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    Monday, February 23, 1998

    Canadian hockey will be just fine

    By AL STRACHAN -- Toronto Sun

      Even from as far away as Japan, you can predict what will happen in Canada over the next few weeks.
     The usual suspects -- members of the chattering classes who haven't seen a live hockey game in years -- will bleat about the decline of Canadian hockey.
      There will be the usual complaints -- on the national network and in certain predictable newspapers -- that we can't produce skilled players any more, and that our entire hockey system needs to be overhauled.
     This opinion will be based on the fact Team Canada lost to the U.S. in the World Cup final, then finished fourth in the Olympics.
     It's a nice theory. Too bad there's nothing to it.
     For starters, Canada does produce skilled players. If you ask real hockey people, not those who just pontificate about it, you'll find a consensus that the best player in the world is Paul Kariya. He's from British Columbia.
     And if you ask those hockey people who they would draft first for their fantasy team if they couldn't have Kariya, their answer is Eric Lindros. He's from Ontario.
     Team Canada lost to the U.S. in the World Cup the same way it lost to the Czechs in the Olympics. The Canadians ran into a hot goaltender -- first in a short series, then in a one-game sudden-death situation.
     Anyone who interprets that development to mean Canadian hockey has failed knows even less about the sport than we had suspected.
     There are some aspects of life that are not black and white. This is one of them.
     The simple numbers and the simple results in a couple of fleeting moments in hockey history do not provide an answer. You need to look at what happened in the games. You need to evaluate the play.
     First, you throw out the bronze-medal game against the Finns. The Canadians came here with an all-we-want-is-gold approach. When they were eliminated in the semi-final, they couldn't bring themselves to get excited about a bronze.
     In the World Cup loss, they clearly had the better of the play. But Mike Richter and an illegal goal by Brett Hull, a skilled player who just happened to learn his craft in Canada, brought about a last-minute defeat in a three-game series.
     Against the Czechs, the Canadians ran into Dominik Hasek and lost. The Russians ran into him in the gold-medal game. They lost, too. Does anyone think there will be an outcry in Russia about a failure to develop skilled players?
     The "skilled players" concept is a red herring anyway. Those who are raising the complaints say the Olympic performance -- on a large ice surface and against the European style of play -- shows that Canada can't produce "skilled players" to match those of other countries.
     Even if that were true, why would we want to focus our attention on the international game? Canada certainly develops the best NHL players, it provides more than 60% of the league's talent. Wouldn't we rather develop players who dominate the type of game that we love, the one that we watch hundreds of times a year, the one that grips our attention for two months of gut-wrenching playoffs every spring?
     Or should we be developing "skilled players" to stock the Olympic team once every four years?
     You can't win with the critics. They make decisions based on the results, then if you point out that certain key players weren't available to affect those results, they say you're making excuses.
     But it's a fact, not an excuse, that for one reason or another, the team that lost to the United States was without Kariya and a whole stack of top-notch defencemen. Al MacInnis was hurt. Ray Bourque wouldn't play. Rob Blake, who was voted the best defenceman at the Nagano Olympics, was coming off serious knee injuries.
     Kariya wasn't available for the Olympic team either. And for the big games, neither was Joe Sakic.
     Will no one concede that these are two "skilled players" who might have made a difference in a game that finished at 1-1 after 70 minutes?
     In the unfamiliar shootout format, with some dubious selections being made by off-ice personnel, Canada lost.
     But the Russians -- with all their "skilled players" -- didn't even get that far.
     Hockey is a major international sport now and we can no longer dominate it the way we did 50 years ago. But to suggest that this is the result of a major failure on the part of the hockey system requires flawed logic.
     Or malice.