It’s January 3rd, 2016. The sun is up, it’s a little chilly, and there aren’t any games left for Team Canada to play in the World Juniors. Admittedly, it’s a little bit different to see the Canadians not even competing for a chance to win the bronze medal, let alone gold. This is, by virtue of standings, the worst showing that Canada has had in eighteen years at the tournament. There’s reason to be disappointed. But then you open up a newspaper and see things like this:
Good morning, Vancouver. pic.twitter.com/bDNOJWtuNl
— Jason Brough (@JasonPHT) January 3, 2016
You head onto social media, and you see immense hatred placed on his (and his some of his teammates) shoulders, even from people who couldn’t care less bout the Canucks or hockey in general. There’s an attention-seeking going petition around to have him deported.
I get it. The game against Finland had its peaks and valleys, but no valley was bigger that Virtanen’s trip and slash that nullified Canada’s powerplay, eventually put them on a penalty kill, which lead to a bad clearance and a 5-on-3, which lead to the goal that eliminated them. It was an undisciplined play. I get it. It was few seconds from one player out of a full team’s multi-week tournament that went awry, but I get it.
But, can we get through this without tormenting teenagers on a public stage?
When you criticize the Canucks for selecting Virtanen in the 2014 draft, that’s fair game. Technically, it’s not even a criticism of Virtanen; it’s a criticism of the front office who believed him to be the best option available of them. It’s possible to say “I would have rather taken ____”, yet be supportive of the player and encourage him to follow the best he can be, hopefully even exceeding your expectations in hindsight.
When you say that you don’t think he should be with the Canucks right now, that’s also fair game. Truthfully, I’m a bit disappointed that he’s coming back up. He hasn’t been particularly good, which is to be expected for a player as young as he is, but more importantly, his workload isn’t heavy enough for a player that the Canucks envision playing in the top six one day. He’s had a few months to learn how the NHL lifestyle works. His WHL team, the Calgary Hitmen, are atop their conference and would welcome him back as their star with open arms. If he goes back soon, you don’t burn a year of RFA eligibility. The route the team has taken is questionable but still salvageable. All of these are fair game thoughts.
When you criticize Virtanen’s play when he’s up with the Canucks, it’s fair game, as long as it doesn’t devolve into personal attacks. He’s a professional hockey player being paid to use his on-ice talents to win games and entertain fans, so they’ll continue to pay for the product. There is always room to constructively critique somebody for their job performance, especially when your income becomes their income.
But when the situation wasn’t the same when Virtanen stepped onto the ice in Helsinki. He wasn’t there doing his job; he was there as a volunteer, representing the country where he was born and grown up in. He wasn’t there to collect a paycheque, he was there to make everybody proud. The same goes for the other young men, many of them too young to drink in certain parts of the country.
Perhaps our definition of “making proud” has shifted for the worse over the years. As the World Juniors get increasingly over-relied upon by Canadian Media and Sponsors as a dependable annual income source, the narratives get more intense and the expectations get higher. What used to be “do your best” became “anything but gold is a failure”. Hell, towards the end of Canada’s most recent dynasty, we started to tear into these kids for not having perfect tournament records or shutouts in single games.
We’ve hit the point where a single goal improves a player’s draft position and a bad six or seven game stretch, with players you’ve often never played with until that point, can ruin your reputation forever. It’s already silly enough when this happens at men’s tournaments, but considering that most of these players go home and face another four to six more years of development before they hit their stride, it’s crazy.
I mentioned this yesterday when talking about the team on the whole, but the “helicopter parent” spectacle seems to spill over here. In this case, however, except its millions of people doing it to a handful of teenagers. If Jake Virtanen was your kid and had had a rough day during training for his new job, you wouldn’t stand up at a family dinner and tell all his relatives that he has no future. You’d be seen as insane, though, in a sense, we’re all a little insane to care about sports in the way that we do.
There’s no doubt in my mind that Virtanen is going to remain a hot-button topic for years to come in Vancouver, be it through his development path or his on-ice results. His selection is going to be an anchor point when evaluating the Jim Benning era. He’s going to be taking heat for a long time. But this time around, let’s avoid making a local and national villain out of a kid who let his emotions get the best of him while playing for pride?