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No need to panic over the state of Canadian hockey, former national team coach says

January 7, 2014

By CLAUDE SCILLEY

A Kingston man who won silver and gold medals at world junior hockey championships as an assistant coach with the Canadian team says the hand-wringing over Canada’s failure for the second year in a row to win a medal may be misplaced.

“I think we overreact, on both sides,” Jim Hulton said Monday from Kearney, Neb., where he’s coaching a team in the United States Hockey League. “It’s like the old adage: you’re never as good as you are when you win and never as bad as you are when you lose.”

Hulton says Canada’s 2-1 loss to Russia in Sunday’s bronze-medal game — resulting in a second consecutive fourth-place finish at the global tournament — is not the catastrophe people are making it out to be.

“People have to understand that we don’t have dominance over hockey just because we’ve played it a long time,” Hulton said. “Other countries are getting their best athletes to play hockey and they do a great job. It’s a competitive field and you’re not going to win every year. That’s a cold, hard reality.”

Hulton said it’s good that Canadians are as passionate as they are about the sport. “In our nation, when there’s something wrong we immediately jump in and try to fix it,” he said. The issue is identifying the problem, if, indeed, there is one. “I’m going to suggest there isn’t a huge problem.”

“I don’t think it’s as simple as blaming it on one area or another,” the former Kingston Frontenacs coach said. “We keep hearing how it’s skill development, it’s goaltending, it’s this, it’s that. It’s a competitive world out there right now and our time will come. It’s not easy to produce a dynasty that’s going to win every year, like we did for a long time and the Russians did.

“They’re probably having the same conversation in Russia now because it’s been a while since they’ve won the gold, too.”

Canadian coach Brent Sutter, who was the head coach when Hulton was on the staff of the gold-medal team in 2005, lamented the way his players lagged in this year’s tournament with respect to individual skills. “When you’re in this, you see it first-hand; you see where the skill sets are in some of these other countries,” Sutter told the Toronto Star.

“It’s pretty astonishing how some of these teams have grown in that area. I’d like to see more skill, more creativity. We had to play against it. We got beat at it some nights.”

Hulton, who followed the tournament closely via satellite and the internet, said that’s already happening.

“Throughout the province and throughout the country there is more of an emphasis on developing skill at a younger age,” he said. “I know Kingston Minor Hockey has separate skill sessions, (Greater Kingston) has skill sessions.

“It takes time to get caught up.”

Besides, Hulton contends, the skill level among elite players in Canada already is “extremely high.”

“If you look at the Canadian (Olympic) team that’s going to be announced tomorrow, I think you’ll see it’s pretty darned skilled,” he predicted. “Our skill level in the game right now is probably higher than it ever has been. Is it as high as some other countries? Maybe not, but I don’t think it’s far off.”

Hulton was on the bench with the 2004 national junior team that had a 3-1 lead evaporate in the third period of the gold medal match with the favoured Americans. That was an uncommonly young team, with 12 players eligible to return the next year.

This year’s edition of the team was the second-youngest ever to represent Canada at the world-championship tournament, and Hulton sees similarities. That 2004 team was Canada’s third to lose the gold-medal game in a row, and it extended Canada’s championship drought to seven years.

“There was a big uproar,” Hulton said, “but people (forgot) the Americans were the pre-tournament favourite and we had a really young team. We over-achieved but we lost one period of hockey and all of a sudden there was a big hue and cry: Why can’t Canada win gold?

“We were 20 minutes away. There’s such a small margin of error.”

The next year, Canada won the first of five world titles in a row and that’s where Hulton sees a potential parallel. He said the players returning next year from this year’s national team will have “a little extra hunger in their belly.”

“They’re going to be better players and better equipped for that type of tournament a year from now,” he said.

“I remember our first year, there was a huge wow factor with a lot of the team. We just kind of rode things along. Our focus was a little loose. Our maturity level maybe wasn’t as high as it needed to be, but it never caught up to us until 15 minutes to go in the third period. I’m not even sure lack of maturity is the reason we lost, but we hadn’t had any adversity. All of a sudden losing that game created all kinds of adversity for those kids and they had a year to get over it.”

Get over it they did. By 2005, from start of the summer camp, those players were on a singular mission, Hulton said. “There were no egos, no issues,” he said. “It was an easy group to coach because they had their goal set on one thing and one thing only.

“The first year it was a novelty, it was all new, things were going great. The second year there was such a clear focus. You hope that’s what next year’s group comes back with.”

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