It was almost 14 years ago – when most of this edition of the world junior team was getting ready to enter kindergarten – that Canada faced the same sort of hockey challenge: Trying to get motivated to play for a bronze medal, when all it really cared about was taking home gold.
The tournament was the 1998 Winter Olympics and for the first time in history, Canada had entered a team of NHL professionals for the event in Nagano, Japan. Things were going pretty well, too. Canada swept through the preliminary rounds and then widely outplayed the Czech Republic in a semi-final game that went to a shootout.
Sadly, they could not find a way of getting a shot past goalie Dominik Hasek. Many lamented the fact head coach Marc Crawford left Wayne Gretzky on the bench for the shootout, but the way Hasek was playing– at the top of his game, in the midst of winning multiple Vezina Trophies – he probably could have given all 18 Canadian skaters a shot and not scored a goal.
The loss left Canada playing Finland for the bronze – the team's only bad moment in the tournament.
Between games, Canadian players muttered the gold-or-nothing mantra. It was clear they felt it, and it certainly showed against the Finns. Even though they outshot Finland 39-15, the sense of urgency that characterized their play earlier in the tournament was missing. (Also, a goaltender named Ari Sulander badly outplayed future Hockey Hall of Fame member Patrick Roy.) On the way to the mixed zone, to interview players after that desultory loss, the International Ice Hockey Federation contingent was waiting in the wings, getting ready to present the Finns with their medals. Security wasn't then what it is now, and they permitted me to peer into the shiny boxes.
I wondered at the time: Two years from now, or 10, or maybe even 30 down the road, would the Canadian players eventually regret that they allowed an opportunity for an Olympic medal to slip through their fingers?
Even if it wasn't the desired colour, would it matter to their grandchildren? Probably not.
An Olympic medal is an Olympic medal and what was largely overlooked about Canada's Nagano experience was how well it played in the tournament overall. It was a point executive director Steve Yzerman made over and over in the run-up to the 2010 Vancouver Olympics: The 1998 Canadian Olympic team, which won nothing, might have been better than the 2002 team, which won everything.
The difference was in the timing of the games they won. In 2002, the Canadians sputtered through a 1-1-1 preliminary round, but drew Finland, Belarus and the United States in medal play – no Russians, no Czechs, no Swedes. Yzerman's point was, in a tournament with so many viable teams and so many variables that can decide a single game, sometimes it comes down to luck.
In Canadian junior team's 6-5 loss to Russia on Tuesday, if Ryan Strome's last-gasp shot bounces off the goal post and into the net, it would have forced overtime and who knows how that might have turned out? Instead of Canada nursing the wounds of a nail-biting loss, maybe it would be celebrating another Jordan Eberle-in-2009-style, come-from-behind win.
Seeing the faces of the players postgame Tuesday, it was easy to understand their disappointment. (They held a 56-24 edge in shots.) That's why tournament organizers schedule a day in-between nowadays – to let the losing teams get over the disappointment and focus on the new goal: winning what you still can win.
"That's the message coming across," forward Brendan Gallagher said. "It may not seem all that important now, but 10 or 20 years down the road, that bronze medal sounds a lot better than fourth place.
"No matter when you're playing or what game, you're going to go out there and play your hardest. We're playing for that crest on the front of our jersey and it's going to be a fun game to play in still – and we're really going to enjoy it."
Watching how Gallagher conducts himself on and off the ice, there is little doubt he will be giving his all against a Finnish team Canada crushed 8-1 in the tournament opener. Nor was he the only one saying all the right things Wednesday, about preparation, about playing to win for all the right reasons.
One can only hope they end up doing all the right things as well.
Maybe not today, but somewhere down the road, they're going to be glad they did.