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Zaugg: Firewagon hockey lives

The red Maple Leaf represents great hockey entertainment

29-04-09
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Zurich  SWITZERLAND
Canada's young guns aren't shy about firing the puck. Photo: Matthew Murnaghan / HHoF-IIHF Images.

ZURICH-KLOTEN – So far in this tournament, the Canadians have averaged 39 shots and 7.3 goals per game. Is this the return of firewagon hockey? Are we seeing a new trend in Canadian hockey?

Well, in fact, Team Canada has changed its philosophy in recent tournaments. The move toward a more creative, offensive style began in the 90s. But they relapsed into old-school habits in St. Petersburg 2000, when the Canadians really were “working” and not “playing” hockey at the IIHF World Championship. They faced some harsh criticism after going without a medal since 1997's gold and employing clutch-and-grab-hockey. In St. Petersburg, the Canadians averaged 26 shots a game. It was the lowest number of shots Canada had had in the last nine tournaments.

But a lot of things have changed since then. And they have changed very fast. In 2003 and 2004, they earned back-to-back golds at the World Championship. Of course, in 2002 Canada also won the gold medal at the Olympics for the first time in 50 years.

The "zero tolerance" officiating standards have opened up the game since the NHL resumed play in 2005-06 after the lockout. And this development has been to the benefit of Team Canada.

Are you surprised? You shouldn't be. Let me tell you why.

The new generation of young Canadian players brings a much better package of skills. In the last few years, it's made it more fun to watch Team Canada when they're practicing or playing. Team Canada looks younger, more dynamic than in the past. And last year, they had the highest number of shots on goal of any team, 39 per game.

There has never been a question mark about the Canadian work ethic or fighting spirit. On many occasions, they have outworked opponents who may have been more technically skilled. But now, the new generation of Canadian players is at a technical level similar to that of the best European teams.

And that's good. Hockey is a game. A game should be “played”. Not “worked”.

Now, having a lot of shots on goal is by no means a guarantee of victory. The Canadians had the most shots a year ago (358) in Halifax and Quebec City, but the Russians (338 shots) won the gold medal game. Maybe the Canadians will not regain the world title this year. But they are definitely fun to watch.

Of course, don’t expect a renaissance of the kind of firewagon hockey we saw in the 1980s, when the NHL's goals-per-game average was almost eight, the highest mark in the modern era.

Or even a revival of the spectacle we saw in international hockey in the 1970's. A perfect example: the “Big Red Machine” of the Soviets scored an average of 10 goals a game at the 1973 IIHF World Championship in Moscow, steamrolling Germany 17-1 and 18-2, Finland 9-1 and 8-2 and Sweden 6-1. Vladimir Petrov was the top scorer of that tournament with 34 points (18 goals and 16 assists) in 10 games, followed by Boris Mikhailov with 29 points and Valery Kharlamov with 23 points.

Those days are over. Forever. Don’t expect the same mix of speed, youth, shots, goals, goals and more goals. If you leave your seat to buy a hamburger in Kloten, you might not miss a goal or two as you would have if you went to the concession stand in Moscow's Luzhniki Stadium in 1973.

But nonetheless, more shots generally stands for more fun, more scoring chances and better hockey. We are much better entertained those days (especially by the Canadians) compared to 11 years ago at the last World Championship in Switzerland. Back then, the format was different, and Finland and Sweden played a two-game final on May 16 and 17, 1998 in Zurich with scores of 1-0 and 0-0, as Sweden prevailed. In those days, I was afraid that hockey would become as boring as soccer.

Team Canada here in Zurich-Kloten is already one of the most entertaining Canadian teams in recent years. And to manage an average of almost 40 shots a game is not only entertaining, but it's also a landmark in World Championship hockey. It marks the return of some kind of firewagon hockey.

KLAUS ZAUGG

Klaus Zaugg is a Swiss hockey journalist who has covered the IIHF World Championship since 1981. The opinions expressed in this column do not necessarily reflect the official views of the IIHF.

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