By Chris Johnston – Sportsnet
There had always been something rooted deep in Canada’s hockey DNA that required our best players to flirt with disaster before eventually delivering glory.
We dug a hole in the 1972 Summit Series. We fell behind 3-0 in the final game of the 1987 Canada Cup. We had a loss and a tie early in the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics. We needed to play an extra qualification game just to reach the quarter-finals at the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver.
And then this group came along and completely rewired what it meant to be Team Canada.
“Special, special players,” coach Mike Babcock said Wednesday night.
They will be remembered for a level of best-on-best dominance never before seen. In games featuring the world’s top players and the slimmest margin for error, they produced something approaching perfection.
Even in a tense and tight final series with Team Europe, where late goals from Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand were needed to capture the World Cup, there was a purpose and a belief and a level of execution that no other team in the world could match.
“You start these tournaments all the time and they’re always saying ‘this team’s good and that team’s good,”’ said Babcock. “You know in the end, you’ve got to deliver. And you can say anything you want about the game tonight, but we delivered.”
This group? They always do.
It goes much deeper than the 16-game winning streak they’ll carry into the next best-on-best event, which at this point is denoted by an asterisk and “TBD” on the international calendar.
Look at this roster. Look how these players have performed with a Maple Leaf on the front of their sweaters – whether at the Olympics, world junior tournament, IIHF World Hockey Championship or this World Cup.
Jonathan Toews is now 47-1-1.
He was the one dragging three Europeans in his direction on a solo short-handed rush just before setting Marchand up for the winning goal with 43.1 second left in regulation. He embodies the “we before me” spirit at the heart of this team.
“I think it’s hitting us right now how special this really is,” said Toews, wearing yet another championship cap. “All tournament the talk has been that there hasn’t been a whole lot of challenges for our team. That’s what it looks like from the outside. You ask around our team and that’s not necessarily the case.”
Sidney Crosby is now 45-5 in games with the national team.
Babcock referred to the captain as a “serial winner” after watching him get named tournament MVP and pick up his tournament-best 10th point in Wednesday’s victory.
“Sid’s unbelievable,” said Babcock. “You’re pretty fortunate to get to hang around with him.”
Canada’s dominance in best-on-best competitions since losing to the USA in prelim round of 2010 Olympics.
It doesn’t end there.
Carey Price is now 16-0 in starts at the World Cup, Olympics and world junior tournament, and had to be at his best for Team Canada to sweep Europe out of this final. The save he made on Marian Hossa in the dying minutes paved the way for a dramatic victory.
It’s little wonder why the confidence never wavered even as the possibility of a do-or-die Game 3 hung in the air.
“It was always one shot away,” said Bergeron. “It’s always ‘who wants to be that guy?’ And there’s so many guys in this dressing room that want to be in that position. We have so much talent in this dressing room that we knew all we needed was one bounce to go our way.”
At its core, hockey is a game of bounces played with a frozen piece of rubber on ice.
That’s why it’s unreasonable to expect any one country or team to have a run of success like this one. The game was born here and is cherished most deeply here, but that doesn’t grant Team Canada immunity from the things that can go awry when you’re in a must-win situation.
If we’re being truthful, it’s very likely this run of complete domination ends here.
The roots of this team can be traced back to the 2005 world junior tournament, where Canada crushed its opposition and started a golden five-year run at that event. Those players are now in the primes of their careers and adding to their unparalleled international resumes.
Even with a generational talent like Connor McDavid on the horizon, it will be a tall task for the next generation to go through tournament after tournament without so much as losing a game.
“The perception is that we’re miles better than everyone else,” said Babcock. “I think our country’s deeper, but you only get to play five guys at a time. … That’s what I said to the guys tonight: ‘I’m proud of you; I’m proud that we’re building hockey players to follow you, they want to be the next one. We keep celebrating success.’
“And the only way you get to celebrate being the best in the world is when you prove it, and so we’ve been fortunate to do it many times.”
We should all take a moment to stop and appreciate what they’ve accomplished.
Team Canada has won nine of the 13 best-on-best tournaments ever held, but it has never been such a machine. The perfect mix of talent and preparation and focus.
A rebooted World Cup came with new challenges – the September start, stronger hybrid opponents like Team Europe to overcome – but it ended in familiar fashion. With the Canadian flag being raised to the rafters and “O Canada” being played over the intercom.
“The game is getting bigger all the time each and every year, but we’re still getting better than every other country,” Wayne Gretzky said earlier this week. “Everybody always gets nervous and scared (wondering) ‘are we losing our game?’ But we’re never going to lose our game. It’s Canada’s game, it’s Canadians.
“I’m just so impressed by how much depth and how many good hockey players we have in this country now. We seem to be getting even better and stronger, which is pretty incredible.”