There’s an interesting article up at the IIHF website. It’s a long read, but essentially what it boils down to is an attempt to shame players who declined an invitation to play for their country at the IIHF World Championships. Generally I agree with the idea that if a player can go, he should go; not just to pay the country back for investing in hockey but also because playing in a competitive environment with different line-mates and for different coaches is a good way to develop as a player. That said, reading about these players who “turn their backs not only on the team and its fans but also to the system which developed them and made them rich and famous” on the IIHF website comes across as a bit self-serving, since nobody benefits from marquee players at the World Championships as much as the IIHF does.
Still, the surprisingly preachy tone and the self-interest weren’t what caught my eye. What caught my eye was this quote, about the Canadian hockey program:
When Canada re-entered international competition in 1977, not many observers where impressed by the general skill level of Canadian players. But it was during that period that Hockey Canada invested serious resources into the Program of Excellence which today has paid off in two Olympic gold medals, five men’s IIHF World Championship gold medals, and 15 World Junior gold medals.
That’s an interesting perspective, and one I think is difficult to support. The Program of Excellence, which started in 1982, may very well have played a role in Canada’s resurgence, and there’s no denying that Hockey Canada has come a long ways since its inception, but to credit that body with the wholesale turn around of the Canadian hockey program simply makes no sense to me.
The two Olympic medals seem like a bad place to start. After all, it wasn’t Hockey Canada’s development system that turned around Canada’s Olympic hopes – in five Olympics between 1980 and 1994, Canada didn’t capture gold on even one occasion. It was only when professional NHL’ers joined the tournament that things changed – and Canada has captured two gold medals in the four tournaments featuring the best players in the world.
It seems equally foolish to credit the program with those five World Championship medals – after all, Canada didn’t win Gold until 1994, a full 12 years after the Program of Excellence was initiated.
Finally, it’s true that it was Hockey Canada’s program that initiated World Junior success, but I’d give less credit to development and more credit to the fact that prior to 1982 it was a club team – not a collection of the best junior players in Canada – that represented the country at the World Juniors. Moving to a format that brought the best Canadian players together had more to do with turning the tide than any developmental system. That’s an organizational change, not an improvement in skill level via development.
In short, if observers were unimpressed with the skill level of Canadian players, that’s probably because before 1982 most of the best Canadian players didn’t get to participate – either at the Olympics or the World Juniors.