TORONTO – When we first meet Wolverine in the original “X-Men” film, he’s working as a cage-fighter in Laughlin City, Alberta. Rubes from the crowd step into the ring, thinking they’re tough and talented enough to take him down, and blissfully unaware that he’s actually a mutant: Indestructible metal grafted onto his bones, the instincts of a predator, the power to heal instantly from any wound.
Basically, he’s unbeatable.
For the last two weeks, the World Cup of Hockey was that ring and Team Canada bared its adamantium claws. Seven teams wanted the chance to enter the ring, on a fool’s errand. The Canadians were the ones left standing, with hardly a scratch from their battles, bub.
The World Cup of Hockey was the World Cup of Canada, and not just because it was staged in Toronto as a made-for-Canada television event. There were eight teams in the tournament. Only one of them, Canada, was trying to win the World Cup, a.k.a. an exploded military artillery shell encased in acrylic. The other seven were vying for a more impressive prize: a win over Canada.
OK, maybe “a win” is aiming too high. The reality of the 2016 World Cup of Hockey was that Team Canada currently resides on a different, higher plane of existence than the rest of the hockey world. This core of players that have, in the last six years, captured two Olympic gold medals and the World Cup championship have a lethal efficiency, an unflappable comportment, an unmatched skills-set and incomparable depth – consider that a second Team Canada, created from players that didn’t make the cut, might have been the only team in the tournament that could challenge the actual Team Canada.
This is a team that defeats its opponents before the puck drops.
Think about the mental advantage Team Canada held in the World Cup. Let’s start with the clearest example of psychological damage, the United States of America.
Not only did the “beat Canada” obsession lead to one of the most poorly constructed U.S. national teams in recent memory, it led to one of its poorest showings in an international tournament as well – overlooking Europe in the first game, bowing down in submissiveness to Canada when it took control of their preliminary game, and then embarrassing themselves in their final game because it was All About Beating Canada.
Then there was this revelatory quote from Team Europe coach Ralph Krueger before the World Cup of Hockey final:
“We want to make it difficult for Canada to win the World Cup. We’d like to get in the way of that.”
Not win it. Not defeat Canada. Just sorta, like, inconvenience them? Add a little drama before the inevitable raising of both the trophy and the Canadian flag in victory?
Thing is, Krueger actually called it.
Team Europe controlled the puck, had strong goaltending, forced the Canadian attackers to the outside and generally disrupted what they do best in their two games against them in the World Cup final. “It was working to their advantage, but ultimately it was about the result,” said Patrice Bergeron, “and we got it done.”
Exactly. Europe came within roughly three minutes of delaying the inevitable for one more game, but Canada wasn’t having it. “I don’t know if we played our best at the end,” said coach Mike Babcock. “In saying that, we played our best in the third and we played our best when it mattered.”
Team Europe doesn’t even get a participation ribbon for injecting a couple of hours of palpable drama to the proceedings.
The best comparison to the World Cup is we watch the USA Dream Team run through the Summer Olympic men’s basketball tournament. It’s a demonstrably better collection of NBA all-stars than the rest of the world. Opponents are hoping to, at best, give them a decent scare before they put them away. And, in the end, any scare for them will be due to the juggernaut’s own unforced errors and self-inflicted mistakes, rather than what their opponents are doing.
The USA is just better in basketball. Canada is just better in hockey.
Now, this might all read like a prolonged lament about Canadian superiority, and of course there’s some truth to that, seeing as how my country went 0-3, played the wrong goalie and hired a coach based on his not having an NHL job before he got one about 10 minutes later.
But I digress.
No, this is just reality. It was a made-for-Canada event where the challenge was beating Canada. That’s the World Cup of Hockey’s legacy: It was a two-and-a-half week obstacle course, and as long as Canada didn’t fall off the rope swing they were going to match their personal best. It wasn’t a coronation, seeing as how these players have ruled international hockey over the last six years; it was more like a reaffirmation that they’re that damn good.
“They can’t help themselves,” said Babcock. “They’re addicted to winning.”
The World Cup of Canada, er, “Hockey” was just their latest fix.
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