By Dan Falloon, sports reporter
It’s almost a rite of passage for the top teams at the world junior hockey championships.
Yep, padding stats in the opening games of the tournament almost has become a Boxing Day tradition at the TSN-touted tournament, as shown by Canada’s 16-0 demolition of Latvia on Saturday and a more reasonable 6-0 whitewashing of Switzerland on Monday.
Sure enough, Gabriel Bourque tied a Canadian tournament record with seven points on Saturday (three goals and four assists).
It just seems like there’s something wrong—and maybe a little perverse—about watching these kinds of games since, if you’re a Canadian fan, you pretty much have to cheer for a complete and utter shellacking.
If the boys sporting the Maple Leaf won by a score of, say, 4-1 or 6-3, concerned questions would fly. Surely, there would be an inquiry by Hockey Canada to get to the bottom of why our juniors couldn’t win by a couple of converted touchdowns against the Latvians.
And that’s why the fans in Saskatoon still cheered as the Canadians ran the score into double-digits.
Considering the opposition, nothing less than an embarrassment would have been an acceptable result.
But here’s my problem with it. It’s not a rivalry game or anything. It’s a different game from watching Canada-U.S. or Canada-Russia. Those are absolute no-mercy games, and a 16-0 game either way would be a huge surprise—and a win like that could be a feather proudly worn in the cap of the victor.
It’s a loss that’s likely to be avenged, hopefully resulting in a memorable match-up next time.
What reason do Canadians have to hate Latvia? Maybe someone from Okotoks, Alta. was conned into buying a knock-off pair of Air Jordans in downtown Riga. Fine. There’s one, what’s your excuse?
As well, figuring out a way to keep teams from running up the score would be a welcome sliver of sportsmanship in a time when it’s sorely lacking. Watching some recent head shots and knee injuries from the NHL, it seems as though players don’t view their opponents with the same amount of respect as in years past.
Now, letting off the gas in a six- or seven-goal game probably isn’t going to prevent any concussions, but if it downgrades the ultra-competitive mindset down to mega-competitive and adds an ounce of consideration for the guys in the other sweaters, then it would be worth it.
So, what can be done about those cupcake games in the early part of the schedule? An easy solution would be to drop from 10 teams to eight. Keeping the relegation round for the two bottom teams, which likely would mean that Canada, the U.S., Russia, Sweden, Finland, and the Czech Republic would be set from year-to-year.
Slovakia would have to jump through an extra hoop but likely would find a way in, leaving Latvia, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Norway, Denmark, Belarus, and Kazakhstan to battle it out for the last spot.
On the other hand, cutting teams means cutting games and, especially for tournaments in Canada, that cuts revenue.
And on the ice, sometimes those games aren’t always a piece of cake for the giants of the sport.
Case in point, the 2006 Winter Olympics, where Switzerland blanked Canada 2-0.
That result shows they play the games for a reason—just because anything could happen. And upsets are part of what make sports so fun to be a part of—if your team isn’t on the losing end of one.
I remember watching Vladimir Kopat of Belarus score on Tommy Salo from 70 feet out to shock the Swedes at the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City. The repercussions for my beloved Oilers aside, that’s one of a handful of goals that stays fondly at the forefront of my memory.
Reducing the number of teams in the Olympic and world junior tournaments just isn’t the way to shut the door on blowouts, if only for the off-chance that the underdog rises to the occasion.
Perhaps the solution is in a change to the tie-breaking formula. Currently, the first tie-break to sort out seeding after the round-robin is goal differential, which results in teams running up the score whenever possible.
But if that were changed to goals allowed, the focus becomes solely on defence. While that could result in a run-and-gun offensive juggernaut falling to second place behind a grind-it-out defensive squad, the system may add suspense to a game that might otherwise lose it.
What if this system were in place and Latvia was able to shovel a couple of pucks past Canadian goalie Jake Allen? It creates a game within the game for both teams, not just the victors. Sure, the Latvians were probably going to lose, but getting a couple of goals on the board would be more painful for the Canadians when it’s impossible to wipe away those blemishes just by bulging the twine again.
Unfortunately, there are other reasons that running up the score just isn’t going to go away—and those reasons are associated with sports, even this amateur tournament, being a business.
The spectators in Saskatoon paid a minimum of $55 (plus charges) to witness the Canadian lions maul the overmatched Latvian gladiators. When that pretty penny is being shelled out, Team Canada can’t exactly just mail in the second half of the game after staking out an already-insurmountable lead.
Secondly, even though it’s technically an amateur tournament, the players are on the verge of making the big-time. While Taylor Hall is the only Canadian who will be drafted this summer, and has established himself as a first-overall front-runner, lesser-known players can shoot up the draft rankings—and increase the salary of their entry-level contracts—with an impressive tournament.
Sure, scouts will be out in full force this week in Saskatchewan, and they’ll be looking at more than what’s on the scoresheet. But stats are hard to argue with, and on a level, production is production.
So while the cream-puff games have come and gone for another year, they’ll pop up again soon at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics and at tournaments in the future.
The IIHF must put a focus on development in the weaker countries, but it’d be nice to see the juggernauts willing to give a little bit as Belarus, Switzerland, and Denmark, among others, strive to be consistently competitive.
By Dan Falloon, sports reporter