BROSSARD, QUE — When Canada takes to the ice in Montreal on Boxing Day - some five months from now - the hopes of Canadian hockey fans will rest on the shoulders of teenage boys.
Tom Renney, the new president and chief executive officers of Hockey Canada, knows that pressure first hand. In 1999, he was a late replacement to coach the world junior team in Winnipeg after George Burnett resigned to take an NHL job.
Renney ended up settling for a silver medal after the team lost of Russia in overtime of the gold medal game. He believes the opportunity to play at home is one of the biggest advantages Canada will have with the crowd behind them in Montreal and Toronto.
“It’s great,” said Renney of being able to play at home. “It might be the best thing that happens to them in their careers in this point in time. The responsibility of winning at home is a lofty one, there’s no question about that, but boy, it can certainly develop some resiliency and resolve in finding a way (to win).
“I enjoyed it and I know our players did. They loved the responsibility of having to show up and perform.”
Canada has gone without gold since 2009 and has failed to bring home any medal in the last two tournaments held in Sweden and Russia. There’s no question the competition at the under-20 level has upped their game as well. Since Canada won in 2009, four different countries have won gold – with the Americans winning it twice (2010 and 2013).
“It’s a crapshoot,” said Renney in a Thursday morning media scrum at the Bell Sports Complex where the country’s top world junior hopefuls are skating. “The bottom line is you can get goaltending one day and not the next or someone gets hurt or you don’t get particular players even in the lineup, whatever the case may be.”
Still, in a country where the world junior championship has become must-see viewing for many Canadian families over the Christmas holidays, coming home without a medal in two consecutive tournaments raises questions. It’s also opened Hockey Canada up to criticism on everything from player selection, to goaltending development, to coaching styles and even teaching skills in minor hockey.“The bottom line is we have to be better,” said Renney. “We have to make sure that we secure ourselves in our own preparation and not worry too much about what other countries are doing – and I don’t want to say don’t worry about what the general public suggests we have to do but just pay attention to what has to be done.
“At the end of the day it’s such a moving target from year to year a team that looks good on paper sometimes doesn’t deliver on the ice.”
After their fourth-place finish in Malmo last year, the head coach of that team, Brent Sutter, told reporters he felt there was too much emphasis on winning and losing in minor hockey – the critical development stage for young players - and not enough on emphasis on skating and skill development.
“I’m a big advocate of grassroots hockey and certainly of development,” said Renney. “I think there is enough emphasis placed on it. I think at times though because of the latitude organizations, coaches and people are given, they get into the systems play or almost play too much or too often or go too far to play these games.
“In terms of resources I think there’s lot of opportunity to teach skill.”
Renney, a life-long coach at various levels including the NHL, said he’s happy from what he’s seen so far at Canada’s camp. He said he’s not going to play a big part in the selection process, but will help in a “support” role for the under-20 side that will play in Montreal for the round-robin portion of the tournament before moving to Toronto for the playoffs.
Much of the talk at this summer camp from head coach Benoit Groulx has been about finding versatile players. Groulx and the Team Canada brain trust are seeking the type of player that can adapt not only to playing out of position but also are comfortable with playing a smaller role than they might be used to with their junior clubs.
It’s that kind of sacrifice that Renney says is part of “the Canadian way” - the new buzz phrase that is being thrown around by Hockey Canada staff members at its various camps.
“At the end of the day it’s making sure you are willing to sacrifice some of yourself in the best interests of the team,” said Renney. “It’s making sure you do the things that go above and beyond the call of duty. Putting yourself in harm’s way maybe as opposed to finding yourself in harm’s way – I think that’s the Canadian way – making sure you’re finding different ways to win.”