BUFFALO – It’s completely, totally unfair to Sweden and Russia, two countries of monumental hockey importance to the international game, but tonight’s Canada-United States semi-finals game has that feeling of “for all the marbles” written all over it, even though the winner merely gets a 50-50 chance to win gold against either of those excellent European teams in two nights’ time.
Indeed, the bragging rights to the winning North American team might well be more significant than winning gold on Wednesday, such is the intensity of the rivalry between the two neighbouring nations. Playing in countries separated by the longest undefended border in the world, where so many Canadians play NCAA hockey and so many Americans play major junior hockey, where tournaments host the opposition year round and all the best players wind up with or against each other in the NHL, and where politics both divide and unite, how can this not be the big game?
The uncontested, innocent enthusiasm of the players contributes to the rivalry, of course, but although so many natural factors go into the DNA of this battle, it was not always so. A rivalry needs two good teams to start with, not one, and the U.S. has been spotty in this regard until recent years when it has built a world-class junior program.
In hockey’s earliest days of international hockey, Canada-United States games were all the rage at home and in Europe. But very quickly the Americans faded in and out, because of lack of cohesion, internal squabbles, and ineffective organization. Truly, the modern, here-for-good rivalry began in 1991 when the Americans advanced to the finals of that year’s Canada Cup. They lost to Canada that year, but five years later, at the first World Cup, they won.
Since then, the senior or top level competitions have featured U.S. teams capable of beating any team on any given day. This change came, of course, as a result of the Miracle on Ice, which inspired so many American kids to put on skates in the first place.
At the junior level, there are several significant dates which can serve as benchmarks to where we are today. The U20s began in 1977. Canada initiated its Program of Excellence in 1982. The IIHF introduced its current playoff format, as opposed to round robin setup, in 1996. The U.S. National Team Development Program started in the same year. In 1997, Canada beat the U.S. 2-0 in the first gold-medal meeting between the teams. In 2004, the Americans won their first U20 gold by beating Canada, 4-3.
Prior to 1998, Canada and the U.S. played 24 times at the U20, Canada winning 20, losing two, and tying two. The U.S. won games in 1998 and 1999. Between 1997 and 2009, Canada won five of six playoff games, the lone exception that 2004 gold-medal result. Of course, last year the Americans let gold slip away in regulation, only to re-claim it in overtime to win their second U20 championship, in Saskatoon.
History books tell us plenty about the sport, but the under-20 kids who will face off against each other tonight won’t be able to shoot “history” on goal for a chance to win. They have to go out and do their own thing. Sure, Canada can be inspired by its long history of winning, and the Americans can draw experience from last year’s incredible win in enemy territory, but that won’t complete a pass, convert a power play, or block a shot.
But if you want a focal point, something to say ‘this is where it all began,’ then look at 2004. This was a game Canada controlled for two periods, taking a 3-1 lead into the third and playing with that composure so essential under these circumstances. But the Americans didn’t quit, and goalie Marc-André Fleury had the worst period of his career, allowing two weak goals and scoring the golden goal on himself.
That win was an historic marker for the U.S., a justification of the NTDP, a reward for years of work to improve a program and develop teen talent. Last year was similar in many ways. Canada had bad goaltending; U.S. had determination and persistence that went unquenched until victory.
Tonight has all the markings of a similar game. Canada’s goaltending is suspect, and the Americans have a determination that has not been fully tested yet. Canada’s coach Dave Cameron said yesterday the key to winning would be execution, consistency, and playing under pressure. True enough. But maybe the greater question that will be answered is which coach – Cameron, or Keith Allain of the U.S. – has picked the players who can play under pressure, be consistent, and execute at this level. That we will learn before bedtime tonight.