperience, and the old ones for their age. Any San Jose Sharks forward will see their character judged harshly, yet again. Whichever narrative gets set upon as the team’s chief failing will be brought up in four years – ‘remember when they did ______ in Vancouver? They can’t do that again.’

It happened after Nagano in 1998, with the chief blame going to coach Marc Crawford for leaving Wayne Gretzky on the bench for the shootout, a decision that still resonates. “You win with your best,” said one commentator after Sidney Crosby scored against Switzerland last night, evoking memories of Crawford’s perceived blunder. Honourable mention goes to Rob Zamuner, a surprise selection as defensive specialist and a player who continually finds his way into stories which caution against bringing anything less than the best available players.

It happened in 2002, after Canada won gold at the Salt Lake City Olympics. That veteran group (half of whom have since retired) was praised for their savvy, and the memory of their lackluster start has almost faded completely – although the memory of Gretzky trying to deflect attention away from the team during an emotional press conference remains. It was well for Gretzky that things went the way they did; he’d gambled heavily on a few players, particularly Eric Lindros and Theo Fleury and it would have went very badly for him had things worked out otherwise.

It happened in 2006. Gretzky employed the same strategy in 2006 that he had in 2002, bringing aboard a mostly veteran group that once again included a major reclamation project (Todd Bertuzzi) and a role player (Kris Draper). In hindsight we’ve come to regard “veteran” as code for “old” and the omission of Sidney Crosby (then an 18-year old only halfway through his first professional season) is held up as a great error.

While this bipolar view of Team Canada can be lauded as all that matters, and has the virtue of simplicity, it isn’t a reasonable way to assess the work done by Steve Yzerman and the selection group. Any team can win one game, as we’ve seen time and time again. Consider, for instance, the 2001-02 Carolina Hurricanes, a plucky underdog team that made it all the way to the Stanley Cup Finals, where they won just a single game before being eliminated by the vastly superior Detroit Red Wings. The game they won was the first game of the series – in other words, if the Stanley Cup final was decided like the gold medal game is, we might be looking back at two cups for Carolina, and the simpleminded could continue to argue that Dominik Hasek wasn’t a great goalie because he never won a Cup.

Olympic history tells us this too, and not just Canadian history. In 2006, both the United States and Russia fell to defeat at the hands of Finland – the Russian game was particularly embarrassing, a 4-0 shutout loss to Antero Niittymaki and a dogged but inferior Finnish squad. In 2002, Canada’s road to gold was paved in part by a humiliating loss for Sweden. Early in the tournament, the Swedes were regarded as the favourites (they beat Canada 5-2 in the first game for both teams), and faced a woefully inadequate Belarusian team, fresh off an 8-1 defeat at the hands of the United States. Belarus. Somehow, Sweden lost 4-3, and the winning goal destroyed Tommy Salo’s reputation (though not, as widely thought, his career):

I don’t think Steve Yzerman selected a perfect team, but he did select a very good one, a team I’d be very confident in over a set of seven-game series. I don’t think Mike Babcock’s a perfect coach, but he’s proved time and again that he’s a very good one. But certainly, looking at history, we can allow that even if both of these men were perfect at their jobs, it’s completely possible that Canada wouldn’t come away with a gold medal. The reverse is also true: it’s completely possible that even if these two men were bad at their jobs, Canada has enough talent that they could win gold.

Despite the movies, despite the stories, despite conventional wisdom, the best and most deserving team does not always win. The losing team is not always deficient in character or talent. That isn’t to say that the victors don’t deserve credit, or that the losing team shouldn’t attempt to find their errors and learn from them (because there are always errors, however small). But chance is involved, and whichever way the tournament eventually goes to Canada, we will almost certainly overreact in one direction or the other.

Comments (12)

  1. Have you read “The Drunkard’s Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives”? I have a feeling that you have…

    This exact topic is discussed in painstaking detail with historical stats to back up the idea that “the best team does not always win”. It’s true for 7-game series and it’s especially true in single-game-elimination tournaments like the Olympics. Common sense stuff really.

    While I think it’s important to keep these things in mind – that luck DOES have a big role in sports – it’s just so much more fun to think that it doesn’t :)

  2. I accept that there are a lot of good players on all of the teams, and probably higher quality and quantity on Canada, Russia, and Sweden. Is it really fair to the players, or to the fans/citizens of another country to expect a win for any of those teams? Canada has been pushed into a shootout by the Swiss. Russia got stonewalled by Halak, and lost to Slovakia.

    It happens. That’s why we play the game, and that’s especially why there are 7 game series’ in the Stanley Cup Final.

    That being said, there are so many staw men I want to set up for you JW.

    What about Team Chemistry?

    Leadership?

    Choosing the Best Player Available?

    Don’t all of these factors play a big role in team success, and if a team fails to succeed, why not just assume that some combination of them is responsible for such a failure? After all, there has to be someone to blame or scapegoat, doesn’t there?

  3. Muji: I haven’t read it but I’ve definitely heard of it.

    And you’re right of course; on some level, we want to believe that character and talent ultimately persever (especially the former) in any given situation, regardless of the reality. I don’t take issue with a fan who wants to look at the game that way, although I think it’s incredibly stupid for a manager or an analyst.

  4. Jordan: I suppose what I’d like to see is balance; a consideration of mistakes made but a realization that the best way to judge those mistakes isn’t necessarily the results.

    We give a pass to errors if the result is good, and we eviscerate good managers if the results are bad, when we should be looking at the decisions they made and the reasons they made them.

  5. I looked at the records between the top seven teams since 1996 (three, now four, olympics; and the two WCs.) The spread between first and sixth over that time over 13-22 games is so small that almost every game between one of these teams is a tossup. With Slovakia clearly a world power now, we have another team that could win it all. Every success or failure will only be in retrospect, full of confirmation bias.

  6. really nice read… but that video’s audio really throws you off! hilarious! had to run that clip a few times!
    fans over react but last olympic team sucked without a doubt… not like we put out our best and we lost, more like we picked an old slow team and got smoked/couldn’t put the puck in the net to save our lives.
    This year I wouldn’t have picked this exact team, but I feel it is much stronger than 06, especially forward depth and defence.
    I think Sunday is going to be an important game, if we win most will maintain that we are favourites and would be surprised if we don’t win gold… if we lose the pressure coupled with the doubt and grumblings from across the nation will be very difficult to rebound in the midst of. Sunday is huge for the mental make up of the team.

  7. This is all true. And the hand-wringing in Canada if the team loses will still be tremendous. To be honest, even as a loyal Canadian and supporter of the team, I had this kind of perverse desire to see what reaction in the country will be like if they lose. Say what you will about how ridiculous the “hockey summits” and such got after the lost in 1998, it was kind of fascinating from a socio-cultural point of view. Losing in Turin had nowhere near that effect, of course, but losing in Vancouver? The reaction would be…interesting. I probably should’ve gotten into sociology.

    Just as interesting will be the reaction in Russia if they put together a monumental collapse. Not that they will, but at this point, after losing to Slovakia…well, it’s a possibility, and I would not want to be one of the players on their team going back to the KHL if it happens.

  8. Is it just me or was i imagining that Canada once had great physical players.What happened to that heart that used to burn up the boards and corners.I admit Dion might of been a bit lax defensively, but he could of set a tone for the boys to follow,and who told Cory perry to be a saint,its like their playing Sweden i mean Detroit,s no hit style.All i can say is where is the Canadian hockey that we were once recognized for.Maybe a Doan or smythes dogged determination is whats missing i don’t know,but i do not see the boys wearing their hearts on their sleeves,it looks like perry still hears Babcock calling him a bum during every game of last playoffs,who knows.

  9. Muji: That’s exactly what I thought when I read this article. I’m just about finished reading it, and it’s amazing how much randomness there is in sports and how something that seems historic is really just random chance expressing itself.

  10. A false sense of entitlement ,and Canadian club forgets to bring it’s forte work effort to the ice . On paper we should be No.1 , but the players are not bringing the work effort/ethic that we are normally associated with to bring home the gold. Same thing happened last Olympics that ended in disaster . They still think their skill set is good enough to win it – but without that Canadian work ethic being bought out soon , they will falter again . Skill is just not good enough anymore to win these short tournaments irregardless of team , you must bring your lunch pails to accompany it . So far ,our Canadian club has not shown the intestinal fortitude to outwork the opposition , and is relying too heavily/ and floating on it’s so called skillset advantage . Can they put them both together and go for the gold this time ?

  11. @Robert: Jarome Iginla. Brenden Morrow. Mike Richards. Chris Pronger. Shea Weber. Perhaps you’ve heard of them?

  12. doogie i heard of them,just not the last few games,iggy and pronger played like old men,morrow hardly gets to play and weber has been physical,but if you think Canada has been playing physical then fine,but i wouldn’t define it as hard hitting by any means.

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