GANGNEUNG, SOUTH KOREA - FEBRUARY 23: Canada's Marc-Andre Gragnani #18 looks on after a 4-3 semifinal round loss against Germany at the PyeongChang 2018 Olympic Winter Games. (Photo by Andre Ringuette/HHOF-IIHF Images)
Dissecting Canada’s fall from golden grace
In 2014, if someone had told you that Germany would be the country to end Canada’s reign as two-time Olympic champions, you probably would have laughed.
Sweden, the U.S., Russia? Maybe. Finland? Also possible. The Czechs, Slovaks, or Swiss? Long shots. After that, bring on the wisecracks.
But nobody was laughing in Canada after coach Marco Sturm’s men hung on for a shocking 4-3 semi-final win and advanced to Sunday's gold medal game against the KHL-stacked Olympic Athletes from Russia. Even though Canada's 6-4 bronze-medal victory over the Czechs on Saturday provided a nice consolation prize, it's not the medal color that Canadian supporters demand.
"A lot of what we talked about was past performances by Canadian teams and the history we have of maybe not showing up for the bronze because it’s always been gold or nothing," admitted veteran defenceman Chris Lee afterwards. "It’s unfortunate that we looked at that as motivation but you gotta find something to pump you up."
First, let’s be fair about what happened in the first German win over Canada in Olympic history. The Germans may sit eighth in the IIHF World Rankings, at least before the new edition comes out, but they did their jobs to a T.
“We knew they were a good team,” said Canada’s Mason Raymond. “They got to the semis for a reason. You’ve got to give credit. They played well, but I don’t think we orchestrated what we were hoping to do well enough.”
Gold was potentially within Canada’s grasp. And many Canadian fans thought playing Germany, which had just stunned Sweden 4-3 in overtime, was an easy pass to the final. After all, the last time a Swedish team succumbed to a massive underdog in the Olympic quarter-finals, Canada got the pleasure of pounding Belarus 7-1 in the semi-finals and then won gold in Salt Lake City in 2002.
Before Friday’s semi-final, one longtime Canadian hockey writer opined that a German win might be a bigger upset than Belarus beating Sweden in 2002 – before being reminded of the presence of Nicklas Lidstrom, Mats Sundin, and Daniel Alfredsson on that Tre Kronor roster.
Perhaps a little overoptimism about Germany hurt the 2018 Canadian team. In an Olympic semi-final, you don’t fall behind 3-0 and 4-1 in the second period like that unless you’re mentally flat. The Canadians had a rude awakening.
Germany’s Felix Schutz said: “I talked to some players after the Sweden game and that was the first time I think I played against a Sweden team where they had a couple of minutes where they looked nervous too. They realized: “[Expletive deleted]! These guys can play.” Once you realize it, it’s almost too late. You saw that with Canada too. They put everything out there after we were leading 4-1 and then they got a couple of lucky bounces, I guess, and they were right back in the game. But we stayed mentally strong.”
The Germans played with defensive structure and an offensive creativity that speaks to their familiarity with one another and the encouragement Sturm has given them to attack rather than play traditional kitty-bar-the-door Deutschland hockey. Eishockey News editor Michael Bauer said: “I have never seen something like that. Look at the 3-0 Frank Mauer goal. Between the legs. Wow.”
But objectively, Canada did what it could with the roster it had, and winding up with a bronze medal is a respectable and not entirely unexpected result. This was a well-prepared team with good effort, but it was just one of several nations with a chance in Korea.
Factoring in NHL non-participation, these were Canada’s best players. Even with Barys Astana’s Linden Vey sitting fourth in KHL scoring (17-35-52), is it fair to ask him to outgun SKA St. Petersburg’s Ilya Kovalchuk (31-32-63)?
Some might argue that adding recent World Junior alumni would have cranked up the offence, but look at the Americans: even though youngsters like Ryan Donato and Troy Terry lit it up, that didn’t stop them from bowing to the Czechs in the quarter-finals. For Canada, there were no Connor McDavid-caliber talents available up front, and adding Victor Mete, as per speculation last month, would not have revolutionized the blue line.
Discipline-wise, Gilbert Brule’s selfish head shot on German forward David Wolf at center ice was an atypical reversion to the bad old Canadian habit of getting nasty when trailing by a big margin in international hockey. Even if the Germans didn’t score on the ensuing major, it hobbled the hopes of a comeback that Brule himself had sparked five minutes earlier with his 3-1 power-play goal.
It was just bad karma – probably the most consequential penalty Canada has taken in Olympic competition since Todd Bertuzzi tripped Sergei Gonchar in the offensive zone in the 2006 quarter-final, enabling Alexander Ovechkin to score the go-ahead goal in Russia’s 2-0 win.
"You don’t get this opportunity very often," said head coach Willie Desjardins. "I didn’t want to just leave with our mark being walking in the opening ceremonies. I wanted something for us more than that. At least we got a bronze."
Post-mortem conversations in Canada, of course, will center less on who was on the ice when the four German goals went in than on who was not.
History is being made in PyeongChang right now, and there are apparently a few well-known Canadian players who aren’t here. They instead have been forced to inhabit a world dominated by questions like “What, really, is goaltender interference?”, “Can a top-flight defenceman get by on $12 million a season, or will $10 million do?”, and “How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?”
If you are an elite player who regrets not being able to help Canada three-peat in Korea, let your voice be heard. And that means something more substantial than, “Obviously, it’s unfortunate. But I’m not too focused on that right now.” Let the powers that be know that ensuring Canada has the best possible representation at the 2022 Winter Games is a priority for you.
Asian Olympics have not been kind to Canadian hockey. Both in Nagano 1998 and this year, the women lost the gold medal game and the men failed in the semi-final. At least this year Desjardins and his captain, Chris Kelly, got the bronze that eluded Marc Crawford and Eric Lindros in '98, so Canada's medal streak extends to three Olympics. What will Beijing look like?
We’ve all seen that when Canada sends most of its absolute best available talent, such as at the 2014 Olympics and the last three Worlds, it excels. While losing to Germany in the semi-final does mark the end of a golden Olympic era, it doesn’t mean Canadians couldn’t be laughing with joy again in four years.