It seemed only appropriate that the loudest cheers of the first two periods were for nights past.
“BOB-BY!” they chanted.
And all he did was wave at them. Still, the mere presence of Bobby Orr – going on 64 and looking, not acting, half his age – was enough to release the pent-up emotion that was long ago bottled for a New Year’s celebration that was supposed to matter a great deal.
Unfortunately, sadly, this game did not matter at all.
Playing early on as if they already had hangovers, Team U.S.A. fell 3-2 to Team Canada in a game that, until late in the third period, held about as much tension as a soggy New Year’s Eve hat.
Yet the ingredients were all there for what could have been. On medals, Team U.S.A. and Team Canada roughly balanced out, the Americans winning gold in Saskatoon two years ago, bronze in Buffalo last year, the Canadians with two straight silver medals.
The Americans had in net their hero from Saskatoon, Jack Campbell, now playing in his third straight World Junior Championship, supposedly older and better.
The Americans had their entire coaching staff from that 2010 gold back. They had seven returning players and a remarkable eight first-round NHL draft picks on their squad. They had huge defence and had come out of the exhibition round with a 5-0 licking of Slovakia that seemed to bear well for Edmonton and Calgary.
Canada-USA, after all, is supposed to be the great rivalry. It isn’t, actually, though the broadcasters would love that – the great Canadian junior rival is, and remains, Russia. Still, recent junior events, especially Saskatoon – where the two teams exchanged wins and U.S.A. won the gold in overtime – had created a natural storyline.
Even better, the two team captains were already familiar with each other, Canada’s Jaden Schwartz of Colorado College and Team U.S.A.’s Jason Zucker of the University of Denver competing for the “Gold Pan” in one of the fiercest rivalries in college hockey.
Players, however, are easy to define, teams much less so. There are hugely talented teams that simply cannot get it together – Team Canada in the 2006 Turin Olympics – and superior teams that stumble inexplicable, as Team Sweden did against Belarus in the 2002 Salt Lake Winter Games.
Put the junior Team U.S.A. in category one: a team blessed with great talent, cursed with poor play for most of this tournament. After an impressive 11-3 thrashing of Denmark on Boxing Day, the Americans lost 4-1 to the Finns and then 5-2 to the Czechs, thereby rendering the much-anticipated New Year’s match against unbeaten Canada meaningless and, shockingly, sending the inept Americans off to the relegation round.
The Canadians, on the other hand, won every one of their games to claim first place in the division and get a bye into the semi-finals, which will be played next week in Calgary.
In the early going of this meaningless game, the Americans put on a vivid display of what had gone so wrong this week. Defencemen could not control pucks along their own boards, forwards could not read each other, the power play was non-existent. And thought the crowd launched derisive (ital)”Camp-bell! Camp-bell”(end ital) chants at the American goaltender, he was far from the problem. No Campbell, no third-period fretting. In fact, Campbell played very well, as did Canadian Scott Wedgewood for the most part. Wedgewood now has given up two goals in his two games – one good, one bad – and gives Canada a solid alternative to Mark Visentin, who has also been excellent in the preliminary round.
Canada got its goals from Mark Stone, with his seventh of the tournament, Schwartz and Brett Connolly, all in the opening period.
It was good that the 16,647 fans on hand got their cheering in early, for there was little gold-medal display on later in the game as the Americans, reaching for their pride, finally began to play, just as the Canadians, understandably already looking ahead to Calgary, lost focus and determination.
The Americans scored halfway through the final period when, on a broken play, Team U.S.A. forward Charlie Coyle was able to snap a hard wrist shot high into the net behind Wedgewood. They scored again when Zucker was allowed to spin around the net on a wraparound and beat Wedgewood.
If only the Americans had found their game before the countdown began to put an end to 2011. The Edmonton round would have been a tournament and the New Year’s Eve match could have lived up to its early billing.
But it was not to be.
And so, with the preliminary round finished in Edmonton, it is fair to say that this superb Team Canada has yet to be truly tested.
But it is coming – and no fan of the World Junior Hockey Championship would wish it otherwise.