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Canada players (left to right) Oliver Bonk (5), Denton Mateychuk (24) and Maveric Lamoureux (13) react after their loss to Czechia during quarter-final hockey action at the IIHF World Junior Hockey Championship in Gothenburg, Sweden, on Jan. 2.Christinne Muschi/The Canadian Press

This was the year the world juniors were meant to fully return to Canada’s good graces.

Over the past year, the unpleasantness of the Hockey Canada scandal had faded over the horizon. They used the traditional formula for getting past such things – change a few faces, wait for the media to find another leg to chew on and then quietly welcome the same old sponsors back on board. The more things change and all that.

The last, little requirement was the usual gold medal for the Canadian team and then everyone could get back to normal.

Well, no business plan is perfect.

The Canadian junior team lost to Czechia in Tuesday’s quarter-final match.

It was a gruesome one. Canada went behind early, but carried play for the second and third periods.

Seconds before the end of regulation, with the scored tied 2-2 and everyone already playing overtime in their minds, the Czechs launched a soft, speculative shot at the Canadian net. It hit the shin of a defender, catching goalie Mathis Rousseau floating in the wrong direction. Game over.

“Our heads are just kind of spinning right now,” Canadian forward Owen Beck told reporters afterward in Gothenburg, Sweden.

One can imagine. They must be doing a full Exorcist back at Hockey Canada HQ and TSN. Nothing like an American march into the final to drive Canadian TV numbers on a workday.

Canada has never been a lock for a medal at the world juniors. Thirty-five of them in the past 48 years is impressive, but it’s not a headlock on the sport.

Despite the near-complete roster turnover from year to year, the team goes in streaks.

There was a run of gold in the mid-nineties, and another in the late aughts. It was on one until Tuesday – three golds and a silver in the past four years.

That sort of quality didn’t excuse Hockey Canada’s failings, but it also didn’t do anything to highlight them. While everything else was going wrong, the people in charge were able to say, ‘Well, the hockey part of the mission still seems to be working.’

How different does this fiasco look if the Canadian team goes into Halifax last year – the first world junior tournament since the most damaging headlines were published – and crashes out? Pretty different, I suspect. At the very least, the timeline for recovery is extended.

Instead, that team won. With the coast cleared by on-ice excellence, Tim Hortons, Esso and Telus felt freed to declare the crisis over.

Doesn’t that seem a bit strange to you? That the pressure for the sport’s institutional failings trickled down until it was laid across the shoulders of a bunch of teenagers? What other country does this?

None, because Canada is a hockey country that doesn’t play a lot of meaningful hockey.

Take the complete dominance of the senior women’s team out of it. It plays a game with so little international uptake that the only fair way to compare that roster is to each other.

International men’s hockey has competitive spark. It is a defining cultural object in Russia and Scandinavia as well as this country.

When’s the last time the very best Canadian men played the best of the rest of the world? In 2016. And that was a goofball spectacle designed to deliver maximum profit rather than a competitive exercise. The last honest-to-God, top-tier international men’s hockey tournament was the 2014 Sochi Olympics.

Can you imagine Brazil not playing in a best-on-best soccer tournament for a decade? Or America skipping basketball’s or baseball’s best for a sporting generation? India and cricket, South Africa and rugby and that’s the end of the list.

Put England, Argentina, Germany, et al in there, and maybe a dozen nations consider themselves the dominant force in a globally significant team sport.

Canada is the only one that doesn’t play the game it never stops talking about.

There are a lot of reasons for that, most of them stupid, and the world juniors is one of them.

It appears to be generally accepted in this country that as long as our high schoolers are the best hockey players in the world, Canada is still the best hockey nation in the world. When you say it out loud, it sounds as ridiculous as it is.

There is no country that claims it has a cutting-edge digital economy because its Grade 12 science projects are the best.

But Canada’s hockey vacuum serves all entrenched interests. Hockey Canada gets to make bank off the world juniors, because it’s the only big tournament going. The NHL gets to pretend it is still in the midst of creating a viable competitor to the Olympics (though it isn’t). The Olympics gets to hold a hockey tournament that doesn’t overwhelm all the other winter sports.

What the best players in the world get out of this, I have no idea. Were I Connor McDavid or Auston Matthews, I wouldn’t be asking for a chance at glory in an Olympics. I’d just do it and dare hockey’s pipsqueak powers-that-be to try and stop me.

Maybe it’s down to the fact that today’s top NHLers don’t want to do extra work for no extra pay. If so, what a failure of imagination.

It’s never fun to watch a junior team – any junior team from any country – bomb out of a tournament it was supposed to do well in. These kids haven’t yet learned how to manage life’s disappointments. You can see that in their faces.

But on a higher level, this isn’t a bad thing for Canada. Bombing out of a few world juniors in a row may help concentrate the minds of this country’s hockey establishment.

We should not be counting on kids to carry our national baggage. If we’re going to keep telling people that hockey is our game, maybe the adults working at every level of the game should feel the pressure to prove it every once in a while.

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