Can the World's Hockey Super-Power Stay at the Top?

With the start of the Stanley Cup Finals under way, I've considered the question: Why does it matter so much to Canadians? Well, for many Canadians, their favourite players or team may be involved, for some it’s simply something they’re interested in because they enjoy the sport to levels people in other countries rarely do, some may feel some sort of obligation to know what’s going on in the playoffs because it’s part of Canada’s heritage, and then there will be the individuals who watch or pay attention only to fit in with nearly everyone else in the country.

No matter what segmented audience you fit into, you’re more than likely to know a little bit about what’s going on. At least more so than what’s happening with the Blue Jays, who despite being in first in the AL East by five and a half games, many people probably have no idea.

During the playoffs, there is so much emphasis put on goaltending. I constantly hear statements such as: “Goaltending and defense is the most important part of a winning playoff team,” but it’s often the goaltending that gets blamed when the team’s defensive structure collapses and the team struggles to keep the puck out of the net.

A good example of the importance placed upon goaltenders during the playoffs is how there was so much pressure on Carey Price to perform or else the only Canadian team remaining would have their chances greatly diminished, and when Price got injured, the general consensus, from both fans of Montreal or just fans of the game, was that they were done.

The Rangers have reached the cup final because they have obviously played excellent hockey, but it’s hard to argue the main reason is because of their Swedish goaltender, Henrik Lundqvist. Lundqvist leads all goaltenders in SV%, and sits second in GAA only behind the Bruins Finnish goalie, Tuukka Rask. Meanwhile they don’t have anyone within the top 10 in points, goals, or plus/minus. It’s not a very difficult argument to make.

For the Kings, American goaltender, Jonathon Quick, has not been as dominant as he was on the Kings 2011/2012 Stanley Cup run, but it’s no doubt he’s one of the league’s top flight goaltenders who can steal you games. 

What does this mean for Canada and its goaltenders. No Canadian goaltenders in this year’s final, and the last two Canadian goaltenders to win the cup, Marc Andre Fleury and Corey Crawford, were behind two otherworldly talented teams. The Vezina trophy has been awarded to a Canadian goaltender not named Martin Brodeur once in the last twenty years, and that was Jose Theodore in 2001/2002. Why is the hockey super power of the world struggling to create top-flight NHL caliber goalies?

I refer to Canada as the hockey super power of the world despite the IIHF ranking them fourth. The IIHF make their rankings based on two things, results at the last Olympic Games, and results at the last four World Hockey Championships. I have some issues with this.

First off, countries receive the same point total for the Olympic gold and World Championship gold. I would argue that the Olympic gold holds significantly more value. It’s once every four years, and this creates pressure for the competing countries unlike anything at the World Championship, and it’s widely regarded as the biggest and most important tournament in International hockey. 

Secondly, countries can also acquire four times the amount of points at the World Championship than they can get from the Olympic Games in each four year cycle. On top of that, World Championships are held during the NHL playoffs, meaning every country isn’t properly represented.

Third, it also doesn’t take the World Junior Championship into consideration. Considering that they are measuring the long term success of each country, you feel as though the tournament where each country’s top young players are competing would be of some kind of importance.

The reasons above is why I believe the IIHF system is flawed, and I firmly believe Canada is the number one hockey nation, and not fourth as the IIHF has them. I base this on the past two Olympic gold’s they have won, and the vast amount of Canadians playing in the NHL. These numbers could be skewed somewhat due to the amount of non-Canadian players playing in other leagues such as the KHL, but it’s significant and needs to considered that Canadian players make up more than half of the NHL.

Personally, this is how I feel, but everyone is entitled to their opinion and judgement.

Now, back to the issue of Canada struggling to create top-flight goaltenders at the next level, and that’s something the CHL is trying to fix, but they might not be taking the best approach.

With a two European player per team rule already in effect, the CHL decided before last year’s annual CHL draft that European goaltenders were only allowed to be selected in the first round, and if they were not selected within the first round they have no other way of playing in the CHL. The CHL Board of Directors made this decision to create more playing time for Canadian goalies, which in turn will create more development time. 

"The goaltender position is the most important in our game," CHL president David Branch explained after the decision was made. "In partnership with Hockey Canada, the CHL has identified the need to further develop Canadian goaltenders by providing increased opportunities for them to compete in our league and succeed at the next level.”

Will opportunities to receive playing time increase for Canadian goalies, perhaps, but that does not solve the problem of a lack of development. CHL teams are playing to win, they will take the best players available. The opportunity for both the European goalie and the Canadian goalie to be used as a starter are both there, but if the European is better, they’ll take the European. The opportunity was there with the old system, but it allowed to the goalies to earn their spot, and get better through the idea of competing for a position. 

The new system is not fixing the problem about a lack of development, it’s simply reducing competition, which doesn’t foster growth for these goalies. It’s giving some goalies a spot, instead of letting them go get it. It doesn’t exactly embody the ideals of sport, especially a sport at a level of the CHL.

Looking at the big picture, it really is a shame the CHL has done this. Canada, the world’s hockey super-power, prevents European goalies to play in their league because the country fears other countries are catching up to them, and taking away playing time.

Instead of looking within their own system, identifying what is not working, and what they can do better, they just eliminate a portion of their competition. As I mentioned earlier, that’s the opposite of what sport is about: competition, self-improvement, fair-play, equality, hard work, etc. 

Eliminating your competition is useful is some cases, or some industries, or some situations, but sports simply is not one of those.

So, what does this mean for the development of goalies in Canada?

Well at this point, it doesn’t seem like they’re doing much outside of this rule to improve the state of goaltending within Canada. Poor goaltending has been the centre of the blame for Canada failing to win a gold medal at the World Junior Championship since 2009, and while they’ve won two consecutive gold medals at the Olympic Games, the players on those teams were the ones who we’re on the World Junior teams that dominated the latter part of the 2000’s. 

Does this mean the rest of the world is catching up to Canada? In goaltending it looks as though that’s already occurred, but even in other parts of the game it could be happening as well. Canada went through a similar stretch from 1998 – 2004 when they did not win a World Junior Championship after dominating from 1988 – 1997, but they rebounded to win five in a row starting in 2005.

Maybe these stretches are due to a rough period in terms of pure talent, but it’s more than likely that player development has had something to do it. Canada’s adjusted in the past, and they must do it again to stay at the top.

Dr. Steve Norris held the position pf Vice-President at Winsport Canada in Calgary, Alberta, and he played a pivotal role in the world-leading performance and development programming of high performance athletes, including those at the Olympic Games. 

He also previously worked as Director of Sport Physiology & Strategic Planning at the Canadian Sport Centre in Calgary where he was focused on Canada’s Winter Olympic teams for three three Olympic cycles (Salt Lake City 2002, Torino 2006, & Vancouver 2010). He worked with national coaches, and team officials to create programs that increased the likelihood of success on an international level.

In the past, he’s illustrated sports and player development with sand castles. There will always be the big beautiful sand castle, but if fails to move, evolve, and improve, someone else will take advantage of one’s stagnation and build a better one.

This also goes hand in hand with Norris’ mention of the Japanese Kaizen principle of constant improvement. “You constantly need to move your program forward otherwise others will set new standards,” he said. “This is what sport is all about.”

Canada currently has the biggest, and nicest sand castle in the hockey world, but if it fails to adjust and improve on the fly despite already being at the top, other nations will continue to creep up and challenge them.

The CHL rule and downward trend of Canadian goaltenders were used as examples of player development within the country failing to move forward and improve. If this trend continues into other positions and skills, then the gap between Canada and the rest of the world will continue to get smaller. 

Hockey means so much to this country, and that’s clear when you see portions of the country distraught at a team of under-20 males who fail to live to what seems like the insurmountable pressure placed upon them for a tournament that’s held every year. It would truly be a shame to see Canada’s player development be stagnant, have other countries challenge them at the top, and see international success decline.

Canada can prevent this, no doubt, but it will take more than simply eliminating competition from other countries in junior hockey to do so. It will take an ever-constant cycle of reform, change, improvement and development. 

Norris’ philosophies are not an exact science, and there is not one player development formula that will work for every player, but Hockey Canada needs to look inside their own system and find out what’s really wrong with the developmental process for goaltenders. One rule change in the CHL, and the hope that this is simply a dry patch of natural talent won’t fix the issue.

It’s not so much a massive problem that’s taking Canada down from the top spot of hockey nations, but instead it’s giving the other countries an avenue to challenge that top spot. Goaltending is a big part of the game, anyone can attest to that, and Canada’s been passed in that regard. Hockey Canada needs to batten down the hatches, adjust their player development, improve the turnover rate of successful NHL goaltenders, and ensure other aspects of the game remain at the top.

It’s a lot to ask, but for the world’s number one hockey nation, a nation where the citizens bleed hockey, you’d think it would be feasible.

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