In some ways, the world junior hockey championship has become a victim of its own success.
At least as far as Team Canada 2012 is concerned, knocked silly for two periods in the first true test it faced and then, once it finally found itself, not quite able to mount the comeback that would have taken it for the 11th consecutive year into the gold-medal game.
“It’s not the end of the world,” Canada head coach Don Hay said Wednesday morning at the Hockey Canada practice complex here.
And it most assuredly isn’t. Far from it, considering this young and healthy team of future millionaires still has a chance to make it 14 years in a row on the podium – including five consecutive gold medals – Thursday afternoon when it meets Finland to decide the bronze medal.
“Not many teams,” Hay added unnecessarily, “that can say they came away from this tournament with a medal.”
Just three of the 10 – and that may be where some discussion might take place.
There is simply no denying the success of the world junior tournament, especially when it is played in hockey-mad Canada. The 2012 organizers believe they will set new tournament records in attendance (600,000 tickets), in revenues ($80-million plus), in 50/50 draws (a win equals the price of a new home in most other parts of the country) and perhaps even in television viewership.
To no surprise, the tournament has grown. There are more teams, now 10 where there were once eight, and it goes on for a long two weeks. The teams get divided into two groups – one in Edmonton this year, one in Calgary – and while the divisions are dictated by the results of the year before, it can prove sadly out of balance, as was the case in 2012.
“You play the games you are scheduled to play,” Hay said Wednesday without saying anything more.
So let us expand for him. Canada played Finland, Czech Republic, Denmark and the United States. The hockey in Edmonton was dismal, for the most part. The Canadians ended the round with an aggregate score of 26-5. They were never challenged, never tested, though they pretended to have met “adversity” briefly New Year’s Eve when the Americans came within a goal in a 3-2 Canadian win.
They saw no adversity whatsoever. The Americans came back because the game had already been rendered utterly meaningless. The Canadians had a 3-0 lead and lost focus just as a little U.S. pride kicked in.
In never losing in Edmonton, the Canadians arrived in Calgary with a bye straight into the semi-final, straight up against the speedy, skilled, determined Russians. The Russians scored first – the first time the Canadians were ever behind in the tournament – and were up 6-1 early in the third period. The Canadians had been stunned by the first true challenge they faced.
“We kind of didn’t know how to deal with it,” said goaltender Scott Wedgewood, who was pulled before the game was half over.
They figured it out, though – as so often happens to Canadian players – and they became a true team in the third period and very nearly pulled off perhaps the greatest upset in tournament history. But it was too late.
What, however, if they had only been truly challenged before the semi-final? Ten teams is too many, especially considering the weakness of the likes of Latvia and Denmark. There has even been a proposal – heaven forbid – to go to 12 teams and a longer tournament.
Canada might have been far better off not to have had that bye. It might have benefited from having to play in the quarter-finals on Monday, as Russia had. One more chance to find that elusive team.
If the Olympics can be used as a fair guide, history suggests that a little early adversity, true adversity, is exactly what Canadian hockey players thrive on. At the 2002 Games in Salt Lake City, Canada lost in the early going 5-2 to Sweden and had to play Finland in the quarter-final. It squeaked through with a 2-1 victory, then whipped Belarus 7-1 in the semi-final and won the gold medal with a convincing 5-2 victory over the United States.
Similarly at the Vancouver Games in 2010, Canada lost early to a strong U.S. team, 5-3, beat Russia in the quarter-finals 7-3 and barely survived a late-surge by spunky Slovakia to win the semi-final match 3-2. The NHL stars won their second Olympic gold by beating the Americans 3-2 on Sidney Crosby’s overtime goal.
In both instances, the Canadians were tested early and also had that extra game in which to find their team personality.
Something that took until the third period of a must-win game in Calgary.
And by then it was too late.