Don Cherry was all lemons when he read comments from Brent Sutter regarding the lack of development of Canadian hockey players at a young age.
At the conclusion of the world hockey championship in Malmo, Sweden, in which Team Canada finished fourth, Sutter told the Toronto Sun that instead of developing skills there’s too much focus on winning and losing among players at the grassroots level.
Cherry didn’t like that suggestion and insisted that Sutter, as the Team Canada coach, was coming down hard on minor hockey coaches and management types.
Sutter answered back Tuesday, less than 24 hours after arriving back in Red Deer.
“My point is this — hockey is no longer Canada’s game. It’s an international game now, a world game,” said the Red Deer Rebels owner/general manger/head coach. “These other countries have caught up to us in talent and speed and the way the game is played. I was asked what we need to do, how can we continue to grow our game to make it better?
“My comment was that we need to continue to work on our skills and talent and get better in those areas. Every team at the world juniors was a tough game and the Russians and Swedes were probably the most skilled and biggest teams in the tournament.
“It had nothing to do with how our kids played — they played hard and competed hard. They were great kids, fun to be around. It was a great group to work with. That wasn’t the point, but the question is, now that it’s an international game, how do we get ourselves on top again? What are the things we need to do?”
For starters, Sutter would like to see more practice time afforded minor hockey players, a scenario that he admitted might be difficult to envision with the lack of available ice time in local rinks.
“From talking to Benny (Team Canada assistant coach Benoit Groulx) they don’t have as many issues with ice (time) (in Eastern Canada) as we have here,” said Sutter. “Here, atom and peewee kids practise once or maybe twice a week and then play one or two games on the weekend. It used to be a two-to-one ratio from practice to games. Now these kids play 40 to 70 games a season and practice time is tough to get because ice isn’t available.
“There is more focus on winning and losing because you’re always playing so many games. If there was more time for practice kids could work on their skills. That was my point — I wasn’t saying Canada is no good anymore compared to some other countries. He (Cherry) took that totally the wrong way.”
Cherry, talking to the Toronto Sun, also criticized the Team Canada player selection process, claiming the likes of Ontario League skaters Max Domi and Darnell Nurse should have been on the national squad.
“The kids who weren’t picked, like Nurse, Domi and (Brent) Moran . . . those kids are going to be good players in the world juniors next year, at 19,” Sutter countered. “They weren’t ready this year. With how they’ve played to date this season . . . they just weren’t ahead of the players we took. That’s what I was told by the (Hockey Canada) scouts.
“The team will have a lot of good 19-year-olds next year, but this year we took the best players available and tried to the put the best team together.”
Cherry suggested league politics played a role in the Team Canada selections and also shrugged off Sutter’s assertion that skill development is lacking at the grassroots level.
“Nine of the top 10 leading goal scorers in the NHL are from the Canadian development system so there must be something right about it,” said Cherry. “The grassroots talent is there. I see it all the time in the rinks.”
Sutter replied: “Don is referring to elite guys. I’m not talking about our elite. In 2005 we had 22 elite players (as the Sutter-coached Canadians dominated the WJC at Grand Forks, N.D.), but they have talent that God gave them. The question is, how can you make other players better? Minor hockey coaches have done a great job, but how can we get better?
“We’re doing a good job, but can we get better with maybe not emphasizing winning and losing so much and creating more ice time to allow these kids to develop at a younger age?
“It comes down to ice time and kids don’t skate on ponds any more. That’s how we got better as players, but you don’t see that now. There are also so many teams in minor hockey. Nowadays, rosters in minor hockey consist of 20 players. Back when I played there were 15 or 16, so now you have more players and less ice time, and that all has an impact on development. That’s not saying we don’t have lots of talent, but we have to understand that other countries have caught up to us in that department.”
Sutter noted that the calibre of play at the world juniors has increased big time since he coached Team Canada to gold medals in 2005 and ’06.
“It’s amazing how much the tournament has changed in eight years with how much talent and skill these other teams possess now,” he said.
Still, he admitted there was a major sense of disappointment when the Canadians weren’t able to garner a WJC medal for a second consecutive year.
“The biggest thing between the players and staff and everyone involved, is you put so much time and effort into it. You’ve been working at it since June and then to come back with nothing is disappointing,” he said.
Team Canada was headed in the right direction following a round-robin win over the USA and a subsequent quarter-final victory over Switzerland, but then lost a semifinal to eventual champion Finland.
“The kids played hard. They were very coachable and receptive to everything and they became a team . . . so that part was great,” said Sutter. “But when we got into that semifinal game — and I talked to them after about it — to a man they just froze in the moment. It was right through our whole lineup.
“It was unexplainable. You sit back now and realize it’s something that you’ll think about and dwell on for a long time, because we were that close.”
Sutter noted that the Canadian team was the second-youngest at the WJC and next year — when the tournament is held in Toronto and Montreal — the national squad will be that much better for the experience.
If the 2014 WJC was Sutter’s last as the Team Canada coach, he went out with a renewed appreciation of the event and the support shown by the thousands of Canadian fans who traveled to Sweden.
“It’s a great tournament and the support the Canadian fans gave our team was tremendous,” he said. “We had over 4,000 fans there. We played our round-robin games in a 5,000-seat rink and it was full of mostly Canadians every game we played. You can’t really put into words how amazing it is to have people come out and support you like that.”
But Team Canada fell short and the players were convinced they had failed their country, something Sutter doesn’t feel is right.
“Here in Canada we think it’s gold or nothing at this event, and I don’t know that’s fair,” he said. “There’s so much pressure put on everybody, and especially the players. The perception here is that hockey is Canada’s game when it’s not any more. It’s a world game. You go over there and there are no guarantees you’re going to win it.
“Because of who we are it’s gold or nothing, but with a mindset like that you put so much pressure on the players — you almost set them up to fail before they get there. Those kids should not leave that tournament feeling like they failed. No one should have to feel that, yet to a man we all did, and it’s because of our perception.”