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Nothing Gold Can Stay: Canada Falls to Finland, Russia in World Juniors Flop
Let me start with the road less travelled: Congrats, Finland.
The Finns are always very good and often very close, falling to Sweden it seems whenever they get their once chance to win gold, whether it's the Olympics or the World Juniors. The Finns are the goofy annual second-fiddlers from Scandinavia. You won't find a hockey fan who dislikes Finland, and you shouldn't find a hockey fan who can't respect their game... they're as tough and aggressive as any North American squad and they have the finesse of a Russian, Czech, or Swede.
The Finns just can't always put it together at once and when they need to, but they did on Sunday and, I'll say again, congrats.
Now, for Canada.
I'll admit it because it's obvious and convenient, but I've never been comfortable ragging on kids and the World Juniors are nothing but kids vs. kids. We cheer on our 19-year-olds because they're better than somebody else's 18-year-olds. At least, they were better.
For the second straight year, Canada leaves the Juniors without a medal. It's also the fifth straight year the Canucks leave the tourney without a gold, although that piece of shiny Au seems like a far-off fantasy now. In 2010, it was a shock when they lost to the Americans. 2011? Yeah, that blown three-goal lead and the loss to Russia was a bummer. 2012 and the semifinal loss to Russia hurt as much, even if our boys garnered a bronze in the process. 2013 and 2014, well, they weren't fun. But even worse, they weren't surprising.
But I'm not in the mood to criticize the team or the guys who picked the team and I'm certainly not qualified.
Frankly, I think this Canadian squad was good enough. Curtis Lazar, Jonathan Drouin, and Anthony Mantha were a force from day one to today. Same goes for the more-than-worthy second line of Vancouver prospect Bo Horvat and the kids – Sam Reinhart and 16-year-old Connor McDavid – and our defence, headlined by NHLer Mathew Dumba, Griffin Reinhart, Josh Morrissey, and Derrick Pouliot.
Zachary Fucale was just fine in goal and sometimes exceptional, saving the day on multiple occasions against the United States when the Canadians grabbed first place in the pool and seemed to turn a corner they never really did.
I can't criticize the coaching from bench boss Brent Sutter for a couple reasons. First, he's won before. Second, I have no idea what a head coach does and neither do you. Sure, we have some idea, but we will never know the ins and outs and we will never know what happens behind closed doors. Or on the ice, for that matter.
On paper, this Canadian team was just fine. They were as able as the Americans, who entered the World Juniors as the favourite running and left before anything counted. If this was a one-time thing, it wouldn't matter that much. I can't believe anyone in the United States lost sleep over the Stars and Stripes getting stopped and stripped – even the rabid puck lovers in Minnesota or Michigan or somewhere like that – but that's because they've won two gold medals since we Canadians won our last. They're better than us and, worst of all, the know it. The Americans are the new Canadians.
Our teams – our Canadian junior teams – always seem capable. We always have the stars we need, and we've always stumbled at times only to rebound when it matters most.
But there was some sort of connection between those five first-place teams from 2005 to 2009. For whatever reason, it felt like the next Canadian club was accountable to the one before, like somehow John Tavares and Sidney Crosby played for the same team even if they were five years apart. Like that Jonathan Toews-led team in 2007 was looking up to and feeding off the '05 dream team, with its Perrys, Bergerons, Getzlafs, Carters, Crosbys, and Richards.
There was some sort of string tied between those clubs – an always-there level of pressure that was as productive and positive as it was butterfly-inducing and nerve-racking.
That Eberle goal that tied the semifinal against Russia in the dying seconds? That was a thrill. It was ecstasy. And sure, it was followed by a shootout win and a gold medal trumping of Sweden, but every moment felt like the build-up to something bigger.
Even the believed-to-be-outmatched Canadians teams in 2006 and 2008 were up to answering the bell when they weren't supposed to. For some reason now, from 2010 and since, there's been an expectation that not winning is alright. Like there's always next year... like it's just a game.
That's not the truth, of course. Most players are lucky to have one World Juniors under their belt, and B.C.-connected kids like the Canucks' Horvat, Surrey's Nic Petan, or Vernon's Lazar may just fall into that unfortunate category. They may not get to play in 2015... of course, that would be because they're in the NHL, but still. The Canadian Junior team has turned into a factory for the future, not a team focused on the present.
The Canadians appear solemn and glib with every successive failure. They sulk and they say the right things, but it's almost as if they never knew what it would take to win. (We Vancouverites see that enough with our NHL team, so we would know.)
It started with the realization that we may not be good enough for gold, which happens when you fall in two straight heartbreaking finales like Canada did in 2010 and 2011. But that wasn't acceptable in years' past and it's become acceptable since. Now, we know we're not even in the top three, and we were fortunate to get even that far.
And I don't buy Patrick King's conclusion that "Canada lacked effort, energy all tournament," although I mean no respect to Sportsnet's veteran junior hockey expert with my dissent. I don't think the Canadians lacked anything. I'm just not sure they knew how to use it and I'm not sure they knew what it would take.
Our country – as players and as fans – have always bought into the propaganda that our game is greater than any other nation's game. It used to be true and it probably still could be. But we've lost our way and we never answer for it. We choose to be defensive and arrogant instead of thinking ahead or being progressive.
The only team that consistently plays real Canadian hockey – you know, the forechecking and the speed skating with the hit-shot-hit soundtrack – is Team USA. Russia and Sweden have maintained their reputation and style, and Finland falls somewhere in between. The Finns are a hybrid car and hockey is just entering its version of Ford's green movement.
But I guess, if you're Canadian, there's always next year. (See? I'm doing it, too.)