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Canadian juniors wrestle emotions of 'bittersweet' bronze

Canada's Tanner Pearson battles Finland's Ville Pokka in the first period of their bronze-medal game.

Todd Korol/Reuters/Todd Korol/Reuters

For Canadian hockey players, the rules are simple: silver trumps bronze and nothing beats gold. Ever.

But for Canada's team at the 2012 world junior hockey championships, third place was the best it could manage Thursday. So the players competed in a game they never wanted to be part of for a medal they'd hoped to avoid and recorded one final win.

The 4-0 final over Finland wasn't thrilling, wasn't especially well played and certainly wasn't memorable except for one thing: it gave Canada a medal for the 14th year in a row. No other country has been as prolific. Then again, few take winning a bronze medal with such disappointment.

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"It's bittersweet," forward Brett Connolly said when describing how he and his teammates felt after blanking the Finns. "I'd rather be on that blue line getting the gold medal. I thought we had a very good tournament. It just didn't happen for us in one game."

Canada blitzed through its round-robin clashes, stumbled early against Russia in Tuesday's semi-final and, despite a furious comeback in the third period, came up short of the gold medal final. For that, the team – from how it was assembled to how it was coached – will be analyzed over the next few weeks. Questions will be asked; opinions offered. Most definitely, though, the teenagers who wore the Canadian jersey were emotionally torn as they paraded through the mixed zone yesterday, chatting with the media for the last time at this event.

"Was this redemption for losing the gold medal to Russia last year?" forward Ryan Strome was asked.

"Redemption would have been a gold medal," he answered. "We had to play [the bronze-medal]game so we might as well give it our best. We did it; we got a win."

The game opened, as expected, with little emotion on the ice or in the building. For its part, Finland was coming off a spirit-crushing shootout loss to Sweden. The Finns had been up 2-0 in that game only to give up a late goal and miss out on the gold medal game.

Tanner Pearson scored the day's first goal, deflecting a slick pass from Dougie Hamilton on a Canadian power play. The Finns then took a series of penalties allowing Canada ample opportunity to put the game away, which it did on goals from Mark Scheifele and two from Quinton Howden.

"I think they wanted it more than us," was Finnish goaltender Sami Aittokallio's take on how Canada played.

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Perhaps no Canadian wanted the win more than its goalie, Mark Visentin. After giving up five third-period goals in the gold-medal heartbreak to Russia last year, a vanquished Visentin had to wait a year for a chance to ease his pain. He started the 2012 tournament with an 8-1 win over Finland then sat on the bench when Scott Wedgewood was named the starter in the semi-final against Russia. Visentin finished that game in relief and was able to close out the tournament as the player of the game.

"I'm really happy with the win," he admitted. "It's really been a tough year for the returning guys. To win a bronze medal is something I'll be proud of forever."

Visentin's best save against Finland came early in the third when the puck hit his shoulder and bounced off the crossbar before Visentin trapped it in his glove behind his back.

"It was a pretty sweet save," Visentin agreed. "It felt good."

"That was the most creative save I've ever seen him make," added Strome, who plays for the OHL's Niagara IceDogs with Visentin.

Canadian head coach Don Hay, who guided Canada to gold at the 1995 world juniors, was most proud of how his 2012 team was able to regroup after its semi-final setback.

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"It was really an empty feeling [Wednesday]knowing you didn't have a chance to win," he said. "But I thought our team really stuck with it and showed a lot of heart and a lot of desire and it's quite an honour to win the bronze medal for Team Canada."

An honour Freddie Hamilton was already wearing around his neck as he spoke of what matters most for Canadian hockey.

"It's always better to end off with a win. But I would have been a lot happier with the gold."

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