HELSINKI, Finland — Frustration, disappointment and heartbreak.
More often than not, that’s the way the IIHF World Hockey Championship ends for players from Canada. No international event consistently deals a blow to the country’s hockey-playing pride quite like this one — something that wasn’t lost on the team as it prepared to open the tournament against Slovakia on Friday.
Consecutive quarter-final exits have dropped Canada to fifth in the world rankings and were top of mind even for players who had no role in them.
“It means that we need it bad,” captain Ryan Getzlaf said after Thursday’s practice at Hartwall Arena. “There’s a different group of guys that comes every year and we take pride in what we do. We’re here to strive for that gold medal.
“We know that there’s a tremendous amount of talent at this tournament and we look forward to the challenge.”
Canada is seeking its first gold since 2007 and just the sixth since NHLers began participating in the tournament in 1977. It’s telling that all 16 Canadian players with previous world championship experience have been part of a team that fell short.
Canada’s biggest initial challenge lies within its own dressing room. Even though the Canadian team won a pair of exhibition tuneup games over Switzerland, coach Brent Sutter has seen players arrive in dribs and drabs. He wasn’t exactly beaming with confidence while looking ahead to back-to-back games against Slovakia and the U.S to kick things off.
“We’re as ready as I guess we can be,” said Sutter.
The world championship has produced five different champions in the past six years. It truly is a wide-open event.
Finland was the surprising winner a year ago but now finds itself carrying the hopes of an expectant nation while co-hosting with Sweden — the self-proclaimed “Northern Stars of Ice Hockey.” The only thing tempering the enthusiasm in Helsinki, where more than 100,000 people celebrated the 2011 gold-medal victory in the town square, was criticism of coach Jukka Jalonen for selecting a team with just four NHL players.
Sweden and Russia have both built star-studded rosters. Daniel Alfredsson will serve as captain of a Swedish team that features Henrik Zetterberg, Loui Eriksson and Johan Franzen while Hart Trophy finalist Evgeni Malkin will be joined by Pavel Datsyuk in Russian colours.
The Czechs, Slovaks and Americans also count themselves among the teams looking to make a run into the medal round.
“It’s five, six, seven countries which can win,” said Jalonen. “The differences between each are very small.”
Canada is arguably carrying the most formidable stable of players in the entire tournament. There are five 30-goal scorers from the NHL this season, not to mention numerous major NHL award winners and Getzlaf, Corey Perry and Duncan Keith from Canada’s 2010 Olympic victory.
This world championship came with a renewed push from Hockey Canada to send the best team possible. The world rankings at the end of the event will determine everything from groupings to practice times to quality of dressing room at the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, Russia — and no one is comfortable with the current No. 5 spot.
But history is full of reminders that a sparkling roster and extra motivation come with no guarantee of success. When the 2008 tournament was hosted by Halifax and Quebec City — the first and only time its been staged on home soil — Canada went unbeaten until the gold-medal game, when Russia erased a two-goal deficit on the way to claiming victory in overtime.
There was another gold-medal loss in 2009 and a bitterly disappointing result last spring in Slovakia. Again unbeaten through the round robin, Canada was unlucky to draw Russia in the quarter-finals and ended up being sent home early with a 2-1 loss.
“If anything, there’s a message there for the players,” said general manager Kevin Lowe. “If we’re fortunate to get (to the medal round), you’ve got to play flawless hockey. Because of the one-game format, there’s no room for error.”
As usual, the Canadian team will focus on making incremental improvements each day. There will likely be line juggling and some early struggles, particularly against European opponents that have already spent weeks working together.
Canada can count on being both a prime-time draw and measuring stick for opposing teams in a passionate hockey city plastered with posters advertising the event. Next week’s game against Finland is one of the few already sold out at the 13,000-seat Hartwall Arena. It promises to be a hostile environment.
“These teams care about this tournament, this is a real big deal here,” said Canadian forward John Tavares.
The 21-year-old has travelled to the world championship for a third straight year and believes any success here might have some roots in the disastrous seventh-place finish from 2010. He looked around the dressing room on Thursday and saw a number of teammates from that event — Perry, Jordan Eberle, Evander Kane, Devan Dubnyk — and believes they’ll all be better for the experience.
Perry agreed, too.
“I think we learned a lot from that tournament,” he said. “There’s a lot of guys on this team that were there. They remember it and they’ve grown up and see how tough it is.”
The world championship has proven to be anything but a leisurely European vacation for Canadian players.
Each of them made the trip after enduring a disappointing NHL campaign and are anxious to finish the season on a positive note. The journey will last nearly three weeks in total and a gold medal requires them to play 10 games thanks to last year’s format change.
“You make the trip over here and you have one goal in mind,” said goalie Cam Ward. “The only way it’s really worth it in my eyes is if you go back home with a gold.”