Saturday, September 11, 2004
Canada got lucky, folks
Anyone who just finished watching Canada's 4-3 overtime win against the Czech Republic in the semi-finals of the World Cup of Hockey just saw a team escape what could have easily been near disaster.
Canada had some luck on their side in winning that game. They were easily outshot. They were easily outplayed in the final stages of the game - when it matters most. They spent much of the play chasing down Czechs, missing passes, skating around in their own end, and being stifled in the offensive zone. It wasn't exactly a one-sided affair. But the Czechs should be hitting themselves over the head at the thought of losing a game which they had every right calling their own. And the Canadians should be thanking the hockey gods for avoiding what could have been a national tragedy had they been defeated in such a big game game under such a large spotlight.
The victory will cover up the fact that the Canadians were outplayed in the game. So will a much better effort against Finland in the final on Tuesday evening. Yet conscientious Canadian hockey fans should be asking themselves how Team Canada avoided an almost exact repeat of the semi-final loss they suffered at the hands of the Czechs in the semi-finals of the 1998 Nagano Olympics.
One game is not a microcosm. We can't judge the quality of the team or their ability to perform based on that one game solely. Yet we have in the past. And you can bet that we would have if the outcome had turned out differently than it did tonight.
Some say we are past that stage of introspection in our national pastime. We have proven our dominance in recent years to the point that continuing self-doubt was no longer necessary.
However, Canada's performance tonight has to raise some questions. They deserved to lose to a skilled yet out-gunned Czech hockey team.
Were the Czechs smarter? Were they more mentally and physically prepared? Did the Canadians simply have a sub-par performance? Have we become too quick in grading Canadian talent as superior to that produced by the other countries? Was coaching a factor? Was team play a factor? Was the Czech style better at squeezing every ounce of productivity from the entire lineup? Is Czech individual skill still better than that of Canada? Or were the Canadians simply over-confident after having sailed through the rest of the tournament until this evening?
Perhaps most frustrating from a Canadian perspective was how the Czechs out-played the Canadians in many aspects of the game. They were stronger on the puck. They maintained pressure in the offensive zone for longer periods of time. They emerged from their own zone with control and speed. They bottled up Canadian forwards trying to get a rush going. Most astonishlingly, the Canadian players at times didn't even look like hockey players. They couldn't hold onto the puck in open ice, they were missing simple passes, and their decision-making was often questionable. Even Mario Lemieux was tripping over the blue line trying to stick-handle the puck!
Knowing Canadian hockey fans, these sorts of questions don't matter one bit any more. Canada won. That's all that counts. The satisfaction of this victory will trump any doubt concerning what can only be seen as disappointing play. Yet, if we still care about this game, and we still want to put the best product on the ice every time we face the rest of the hockey world, we might want to at least take a look back at tonight's game to try and see why Canada didn't play as well as they should have. If they would have lost, which very well could have happened, it's almost certain at least some people would have wanted to take that second look. Now that they have won, it will probably only happen if Finland triumphs in the finals.
Great hockey teams shouldn't under-perform in crucial situations, even if circumstances are challenging. Canada did that tonight. Perhaps I'll be the only person asking why. We'll see what happens Tuesday night.