Shootout breaks Canadian hearts yet again
Despite loss, future of hockey remains in good shape north of the border
For Canadian hockey players, it has never been easy to deal with a shootout loss.
And for the second time in four-and-a-half months at a major international tournament, there was Canada, once again, on the losing end of a gold-medal final shootout.
This time it was Sweden skating away with a 2-1 shootout victory to claim gold in Cologne, Germany over Ryan O'Reilly, Matt Duchene and Canada to end a bid for a third World championship in a row.
Just like the World junior final on Jan. 6, a game the United States won 5-4 thanks to a shootout, this was no way to end a championship tilt. But the International Ice Hockey Federation has settled its tournaments like this for decades and Canadians have felt the pain for decades.
I still maintain the 1998 Canadian Olympic team was as good as any of the Canadian clubs that claimed gold in 2002, 2010 and 2014. But Wayne Gretzky and Co. were simply foiled by the best goaltender in the world at the time, Dominik Hasek, in a shootout.
For those of us old enough, we'll never forget the 1994 Olympic gold-medal final in Lillehammer, Norway. The Peter Forsberg postage-stamp shootout goal against Canadian goalie Corey Hirsch was the difference. But we all came away from that Winter Games so proud of Todd Hlushko, Brad Schlegel and the rest of that underdog Canadian bunch.
Just like this time. Who's not a Ryan O'Reilly fan? The bearded Buffalo Sabres forward was so dominant. I hope one day he gets a shot at Olympic gold to go with his two World championship gold medals and his World Cup of Hockey title last September.
Coach Cooper knows the deal
But let's not get sucked into the vortex of a shootout debate. We all know this is a terrible way to end a hockey game. We've grown up with the dramatic overtime games of the Stanley Cup playoffs that end in the wee hours of the morning. It's a treat.
The European-based IIHF has its soccer influence. If World Cup soccer finals are decided in OT then why not hockey?
Canadian head coach Jon Cooper was spot on with his remarks after the shootout loss.
"We sat in our locker room and don't feel like we lost a hockey game tonight, we feel like we lost a shootout," the native of Prince George, B.C. said. "I told our guys, '[hold] your head high.'
"We knew the rules going in, it was part of the format, and they bested us. I thought both goalies were exceptional, but in the end, it came down to a skill competition and they were better than us and they are deserving world champs."
Good for Sweden goalie Henrik Lundqvist, one of the truly solid professionals in the game. Time is ticking for the 35-year-old Swede. He won two Le Mat Cups (Swedish titles) with Frolunda and his brother Joel in 2002-03 and 2004-05, and Olympic gold in 2006. He now has that elusive world title and it will be interesting to see if he can lasso a Stanley Cup championship as his career winds down.
Canadian hockey in a good place
Canada was seeking its third World title in a row, something it has not accomplished since the Edmonton Mercurys, Lethbridge Maple Leafs and Edmonton Mercurys, again, won consecutive championships representing Canada in 1950, 1951 and 1952, respectively.
O'Reilly and Duchene were trying to become the first Canadian players to win three in a row.
But what a run. Canada had an incredible 27-1-2 record in the last three World championship tournaments. The only loss in regulation time was to Finland in the preliminary round in 2016. The other two defeats were a preliminary round overtime loss to Switzerland last week and the shootout loss to Sweden on Sunday.
Hockey in this country continues to be in a good place, judging by the success of Canada at the last two Olympics and the past three World championships. Three different head coaches (Todd McLellan, Bill Peters and Cooper) steered Canada through the last three World tournaments and 54 different players suited up to win two gold medals and settle for a silver this time.
From this tournament, fans of the Canadian game likely gained an appreciation for goalie Calvin Pickard of Winnipeg, defencemen Colton Parayko of St. Albert, Alta. and Chris Lee of MacTier, Ont., the only non-NHLer on Canada's roster.
The 36-year-old Lee plays in Russia for Magnitogorsk Metallurg and Canadian coach Mike Pelino. Maybe Lee will be an anchor for the Canadian Olympic team in Pyeongchang, South Korea in eight months time if NHL commissioner Gary Bettman continues his stubborn stance to prohibit NHLers from participating in the Olympics.
If the NHLers stay home and its this country's best juniors, AHLers and those playing pro in Europe who will represent Canada at the 2018 Olympics, they will be worth getting to know and Canada will have a shot at gold because of the depth in this country and winning spirit.