Our game, on the edge

In the wake of Team Canada’s ignoble and improbable collapse on Wednesday at the world junior hockey championships, it’s easy to lose perspective on the game and why it matters.

In the wake of Team Canada’s ignoble and improbable collapse on Wednesday at the world junior hockey championships, it’s easy to lose perspective on the game and why it matters.

In the wake of Red Deer Rebels forward Josh Cowen’s reckless attack on Saskatoon Blades defenceman Stefan Elliott on Saturday during a Western Hockey League game, it’s tempting to lose faith in the game and its players.

But it would be wrong to dismiss the game or the young people who play it because the results weren’t what we want in one case, or their behaviour doesn’t live up to our standards in the other instance.

Expectations are a dangerous and weighty thing to throw on the shoulders of young men, particularly when that weight represents a whole nation or, in the case of Cowen, a hockey-mad community.

Every Christmas season, Canadians wait for a group of young men to fulfil their destiny and ours, vanquishing the rest of the junior hockey world to become champions. In each of the last 10 years, Team Canada has reached the gold medal final. And although they have not always won (including an astonishing loss to Russia 5-3 in the gold medal game on Wednesday, after leading 3-0 heading into the third period), they have always comported themselves well. In 10 years, Canada’s best young amateur hockey players have won five times (a five-year run from 2003 to 2009).

Certainly there is no shame in losing to the Russians, who remain the second most prodigious nation in hockey. Of 34 gold medals awarded in the history of the IIHF World Under-20 Championships, 28 have gone to either Canada or Russia (or the former Soviet Union). Of those 28 championships, 15 belong to Canada.

No reasonable competitor or sports fan can expect to win every game, or every event. There is too much chance, too many variables, too much human imperfection involved. In fact, the uncertainty and the foibles are part of what make hockey and the young men who play it so compelling.

The continuing success of the Hockey Canada Program of Excellence, of which Team Canada is a principal result, means that year after year, young Canadians compete for medals. And for a decade, year after year, they have competed for gold.

The results of the world under-17 event just concluded in Winnipeg show that the next wave of players is just as capable of competing on the world stage. Ontario, one of five regional Canadian teams competing against national teams from many of the hockey world’s other powers, won the event. Two of the other three semifinalists were also Canadian teams.

But hockey is a game played on the edge. It is a game in which players must try to gain and maintain a physical advantage. Regrettably and dangerously, that means stepping over the line, as Cowen did on Saturday in Saskatoon when he attacked Elliott without apparent provocation, swinging at his head while the Blades player looked the other way.

Cowen has been suspended for eight games. It could have been far worse (in other junior leagues, recent suspensions have been much more punitive): Elliott was not seriously injured.

Cowen and his coach, Jesse Wallin, both say that the Rebel was trying to deliver a message that star teammate Ryan Nugent-Hopkins shouldn’t be game for on-ice abuse.

“I think teams are trying to take advantage of Hopkins. They’re being hard on him and someone kind of had to get a message across,” said Cowen. “I was sick of them doing (crap) to him.

“But I took it too far, way too far. I realize that and I’m paying for it with this suspension. I won’t do it again. My emotions got hold of me. The suspension was fair because it was a pretty dirty play.”

In an imperfect game, played by boys aspiring to be men, all you can ask is that they compete with honesty and integrity, and Team Canada did.

And if they fail to comport themselves the way we would wish, you can only hope that they face the truth of their failure, and the consequences, the way that Cowen has.

John Stewart is the Advocate’s managing editor.