After a 5-1 victory over Sweden Tuesday night, Canada’s Under-20 team has made it five championships in a row and while the championship game might not be the one that is remembered in this tournament, it will be a team of redemption, of skill and of determination.
Hats off to Angelo Esposito who scored what ended up being the game-winning goal in the gold medal game. Esposito was cut three times – the only player other than Dan Cleary to have that happen – and bounced back, making the team to play on a line with John Tavares and was responsible on both sides on the ice.
I was surprised to see Esposito killing penalties, but he scored what could have been the prettiest goal of the entire tournament when he was sprung shorthanded and scored the fourth Canada goal against Russia.
That leads us to Tavares. It’s one thing to hear about him tearing up the Ontario Hockey League, it’s another thing to see him tear up the best players of his age group in the world. Tavares is good. I’ll go on record as to saying he will not only be in the NHL next season, but will win the Calder Trophy. Now, I know this isn’t much of a limb to go out on, but believe me. He has the skill and mindset to be great. Better than Sidney Crosby.
Then there is Zach Boychuk. Against the Americans he went down heavily into the boards and hurt his ankle, but didn’t miss a game and played against the Russians and the Swedes.
And then, there is the apple to every Canadiens fan’s eye. PK Subban is a player who is downright fun to watch. He gets most of his attention based on the fact that he is a great point man on the power play or that he is great offensively and on the rush, but the fact of the matter is, he was great in both ends in this tournament.
He led the tournament in plus-minus at +12 and was only on the ice for three even strength goals against. Not to mention the fact he has been a media darling for the last two World Juniors, and will continue to be into his professional hockey career.
All in all, this Canadian team won’t go star-for-star with its 2005 counterpart that started the streak – the one with Sidney Crosby, Mike Richards, Ryan Getzlaf, Jeff Carter and Patrice Bergeron – but it will go down with it where it counts. This team won the Gold medal, Canada’s fifth in a row, and with Ryan Ellis one of the many players on Team Canada poised to come back next year in Saskatchewan, you could imagine expectations in 2010 will be to keep a sixth straight Gold Medal right here in Canada.
Maybe it was Scotiabank Place. Maybe it was missing out on the Boxing Day deals. Maybe it was because there was a transit strike in Ottawa. Maybe it was my high expectations. Whatever it was, my experience at the World Juniors was disappointing and I left underwhelmed.
Truth be told, the crowd at the Canada-Czech Republic was so quiet at times you could actually hear the Senators drop down the standings. With an underwhelming sing-along to Oh Canada before the game the crowd never seemed to get into it. Not to mention the fact there were empty seats throughout the Canada game. That wouldn’t have happened in Saskatchewan, where the tournament will be held next year and it didn’t happen in Vancouver or Halifax or anywhere the tournament had been held in Canada.
Of course, it didn’t really help that John Tavares scored Canada’s first goal when most of the crowd left their seats to get an early jump on the lines for food, beer and bathroom stalls.
Maybe I had been spoiled. Maybe I’m just too used to an arena that is both bigger and louder like the Bell Centre in Montreal.
The fact the Ottawa crowd tried to emulate that of the Bell Centre with an “Ole Ole” chant in the second period and failed miserably by the Hab fan standards I’m used to is just an exclamation point.
I’ve actually heard better “Ole Ole”s after last call at Café Campus.
I really don’t want to take anything away from the city of Ottawa, the organizers or the volunteers – it wasn’t their fault. I was treated very well throughout my stay at the arena and in Ottawa and I have no complaints about how everything was organized. However, I just wish the crowd was a little more into it than it was. Granted, I was at the opening game between Canada and the Czechs. I’m sure my opinion would differ greatly had I been at the Canada-USA or Canada-Russia games that are engrained in my mind, unfortunately from the television and not from being there live.
Not to mention the Gold Medal game against the Swedes.
There were some high points of the games I attended, however. Right after Tavares’ second goal, the video board showed a fan holding a sign with the letters TSN on it with the words “Tavares: Sens Need you.” I think that sign might have actually elicited more cheers from the Ottawa faithful than his two goals did.
The fact of the matter was, the slogan all over Ottawa was “Welcome to Hockey Country.”
Well, I sure hope they meant Canada as a whole, because otherwise Hockey Country would be mighty tame.
Some people, myself included, were still catching their breath from Canada’s final round robin game against the United States. Heck, the American players couldn’t even catch their breath in time for their game against Slovakia.
But then Canada’s game against Russia – the forgotten team in a tournament that had favoured the Americans, Swedes and Canadians – took our breath away even more dangerously.
Both will be considered, for a long time, as two of the best World Junior games in history – maybe even two of the best hockey games ever, and I for one am happy I had my PVR recording both.
The American game had it all: rallying from a 3-0 deficit before the first period even ended, an American player taunting the Canadian bench, Canadians getting too close to the American bench during a goal celebration, and oh yeah, fantastic goals and outstanding saves – including Dustin Tokarski stoning American Colin Wilson.
The save made Pierre McGuire find a new tone of voice which was in between his “Double Dion” and a distinct hoarseness. If you watched the game, you know what I mean.
It was a game that lived up to its pre-tournament billing, and it was a game I feel will be the New Year’s eve classic of our generation – a generation that wasn’t alive to see the 1975 New Year’s Eve game between the Montreal Canadiens and the Soviet Red Army.
The game against Russia was different, but even been better and more exciting than the American game. This wasn’t merely a round robin game. This was the difference between playing for gold and playing for bronze.
It was two heavyweights going blow-for-blow in a title fight. 1-0 Canada. 1-1. 2-1 Canada. 2-2. 3-2 Canada. 3-3. 4-3 Canada. 4-4. 5-4 Russia with just over 2:20 remaining.
To keep with the boxing analogy, Canada was down on points as the 12th round was coming to a close. They needed a knockout to win the round and force extra time (if Boxing allowed overtime instead of a decision, but this is my article).
Russia then had Canada on the ropes, but instead of putting the hammer down, they backed off. They tried for a game-sealing empty net goal and missed. There was a second chance for Canada. Ten seconds left. Nine. Eight. Seven. John Tavares throws the puck on net. A Russian defenceman tries to block it, but it gets away from him. Six. Jordan Eberle jumps on the loose puck. Five. Eberle puts the puck in the net. 5-5.
Pierre McGuire once again gets to that hybrid voice mentioned earlier.
Then there was the four-on-four overtime, which was a sight to behold. Speed, scoring chances and PK Subban with every break potentially the difference between a bronze and a gold.
With no winner in sight, it went to a shootout, and it was Canada’s skill and Tokarski’s stops that propelled Canada to the gold medal game against Sweden.
Four days, two games and images that will be replayed in our minds for a very long time.
The fact that Canada won gold, makes these wins even sweeter.