TORONTO — Last year in Calgary, Mathew Dumba was on the verge of tears – eyes welling and red – after being told he had been one of Team Canada’s final cuts for the World Junior Hockey Championship in Ufa, Russia.
His suitcases were already packed and waiting for him as he sorrowfully climbed the staircase to meet the media like the many players who had preceded him. There were a few questions, including “How disappointing is it to be cut?” There were a few short answers in response before Dumba was whisked out a back door straight into a van headed for the airport.
Even reality TV contestants receive a more dignified sendoff. It was crushing to watch.
This year however, Hockey Canada has shown some heart by changing a process that was heartless in the way it handled letting teenagers know they weren’t good enough to play for Canada at the world juniors. A smaller camp, only 25 players, means fewer kids will have their hearts broken on national TV. And with head coach Brent Sutter open to the possibility that cuts could be made over in Europe before rosters are set on Christmas Day, it could be less of a spectacle than usual.
“It’s different but it’s good,” Sutter said, referring to the smaller roster.
“There are going to be tough decisions - but there always are – that’s what you love as a coach. When you get down to this number it’s the last three or four decisions you make that are tough ones and that’s what you want it to be.”
Team USA, the tournament champions a year ago in Ufa, made its final cuts in Europe after pre-tournament play. Sweden, which won the tournament in 2012 and is hosting this year’s tournament in Malmo, has traditionally brought in fewer players. Last year’s silver medalists had 25 players in camp before making their cuts. Russia, who beat Canada for bronze last year, has had smaller camps, too. This year Russian head coach, Mikhail Varnakov, has only given out 29 invites.
Canada, long thought to be the standard for all things hockey, is now taking a page from its international counterparts. And it’s about time. The status quo has not been working. Other countries have studied Canada’s Program of Excellence and adapted to the point where the students are now schooling the teachers.
This country is still producing many of the best under-20 players in the world, but the notion that Canada has a monopoly on gold medals at the world juniors is antiquated. The 2013 tournament was the first time in 15 years Team Canada failed to win a medal at the world junior championship.
They haven’t won gold since 2009. But that hasn’t changed the nothing-less-than-gold expectations of many Canadians who have made the tournament a holiday tradition.
“There’s no question the pressure’s out there all the time,” said Sutter. “That’s just the way it is in our country for any major hockey event. We’re not concerned about a gold medal right now. Our concentration here is focusing on Day 1, which will be Dec. 12 when the kids come in (to camp).”
The biggest surprise unveiled at Monday’s press conference was Canada’s decision to only bring two goalies to camp – essentially eliminating any competition for a roster spot. The only fight now for Halifax Mooseheads goalie Zach Fucale and returnee Jake Paterson of the Saginaw Spirit, is who will get the starting job.
At the summer evaluation camp in Lake Placid, N.Y., former NHL goalie Sean Burke, now part of Hockey Canada's management team, said Canada had been looking at goaltending development in other countries – particularly Sweden and Finland – to see if there were things to potentially adjust. Goaltending has been a sore point for Canada in recent years with highly regarded netminders turning in mediocre performances.
At this point, they’re not even looking for great goalies - just good ones to make the critical save.
“We want to make sure that we’re working with those goaltenders that we’re not making it as competitive – that they’re going to work together - so that we’re not trying to select a guy in a day,” said Scott Salmond, Hockey Canada's senior director of men's national teams and hockey operations.
Salmond believes it was important for Canada to make the hard decisions earlier in the selection process. It also puts more emphasis on long-term scouting as opposed to play over a few days. So this year, there will be no Red-White intra-squad scrimmages to parse.
“If you really rely on your scouts and the people who have seen these kids over a longer period of time and then you bring them into a three day camp and have them play against the CIS or the Red-White (scrimmages) I think you can get fooled,” said Salmond in a November interview with Yahoo Sports.
“We’re trying to make sure we don’t get fooled.”
Sutter, who has coached Canada twice at the world juniors, has never lost a game going a perfect 12-0 with two gold medals. The head coach and GM of the Western Hockey League’s Red Deer Rebels said he’s been in talks since June with Hockey Canada president Bob Nicholson about making these changes for the selection camp. Sutter is open to do things differently and bringing fewer players into the fold is a good start. It makes the process more like an up-tempo practice and less like a true selection camp with mass casualties.
Sutter told reporters at Monday’s announcement his biggest challenge would be trying to get players from across Canada to come together as a team. Starting with a smaller group, means there can be more focus on learning systems and chemistry building heading towards their first game on Dec. 26 against Germany.
“From a coach’s perspective it’s always nice to have lower numbers,” said Sutter. “You can get going with your team as soon as possible.
“Change is always good if it’s done the right way and, believe me, through this process it has been.”