If you’re Canadian, this isn’t exactly news.
The country is in the midst of a goaltending crisis. Its top stoppers have come up small at the last four World Juniors. There wasn’t one Canadian among this year’s Vezina finalists. The top candidates for Sochi include a backup (Roberto Luongo), a guy who was benched during the playoffs (Marc-Andre Fleury), and a goalie whose play has regressed so badly that it got his coach fired (Carey Price). At this point, Marco Belchior is beginning to look like a viable option.
Barring a surprise decision from Jonathan Quick to apply for a dark blue passport, Canada is in trouble between the pipes. Not just now or in 2014, but possibly for years to come.
Hockey Canada has taken note and they’ve come up with an unexpected plan.
Working together with the Canadian Hockey League, they’re ready to create new paths for the country’s young goalies by closing the borders to European imports. The plan was made official Monday night at the OHL’s “Protect the Net” symposium, a gathering aimed at addressing the shallow depth of the goaltending talent pool.
Drastic? Absolutely. The right course? Let’s just say it succeeds by focusing attention on the problem. But it’s what happens next that really matters.
This change will be phased in gradually. The 2013 CHL import draft, set for July 3, will allow import goalies to be selected in the first round only. The full ban then comes into effect for the 2014 draft. Euro goalies currently in the CHL will be allowed to play out their full eligibility, so no one is being shipped home.
In time, the thinking goes, more open positions and more playing time will be available to Canadian goaltenders. And with those opportunities comes a greater likelihood that one or more will step up and play the game in a way that inspires the next generation.
Keep in mind, we’re talking about somewhere around a dozen jobs, so this is earth-shaking in concept more than execution. Still, the decision was met with sneering disdain from some quarters. The critics crying xenophobia are making the most noise, but the ones making sense are those who say the ban doesn’t address the root of the problem.
Of course, that one’s a little tougher to handle.
Development at the peewee, bantam and midget level is lagging. While all select programs have part-time goalie coaches and occasional clinics, most of a young goaltender’s ice time is spent as target practice for skaters working on their sniping prowess. That has to be part of the training process, but young Canadian goalies get nowhere near the time spent managing their specific skills as do forwards and defenders.
That takes money and commitment, like USA Hockey has made with the Warren Strelow Goaltending Mentor Program on a national level, or like most European clubs make on a more micro scale.
The challenge for Hockey Canada to come up with something equally as intensive, but is also cost effective. It’s no secret that putting a kid through high-level hockey in Canada is a commitment on the level of sending one to college in the States, especially for goaltenders, whose equipment alone can run up to $4,000 a season. It’s time to create a system that streamlines organizational access to high level instruction, instead of forcing cash-strapped parents to pursue private coaching options.
In the meantime, the CHL should consider another step to quiet the complaints that this is nothing but an embarrassing display of provincialism. Since this is about development, it makes sense to phase out overage goaltenders as well. They’ve had their chance, so moving them out to pursue their education or other interests creates opportunities for other, more promising goaltenders as effectively as eliminating Europeans.
And while the outrage centers around doors closing, this may lead to a window being cracked open if the national federations in Finland, the Czech Republic and elsewhere commit to keeping their best young talent at home as the centerpieces of their own junior systems.
Canada, after all, isn’t the first country to redefine its priorities in the wake of national team struggles. Sweden overhauled its junior system 10 years ago after a string of disastrous performances at the World Juniors. A decade of focused spending and development have led to a talent boom that delivered WJC gold in 2012 and silver in 2013. The individual results are equally compelling. Four Swedes were drafted in the first round of the 2011 NHL draft straight out of their junior league. Six more were taken in the top 43 in 2012.
Not hearing too many charges of xenophobia about their system. Or complaints about the results, either.
The approach hasn’t just revitalized Swedish hockey. It’s brought on a golden age that’s only just beginning. Give it another five, 10 years and see where they are. It may be the new standard of excellence.
That’s a goal that every national federation should aspire to. Even Canada.