If you wanted to locate the true foundation of Team Canada’s dominant turn at the 2014 Olympics, the world junior tournament isn’t a bad place to start.
And, more specifically, the incredible team that won gold in 2005 in North Dakota, when the NHL lockout had put all eyes on a group of teenagers playing just over the border.
What was perhaps Canada’s best ever world junior team went undefeated that year, outscoring its opposition 32-5 in the round robin with four straight blowouts of the Czech Republic, Sweden, Germany and Finland before torching Russia 6-1 in the gold-medal game.
It wasn’t even close, and in hindsight, we can see why.
The ties between that team and the one that won gold in Sochi on Sunday are hard to miss, as six members that world junior squad – Sidney Crosby, Shea Weber, Jeff Carter, Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry and Patrice Bergeron – were key members of both teams.
But you can even extend that argument out a little, taking into account Canada’s run of five straight gold medals at the world juniors between 2005 and 2009.
In all, 13 of the 25 players at these Olympics were on those teams, and they formed the youthful backbone of one of the best international teams ever assembled.
They ultimately accounted for 15 of the 17 goals Team Canada scored in these Olympics, three of the top four defencemen, and Carey Price, the starting goaltender, who starred on the 2007 world junior team right in the middle of that gold medal run.
It obviously makes sense that there would be some carry over between world junior teams and Olympic squads, but the extent to which that five-year class has given Canada the world’s best roster is pretty remarkable.
Consider just how limited the veteran influence was in Canada’s win on Sunday. The only players who played a central role in Sochi who weren’t on those five world junior teams were Duncan Keith, Chris Kunitz and Patrick Marleau, who are all older than that core group and who also never played for Canada at the under-20 tournament.
The only Canadian Olympians from world junior teams prior to 2005, meanwhile, were the backup goaltender (Roberto Luongo), two depth defencemen (Jay Bouwmeester and Dan Hamhuis) and Rick Nash, who averaged only 10 minutes a game on the fourth line.
This win in Sochi was not, in other words, built around veterans in the sense of those with long NHL careers, but veterans of other international triumphs – “veterans” who are all between the ages of 23 and 29.
Canada has been shut out on the gold medal count in the five world juniors since 2009, so perhaps the pipeline has slowed down in the interim. But if NHLers do go to the Games in South Korea in 2018, every member of this 2014 core is still young enough to come back for another attempt.
Team Canada won with speed and skill and defensive acumen, but they also won with winners, players who had been on that kind of international stage before – often together – and pulled it off.
That had to help.
World junior stars turned Olympians
If you include the injured Steven Stamkos, fourteen players named to the 2014 Olympic team were part of Canada’s five year gold-medal run at the world juniors between 2005 and 2009, including six key players from the powerhouse 2005 team. All of these players are still under 30 years old and the majority are 26 and under.