This goes out to all you USA Hockey fans and Kessel supporters in particular: Even as a Canadian, I feel your pain.
What do I have to cry about, you may ask
Well, admittedly, not a whole lot. We have arguably the best player in the world, the best team, and most of the best up and comers of team North America. But let me remind you where we were around 20 short years ago…
Picture it. Canada. 1991. We had our own tournament, the Canada Cup, and we owned it. The trophy was a Maple Leaf and only ONE time out of 5 did we let anyone else hold it (Russia in 1981). We won the ’72 Summit Series. We won the ’76 Canada Cup (the first ever). Then in 1979 I was born. The world’s best player, Canadian Wayne Gretzky, entered the NHL that same year. We won the Canada Cup in 1984, the year the next great Canadian hero that Pens fans may remember entered the NHL: Mr. Mario Lemieux. Three short years later, the 1987 Canada Cup was played. For me, that is the greatest hockey there ever was. The Russians were unbelievable, and Canada was even better. Three finals games all 6-5 scores. Gretzky and Lemieux combined for that iconic goal and the trophy was ours yet again. As an Oilers fan, I also got 4 cups in the decade, and again in 1990. Then Canada also won the very last Canada Cup in 1991. So as a young fan growing up, for my first 12 years of living, all I ever knew was winning. My teams just always won and that’s the way it was.
As you know, even when the Oilers stopped winning, for the next two years I got to see Mario Lemieux win two Cups himself. The two Canadian heroes had combined for three Canada Cups and 6 Stanley Cups in 9 years!!!
The only blemish from the 1991 Canada Cup was a greasy shot from American Gary Suter on Wayne Gretzky. He was out of the tournament AND missed the first month of the NHL season. Not only that, but the Americans of 1991 were actually very good. Veeerrry good. So we wanted them again and very badly.
Then it happened. In 1996, they took away our tournament. OUR tournament. For the first time, the international best on best tournament was to be known as the World Cup. Not the Canada Cup. We were determined to make sure everyone remembered it was ours.
But you Americans had other ideas. It was a two out of three final again, and we squeaked out an OT win in game one only to lose the next two games by a combined score of 10-4. Not cool. It wasn’t our tournament anymore.
Our chance at redemption was only two short years later. For the first time, NHL players would go to the Olympics in Nagano 1998.
Things weren’t all bad. Canada had won 8 of the past 10 World Junior Hockey Championships, including 5 in a row up to 1997. But that 1996 World Cup bothered us greatly. And here’s how we can relate to what’s happening for you here in 2016.
For some reason, with the world’s best players at our disposal and an identity of skill and speed, we named Bobby Clarke to pick our first ever NHL laden Olympic team. The man who played for the Broad Street Bullies. The man who’s most celebrated hockey moment is slashing Russian great Valeri Kharlomov in game 6 of the 1972 series. Now, don’t get me wrong. He wasn’t a bad player, two Cups, and lots of heart, but maybe I would say I don’t necessarily agree with his hockey philosophy. His models for teams of GM of the Flyers were much the same.
Not surprisingly, when the 1998 team was named, we were left scratching our collective heads a little bit.
Adam Foote and Eric Desjardins on D instead of Scott Niedemayer? Rob Zamuner, Rod Brindamour, Shayne Corson instead of Mark Messier? Famous Flyer Eric Lindros was named Captain instead of Gretzky or Yzerman? Please.
This gritty version of team Canada ended up finishing fourth and it struggled most of the way there. The most frustrating moment was the 1-0 semi-final shoot out loss to the Czech Republic. We barely scraped into the semis and were outclassed for most of that game. Then we lost to Finland in a failure to salvage anything.
And the hardest part was much like your plight here in 2016, almost everyone saw it coming. If only we’d had Twitter back then. Heads would have metaphorically rolled.
Actually, on paper, we were still a very good team, and we came within 1 shootout goal away from a berth in the final. You could nitpick about three or four or five. Paul Kariya was injured. Lemieux was retired. There were challenges. But ultimately it came down to the design of the team. It just wasn’t Canada to me.
And we didn’t even medal.
We lost in 1996. We tried something new two years later and it failed. We moved on. Let’s hope your brass feels the same way.
And to be fair, I do think the USA team identity change was actually a good idea. Trying to go skill on skill with Canada in recent tournaments hasn’t worked for anyone. Why not try a new approach in what appeared to be a gimmick tournament?
And also to be fair, there’s a lot of talk about how Conn Smythe Trophy nominee Phil Kessel should have been a shoe in. But just a reminder that I spent most of November and all the way up February trying to explain to most of you why the Pittsburgh Penguins shouldn’t trade him.
So much like Canada after 1996, there’s a small chance your 2016 will also get a shot at redemption two short years later in the Olympics of 2018. Let’s hope for your sake if it does happen, the similarities of our experiences end there.