Canada's Ice Hockey Superiority Complex
By Sam Damre
February 23, 2010
Let me say from the outset that I love Canada. It's a beautiful country with great people. They also have The Great One, Quebec, and arguably the most stirring national anthem in the world, O Canada—en français, of course.
The North American sports media needs to stop giving Canada more credit for its alleged ice hockey superiority than it deserves, given its play in international competitions. ESPN hockey expert Barry Melrose (a Canadian I like because he coached the Kings during the Gretzky era) provided more excuses for Canada’s loss to the United States on Sunday night than he did credit the American players' win.
Many so-called experts said that this USA team was not supposed to beat Canada. Some in the major sports media even dared to raise the question of comparisons to the "Miracle on Ice" which I found to be absolutely baseless and ridiculous. Don’t even go there!
The United States is not some second rate hockey nation. It has a very respectable history when you take into account the diversity, and popularity of other sports in the country while still enjoying our past success in international competitions. This now extends to our win against Canada on its home ice.
The National Hockey League is only viable because of the support it receives from American hockey fans with 24 of 30 franchises based in the United States.
Even taking into account Canada's smaller population, the fact that hockey is the winter national sport of Canada while the sport struggles to compete in an ultra-competitive landscape in the United States leads me to believe the breakdown should be more like 20 teams in the United States, and 10 in Canada. That just tells you the kind of support Americans have given to the sport.
The Canadians are a very humble and kind people that have an admittedly overbearing, sometimes arrogant, but friendly neighbor in the United States. Smaller countries like Canada want to be able take pride in something, and be able to say they are the best in the world. Ice hockey would be one of those things for Canada. The modern game has its foundations in Montreal where the first organized game was played in 1875. It was quickly adopted in Europe and the United States prior to the end of the 19th century.
Overview of International Ice Hockey Competition History
Canada won six of the first seven Olympic gold medals in ice hockey, and won 12 World Championships from 1930 to 1952 thus dominating the sport internationally in the first half of the 20th century. It has been Canada’s most popular sport, but the same cannot be said of the United States where football, basketball, and baseball compete for national attention. The same goes in Europe where all sports have played second fiddle to soccer. So, it's no surprise that Canada was initially dominant in a sport they founded early on thus forming the idea that they were indeed superior in ice hockey.
However, that changed during the second half of the 20th century. After World War II ended, the Soviet Union started to play ice hockey and it amazingly took less than a decade for them to achieve international success, beating Canada during the 1954 World Championships final—the beginning of modern international ice hockey. The Soviets went on to dominate international play by winning seven Olympic gold medals from 1956 to 1988 (one more as the Unified Team in 1992), and 22 World Championships from 1954 to 1990. The only thing that could stop Soviet hockey were politics which dismantled the team in 1991.
During the initial period of Soviet ice hockey supremacy, the Canadians complained that the competitions were not fair because they could not use professional players to counter the Soviet hockey machine. The World Championships were restricted to amateurs until 1977, and the Olympics did not open up its competitions to professionals until 1988. The Soviet players were employees of the state so many worked and played for the famed Central Red Army. However, they were paid nominally as normal employees when they played hockey. The Soviet players did not pretend that hockey was just a recreational activity, and they were not getting professional level salaries that the Canadian were receiving by playing in the National Hockey League.
Furthermore, if Canadian players felt so strongly about playing for their country, who stopped them from getting normal jobs in the Canadian government while maintaining their amateur statuses? I am sure the Government of Canada could have worked out something for them, but they obviously wouldn't have been able to justify paying NHL salaries. So, the Canadian complaints were indeed disingenuous and based more on a bruised hockey ego and inferiority complex resulting from the Soviet hockey domination.
Also keep in mind that other respectable hockey teams were developing: Sweden, Finland, Czechoslovakia (now Czech and Slovakia, separately, but imagine if they were still together...wow) and the United States. Finland, Czech, Slovakia and Sweden’s combined populations are less than Canada’s, yet they can more than hold their own in ice hockey despite looming is soccer's big shadow.
Canada wanted to prove to itself that it was still superior to the world in ice hockey by organizing a series with the Soviet Union that would allow for full strength competition to take place during the NHL off season between the two hockey giants. The 1972 Summit Series had the first four games played in Canada, and the latter four in the Soviet Union. The Canadian media and fans thought they would smash the Soviets eight games to zero (not sure if the Canadian players actually believed that deep down, but they probably had to pretend they believed the same).
Instead, the Canadians barely won the series four games to three with one tie, and had the myth of their hockey superiority shattered. The series was marred by Canada's Bobby Clarke intentional slashing of Soviet star Valeri Kharlamov's ankle which was fractured as a result during the sixth game of the series.
Up until that point, Kharlamov was the star of the series and the Canadians could not stop him but for their dirty tactics. Kharlamov was not able to play the seventh game and was ineffective for the eighth and final game due to his injury. Canada won those last three games and the series as a result.
Thirty years later Canadian star Paul Henderson called Clarke's dirty play "the lowpoint of the series". It was clear to the hockey world that Clarke intentionally took out the Soviet star just to win the series. A sad statement on sportsmanship that Canada could not beat the Soviets fair and square so they looked for another means to do so.
The Summit Series was played again in 1974 under the same format which the Soviet Union won four games to one with three ties, but you will hear almost nothing about this series from Canadians.
Subsequently, the Canadians arranged for an international hockey tournament during the NHL off season so that their top players could compete in meaningful hockey competitions. The Soviet Union along with other strong hockey nations including the Czechoslovakia, Finland, Sweden, and the United States agreed to participate.
La Coupe du Canada was played five times in Canada on NHL sized rinks under NHL rules and incredibly, the Soviets were able to win the 1981 competition in spite of having the deck stacked against them each time. The Soviets barely lost in 1987—two games to one—when all three games ended with a score of 6-5 including Game 3 where the Soviets blew a 3-0 lead.
The NHL twice arranged for an exhibition series between the Soviets and NHL All-Stars. Both series were played on NHL rinks with NHL rules. The 1979 Challenge Cup consisted of three games played in Madison Square Garden, and the Soviets won the series two games to one. The NHL All-Stars consisted of all Canadian players with three Swedish exceptions. Rendez-vous ’87 consisted of two games held in Quebec City which were split between the two sides. The NHL All-Star roster was two-thirds Canadian.
The World Cup of Hockey was the successor to the Canada Cup and in 1996 the United States beat Canada two games to one in the finals with both victories (games 2 and 3) taking place in Canada. Canada won the next World Cup in 2004 by beating Finland in the championship game held in Toronto (NHL rink with NHL rules) in front of a hostile Canadian crowd of course.
Nothing could be gleaned from the Canada Cup or the World Cup of Hockey because the competitions had been set up for the Canadians to play in front of their home crowd during all meaningful games, including the championship on the smaller NHL rink using NHL rules when in fact, international competitions are supposed to take place using the International Ice Hockey Federation's larger rink and played under their rules—many of which don't allow for the goon and thug elements of the unnatural Canadian version of hockey that is essentially the NHL. It is quite a feat that the Soviets and Americans were able to defeat the Canadians given the obviously home cooking of the Canada Cup and World Cup.
We really didn't get to see a fair, full strength international competition until the 1998 Nagano Winter Olympics when the NHL finally agreed to release its players and allow them to participate for the first time. By then, the NHL had a large influx of European players (most of whom were more skilled and talented than their Canadian counterparts) thus Canada was not the only country able to field a full strength hockey team, contrary to its popular belief that they were the only country impacted by previous rules prohibiting professionals competing in the Olympics.
The Czech Republic, Slovakia, Finland, Sweden, Russia, and the United States were also able to field full strength teams for those games. The Czechs won gold in 1998, Canada in 2002, and Sweden in 2006. I'd hardly call that a sign of Canadian hockey superiority.
The United States won the World Under 20 Championships by beating Canada in Canada this year.
And of course there's the 1980 "Miracle on Ice" which probably further damaged Canada’s hockey ego. One of the biggest stories in the history of international sports happened to involve ice hockey, but did not involve Canada. The United States, playing with a bunch of college kids, defeated the Soviet Union juggernaut during the round-robin medal round of the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid. That team went on to defeat Finland for the country’s second Olympic hockey gold medal (1960 Squaw Valley was the first).
The United States never made excuses when it came to playing in international competitions. It acknowledged and respected the strength of Soviet hockey well before 1980. There was arguably no more fearsome and intimidating sight in sports than to see the Soviet hockey team skate onto the ice with “CCCP” emblazoned across those signature red jerseys.
Many of you tuned into these Olympics and thought there was something wrong with your eyes when you saw what appeared to be a small ice hockey rink that resembled the ones you have seen on a daily basis during those grinding, ungraceful, and at times, difficult to watch National Hockey League games.
General Motors Place…excuse me…Canada Hockey Place is the venue for the 2010 Winter Olympics Ice Hockey competition. Vancouver claims that it was a business decision to use an existing NHL facility versus renovating the same facility or building an entire new arena to conform to international hockey regulations. Despite the home ice advantage, it took a cheesy shootout for Canada to beat the Swiss. They are the same team that beat Canada in Torino when they played under the required ice rink regulations of the IIHF. The pressure's on Canada to win the gold medal in a tournament they rigged for their own success. If they do win, it will not prove they are superior in ice hockey due to the non-conforming rink, but if they lose it might show the opposite.
The International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) reluctantly agreed to this first time exception for the Olympic Ice Hockey competition which has enabled the Canadians to inject some level of their goon/thug style of hockey into a major international competition. Sure, the rest of the IIHF rules still apply, but do not have the same effect on a smaller NHL rink which stifles good puck handling and skating skills, or in other words, fundamentals.
If the good people of Vancouver were concerned about making sound business decisions, they would never have bothered going through all of the expenses and headaches related to hosting these Winter Olympic Games. They can just ask their friends in Montreal about the 1976 Summer Olympics games whose debt was finally paid off thirty years later in 2006 if the experience was worth the expense, or could the money have been better spent.
What does all this history tell us?
Nothing in the history of modern international ice hockey supports the notion that Canada is far superior in ice hockey to the other respectable hockey playing nations. If anything, Canada’s lack of desire for playing in full strength international competitions outside North America under IIHF standards has always been suspicious. The Canadian-influenced NHL is already creating doubts about releasing players for the 2014 Winter Olympics which just happen to be in Sochi, Russia. What a coincidence.
There is no uproar from the Canadian players, media, and fans. Are Sidney Crosby and his fellow Canadians afraid to play against Alexander Ovechkin and his countrymen in their backyard under IIHF standards?
Last edited by china; Jan 7th, 2011 at 10:02 PM..