Forget the eagle, the real enemy is the bear.
Despite the broadcast world’s best efforts to create a hockey rivalry between Canada and the United States, Canadians know this morning, if they didn’t already, that the rival that matters most in hockey is Russia – just as it was 40 years ago.
Tuesday night, the two hockey powers met in the semi-finals of the world junior hockey championship and the Russians put a crushing end to any hopes Canada had of a gold medal with a hard-fought 6-5 victory.
In a game that at times had all the high drama of the legendary 1972 Summit Series between Canada and the Soviet Union, the teenaged Russians bested the Canadian teenagers in a game that held every emotion imaginable in sport.
In the end, however, it was pure despair for the Canadians, unable to complete a valiant third-period comeback that simply ran out of time.
The victorious Russians now move on to play Sweden Thursday, when they will defend the gold medal they won last year in Buffalo, while the Canadians will meet Finland, a team they defeated 8-1 in the preliminary round, for the bronze medal – an award many Canadians take to be the ultimate insult in their national game.
For 10 consecutive years, Canada had played in the gold-medal match of this tournament, at one point winning five championships in a row.
The Russians won on precisely the strategy the Canadians had used successfully in the preliminary round played in Edmonton – a fast start – when speedy Yevgeni Kuznetsov scored off a pass from highly touted 2012 draft prospect Nail Yakupov and then went ahead 2-0 when Nikita Nesterov blasted a shot from the point on a Russian power play.
“It’s important for us to get off to a good start,” Team Canada head coach Don Hay had said earlier in the day. They did not, and they paid heavily for it.
The Canadians fought back early in the second period when Brett Connolly, who plays for the Tampa Bay Lightning of the National Hockey League, scored on a delayed penalty, but very quickly Kuznetsov put Russia ahead again by two – this time on a wrist shot that Canadian goaltender Scott Wedgewood fanned on.
Soon it was 4-1, with Kuznetsov, the tournament’s leading point-getter, picking up his third of the game. Wedgewood, who plays goal for the Plymouth Whalers of the Ontario Hockey League, was replaced in net by Mark Visentin, goaltender for the Niagara IceDogs, before the game was half over. The Russians scored on their second shot on Visentin, by forward Alexander Khokhlachev.
The Russians made it 6-1 in the third period, and seemingly out of reach, when Nikita Kucherov finished off a nifty passing play that left Visentin at his mercy. The Canadians came back, however, when Dougie Hamilton, also of the IceDogs, tipped a pass in behind Russian starting goaltender Andrei Vasilevski.
Team Canada forward Freddie Hamilton, another Niagara IceDog, had called for his team to play “a good Canadian game” – hard-hitting, smart, quick and effective – and they did exactly that, once the third period got under way. Had they only started that way, the result might have been different.
The third period, it turned out, had historical significance.
This rematch had been highly anticipated ever since the Russians had stormed back in the third period a year ago in Buffalo to wipe out a 3-0 Canadian lead in the gold-medal match and win 5-3. That game is considered the greatest Canadian “meltdown” – a more palatable word than “choke” – in the long history of world junior play.
The Canadians, far more feisty in the third period than earlier in the game, very nearly duplicated the Russian feat when they scored two quick goals midway through the third period to make it 6-3. Captain Jaden Schwartz of Colorado College managed to bank a shot off a Russian defender into the net.
Then it got wild, with first Brendan Gallagher of the Vancouver Giants tipping in a shot, then Brandon Gormley scoring to put the Canadians within one. The Russians pulled Vasilevski and replaced him with Andrei Makarov.
It seemed redemption for Buffalo 2011 was at hand.
But, alas, it was not to be.
“It’s not about redemption,” Hay had said earlier in the day, but he knew, as all did, that this semi-final match was as much about revenge as it was about advancing to the gold-medal game. Hay had even changed his tournament habit of alternating goaltenders, placing young Wedgewood on the hot seat rather than Visentin, who had been in net a year ago in Buffalo and had been asked about the infamous meltdown virtually every day of this tournament.
The story, however, was not so much the goaltenders as the two essentials of great hockey, no matter which country is playing: skill and speed. The Russians simply had more of each than the Canadians through two periods, the Canadians more than the Russians in the third. All three of the early goaltenders – Wedgewood, Visentin and Vasilevski – surely now understand what Hall-of-Famer Gump Worsley meant when he said “The only worse job is a javelin catcher at a track-and-field meet.”
Calgary poet Richard Harrison has often called hockey “the national id” and the importance of this game was as evident in the boos during the first two periods as it was in the wild cheers of the third.
Redemption is merely on hold for another year.