When you think championship team, you think star athletes. You think about all the parts that contribute to the cliched well oiled machine.
In the NHL there are many parts that have to thrive in every scenario. For starters, you have to have three effective and dominant lines up front that can score, and defend. You need three crucial in sync defensive pairings that know each others move before they make it. Your powerplay has to be unstoppable, and your penalty kill has to be stingy, at worst. Then you need a line reserved for the grinders and tough guys to rough the other team up. You need the gritty fourth line to go to work on the boards and eat up minutes while your stars rest.
That’s the NHL.
Different leagues have different looking championship teams. During the World Junior Hockey Championships, your team has to have everything listed in an NHL championship team- excluding the fourth line work horses.
What do I mean you don’t need guys to eat up minutes by dishing out hits and roughing up the opponent? It’s not that you don’t need it- it can help you out from time to time- it’s that you can’t have it on your team. Contradictory statements, but think about it a second.
The officiating in the WJHC has always been tight. Real strict penalties are given for hits that make loud noises- we remember this well from a few years back. The head is no joke; get your arms, shoulders, hands, whatever up there, and you’re sitting in the box. Not only in the WJHC is this officiating predominant, but it is apparent in any international play including Europe. The IIHF has very strict guidelines for penalties. Hits attract special attention as well as roughing, fighting is not even in the question.
Why then when Canada and the USA who play very similar styles in terms of icing teams with grittiness, do fans complain? When there are big hits in a game you can almost always guarantee a penalty will be called and a major will be given out. The IIHF has crafted tournaments that rely on skill in terms of puck handling and skating to succeed. Not the ability to over power teams with size.
Take for example the disastrous first and second period of Canada’s 6-3 win over Slovakia on Friday. Right out of the gate there were quite a few whistles and penalties to the Canadian team which really set a frustrating pace for the game. Disaster 1 was the first period hit by Canadian forward J.C. Lipon that sent Slovakia’s Tomas Mikus into a daze. The hit was dirty. Face into the glass, arms up- just a dumb, undisciplined play. Taking penalties like those (5 minute majors), getting ejected from the game taking your team down to 11, and facing further suspension is not worth the hit.
After that first period disaster came another in the second. This one, much more controversial because of the injury to Slovakia’s Patrick Luza which warranted the ejection of Canada’s Anthony Camara, and a 5 minute major. The hit was clean. The hit was not dirty, he didn’t leave his feet, his arms were down and he used his shoulder. The severe distress Luza was in was the deciding factor in the penalty and game misconduct issued to Camara. This was a rallying point for the Canadian team.
The clean hit that unfortunately sent Luza crashing to the ice and saw him wheeled off to a hospital on a stretcher was assessed as clean by the linesman. The fact that Luza was so injured, the play was reviewed and a play that had no objections from the officials was now deemed dangerous and a major penalty.
Once again, we see the Canadians short handed because of their style of play, not because of their recklessness.
When do the teams learn? You can complain and call the Canadian’s dirty, and go ahead and say the same about the US. You can complain that the officiating is terrible and there is no place for these “soft” calls. Or, you can realize the things you are complaining about are the things wrong with your team.
If Canada wants to win gold, even the USA, they have to realize playing the other teams physically is ok, but looking for the hit and lining guys up is going to kill them in the end. Not literally, but metaphorically, the penalties that stack up are absolutely the reason you will lose games. You cannot expect to be successful in an IIHF tournament and take more than 1 penalty a period.
If the Russians, Swedes, etc want to win gold, they need to play with a little more integrity. Notorious for dives, and sneaky cross checks, that kind of play doesn’t add anything to the tournament. It is just as bad as the reckless hits by the North American teams.
To play in the WJC means you have to play to your strengths given the officiating you are fully aware exists, and the team you are playing. You know the rules, you understand how tight the games are called and you still look for hits? There are other ways to win games than physically laying out opponents.
When Canada stayed out of the box and used their size and quickness to their advantage they were undoubtedly the better team. They were faster, craftier, and much more aware of their teammates positioning leading to pretty tap ins, and crisp passes. Why not frustrate other teams by beating them to every puck, skating harder, and faster to get the job done without losing players?
The European style of play some argue is more skilled. Their puck handling is superb, their skating is top notch, and their skill level is obviously high. Adding physicality to that arsenal could be a deadly combination. The taunting by means of whacks to shins and calves, the cross checks, and the trips are all little plays that are just as dirty as a dirty hit. If both sides of the spectrum can learn to be a little smarter, the tournament could be focused directly on the product on the ice.
Playing with international rules is of course different than NHL rules. International play designated a different recipe for success. The North American teams haven’t exactly adapted to the less physical side of the international game play. They have all the skill to compete without the nastiness, so why not use the skill and show you can do it without the biggest asset you are known for?
I can guarantee beating them at their own game will be much sweeter in the end.