Sutter concedes Canada is failing at grassroots level
Canada's head coach Brent Sutter directs his team against Germany during the second period of their IIHF World Junior Championship ice hockey game in Malmo, Sweden, December 26, 2013. (REUTERS)
Brent Sutter has coached Canada in three world junior championships.
And from his spot behind the bench, Sutter has taken notes. Plenty, to be sure.
Is Canada getting it done at the grassroots level across the nation, in minor hockey?
In a word — or in Sutter’s case, several — no.
“There’s too much focus on winning and losing at such a young age,” said Sutter, who also has a keen eye from his perch as owner, general manager and coach of the Red Deer Rebels of the Western Hockey League.
“And not enough about the skill part of it. That’s truly where it starts. At 16, 17 when they hit the Canadian Hockey League, there should already be a standard of skill already in place.
“I think there are times there is too much focus on winning and losing hockey games and Xs and Os at a young age and not enough on developing the skill sets.”
Sutter takes his cue from the world junior, where Canada has failed to win gold for five years in a row. And for the first time since Hockey Canada began its Program of Excellence in 1982, Canada was denied a medal in consecutive years.
That became fact on Sunday with a 2-1 loss against Russia in the bronze-medal game. Finland, meanwhile, shocked host Sweden 3-2 in overtime on a goal by Buffalo Sabres prospect Rasmus Ristolainen.
Last winter in Ufa, Russia, the hosts defeated Canada 6-5 in overtime to take bronze.
“When you’re at this level and you see certain things ... how can we get better?” Sutter said. “That’s got to come from top to bottom.
“We do a great job, but where are the areas we can be better?
“That’s my feelings. There are probably a million people out there thinking I’m full of crap. That’s fine. When you’re in this, you see it first-hand. You see where the skill-sets are in some of these other countries, the speed of the game they play at.
“It’s pretty astonishing how some of these teams have grown in that area.”
Sutter was asked whether he thinks the CHL should ban the import draft because it has a hand in developing European players, including some who have had significant roles for their respective countries in the world junior. A CHL ban on drafting import goaltenders will go into full effect this year. CHL clubs are allowed two imports.
“The import draft is great for our league,” Sutter said. “It adds skill to our league. A lot of those European players that come to our league are top-end players. But development starts at peewee age, at bantam age, at 10 years of age.
“It’s about developing your skills, your skating. You see how some of these teams in Europe have done a remarkable job with that. We have to evaluate that.”
Sutter took into consideration that Canada didn’t have four eligible players because they are in the NHL — Morgan Rielly, Nathan MacKinnon, Sean Monahan and Tom Wilson. But other countries this winter also didn’t get players because they were in the NHL.
And it should also be remembered that Canada is not getting blown out of the water at the world junior. The two fourth-place finishes come after a 14-year run of winning a medal. Any other country would love that kind of track record.
Hockey Canada senior director of hockey operations Scott Salmond doesn’t foresee a day when Canada adopts a system similar to that in the United States, where the country’s best under-17 and under-18 players head to Ann Arbor, Mich., to learn under the national team development program.
“The reason other countries have programs like that is because they don’t have the infrastructure we have and I’m not even sure that is the best way,” Salmond said. “One thing we have that other countries don’t have is the Canadian Hockey League.
“We have to be better in the time we have those players. I think the partnership is good and we are working together to make sure our national teams have played an important role in junior hockey in the country.”
Like Sutter, Salmond, of course, can’t help but see the clear ways hockey has become a global sport at the world-junior level.
“There are a lot of good teams that spend a lot of time together,” Salmond said. “You can see in their structure and in the way they play. We need to find ways for our best players to play together more often.”
Do you think too much focus is on winning at a young age?