If there was any lingering doubt that “Dinosaur Hockey” is dead; that doubt was brutally despatched in Toronto’s Air Canada Centre, Tuesday night.
That’s where the latest iteration of the IHHF World Cup of Hockey, is currently under way. It’s a major international tournament, of ‘best on best’ hockey players from six nations around the world, and two hybrid teams featuring a conglomeration of top European players, and an intriguing group of under-24, North American players dubbed “The Young Guns”.
One of the pre-tournament favourites, not surprisingly, was Canada. This nation is deep in hockey talent at a professional level. So deep, that even a string of key injuries to such top NHL players as Jamie Benn, Tyler Seguin, Duncan Keith, and Jeff Carter, barely made a dent in Canada’s roster. The team won four out of five games in pre-tournament, and tournament action, and has advanced to the semi-finals.
The team that beat Canada in that first game was another pre-tournament favourite; The United States. Another roster deep in NHL talent, the team was assembled by General Manager Brian Burke, and the intense, no-nonsense, hard line coach, John Tortorella.
Burke is perhaps best remembered in Canada from his time as GM of the Toronto Maple Leafs. His blueprint for that team was to bring in bigger, tougher, players who displayed an attitude of “truculence”, and “belligerence”. Players who, in other words, were a reflection of himself. He’d used the same plan in his previous reign in Anaheim, and won a Stanley Cup in 2006-07. Critics will point out that the core of that winning team was in place before Burke took over and, after the high water mark of that championship season, nothing Burke did, brought a second cup to the franchise. Even as Burke outlined his ‘get tough’ scheme for the Leafs in 2008, the rest of the hockey world was loading up on speed, and skill.
If there was ever a coach that seemed tailor-made for Brian Burke, it would have to be John Tortorella. Like Burke, he hates the media, and often sports an ill-disguised disdain for anyone that might disagree with him, whether they might be a player, coach, referee, hockey executive, or simply, a fan. Tortorella’s sarcastic wit is legendary. So is his temper.
Like Burke, he won a Stanley Cup. That came in 2003-04, with the Tampa Bay Lightning. And, like Burke, he hasn’t won anything since.
In its wisdom, USA Hockey decided to put the two of them together to build this team.
Just two years ago, Burke ripped into Tortorella after a game between Tortorella’s Vancouver Canucks, and Burke’s Calgary Flames. A hit that sent Canucks captain Daniel Sedin off the ice on a stretcher, sparked a rant by Tortorella against rival coach, Bob Hartley.
“It’s embarrassing to coach against the guy across from me tonight.” , Tortorella said.
“Torts oughta shut his mouth.”, responded Burke, defending his coach.
Yet Burke has described Tortorella as ‘a good guy’, and a ‘friend’, and so whatever differences they may have had on that occasion, were buried behind a flag-waving, anthem supporting alliance that portrayed the American World Cup team, as one designed specifically to beat Canada, and win the tournament.
Instead, the Americans are out.
They managed just two goals in two games in the tournament, both of which they lost. After that opening pre-tournament win against Canada, they fell to the Canadians in the rematch. In their final pre-tournament tune-up, they pushed their way past Finland, barely, by a score of 3-2. And yet that lacklustre play didn’t seem to be enough to spark a sense of alarm nor urgency, in this heavyweight team. In their very first tournament game, heavily favoured against a wobbly, patchwork roster from Europe, the Americans suffered a stunning, 3-0 shutout loss. With Canada as their next opponent, the situation now, was clearly dire.
Tortorella declared; “Tuesday is our Championship game.”, knowing that another loss to Canada, would be fatal. Yet even those circumstances failed to produce desperate, high-intensity hockey from the players. Although they laid the body on their opponents, out-hitting Canada 38-14, the banging and thumping made no difference, it was simply absorbed by Team Canada.
More telling perhaps, was this statistic: the Americans outshot Canada 36-34, yet came away with only two goals. One of them was accidentally banked in behind Carey Price, by Canadian forward Joe Thornton, during a goal-mouth scramble at his own net. Officially, T.J. Oshie was given credit on the score sheet, for the Americans.
Although they rattled the boards, the Americans could not light the lamp. They did manage to ring the iron, bouncing pucks off the goal posts three times in the third period. Whether by bad luck, or poor marksmanship, it really didn’t matter. The clang, clang, clang of missed opportunity sounded the death knell for this brand of hockey.
Despite the presence of reigning NHL scoring champ Patrick Kane, there just wasn’t enough goal-scoring talent on this team, and that was a specific choice made by Burke and Tortorella.
Yes, Johnny Gaudreau was relegated to the young guns of Team North America, but do you really want to use that as an excuse? Kane himself, was ineffective, failing to score in either one of the games that mattered. And yes, Phil Kessel was injured, but the guy with 26 regular season goals, ten more in the playoffs, and a Stanley Cup ring this year, wasn’t even picked for this team.
Instead, Burke and Tortorella chose thugs and journeymen like Justin Abdelkader, Ryan Kesler, and Dustin Byfuglien to provide ‘grit’, and size. That left no room for offensive talents like Tyler Johnson, a centerman who may have been able to provide better opportunities for Kane to finish, or perhaps score a couple of goals on his own. Even Kyle Okposo, who plays the same wing as Kane, might have been able to provide some secondary scoring, on a different line. But neither player got the chance. Size. Grit. Truculence. Those were the criteria used to assemble this team.
Dinosaur thinking. Dinosaur hockey. And after Tuesday night, like the rest of the dinosaurs, undeniably extinct.