You won’t need a meteorologist from Environment Canada to predict that a high-pressure system will be settling over Red Deer and Edmonton shortly after Christmas Day.
It’s a certainty – and that pressure is going to build over the next few days until it explodes Jan. 5 in a hockey game that will have hearts bursting on one side and tears on the other.
As the Nike ads once put it, “You don’t win silver, you lose gold,” and nowhere is this unfortunate reality more apparent than at the world junior championship.
There is a mystique to what is known as “the world juniors.” For Canadians, this tournament, no matter where it’s played, means something very special. The games herald a new year, a slow lengthening of days for a country already weary of cold, dark afternoons. As Bruce Kidd and John Macfarlane so vividly wrote many years ago, “In a land so inescapably and inhospitably cold, hockey is the dance of life, an affirmation that despite the deathly chill of winter we are alive.”
This year, unlike the 2021 championship, there will be fans – albeit a limited number – and the pressure felt naturally by the players will be compounded hugely by demanding spectators and viewers wanting nothing less than a gold medal, proof once again that we truly own our national game.
Before we all start screaming though, perhaps this is a good time to remember that these are kids sent out to bring glory to their country – in this case restore glory, as a year ago the Americans surprisingly won the championship game and Canada, by definition, “lost” gold.
These players are young enough that one of them could be fairly called a child. That would be Connor Bedard, the first player in the history of the Western Hockey League to be granted special status so he could play as a 15-year-old. Now 16, Bedard will join the likes of Wayne Gretzky, Sidney Crosby, Eric Lindros and Connor McDavid in the handful of 16-year-olds to wear the Team Canada jersey.
Another player granted exceptional status to play in the Ontario Hockey League as a 15-year-old is Shane Wright, now 17 and projected to be drafted first overall in the 2022 NHL draft. Bedard is widely expected to go first overall in 2023.
Teenagers, with enormous pressure already on them and the pressure certain to mount as the tournament gets under way and heads into the medal round. Reports out of the brief training camp in Banff indicate they are already feeling it. One player told the media he had “a little bit of an extra chip on my shoulder wanting to get a gold medal.”
It has been a difficult year for young hockey players and the game they love but doesn’t always love them back. There was the incredible TSN reporting on how a young prospect named Kyle Beach was sexually abused by a coach with the Chicago Blackhawks, and several times tried to bring the abuse to the attention of the team and league, but no one would listen. “I buried this for 10 years, 11 years,” he told reporter Rick Westhead, “and it’s destroyed me from the inside out.”
Then there was the astonishingly tone-deaf act by the Montreal Canadiens when they drafted Logan Mailloux, who had been criminally convicted in Sweden last year for illegally sharing a photograph of a young woman performing a sex act. The player had specifically requested no team draft him while he works out personal issues. Not only did the Canadiens not honour his request, but then-general manager Marc Bergevin told the media that, “He’s remorseful and he has a lot of work to do, but he already started to put it behind him and have a hockey career.”
Bergevin properly lost his job last month, as did others in Canadiens management.
More recently, there was a story out of the Maritimes that a 16-year-old Halifax player was repeatedly called the “N-word” during a game in Charlottetown and was later told by players on the opposing team that hockey is “a white man’s sport.” Mark Connors, who is Black, a goalie with the Halifax Hawks U18 AA team, said he was first called the slur on the ice three years ago and the word was directed at him again during the first game he played in the Falcons Early Bird Tournament last month.
Each year, the world juniors produces its own story. It can be hideous – the 1987 brawl between the Soviet Union and Canada in Piestany, Slovakia, in which the game was cancelled and both teams tossed from the tournament. It can be glorious, as in the magnificent play of Jordan Eberle in Ottawa in 2009, his last-seconds goal against Russia allowing Canada to move on to a shootout victory and, eventually, a fifth successive gold medal.
These are, once again, kids. They will be shattered if they don’t win gold, but it is far from the end of the world. Just ask Marc-André Fleury.
In Helsinki in 2004, Fleury was the Canadian goaltender in a championship game that seemed certain to end in gold medals wrapped around their necks and the players all belting out the national anthem. The Canadians were up 3-1 heading into the third period. Then, in a two-minute stretch, the Americans scored twice to tie the game at 3-3.
Canadian head coach Mario Durocher thought his goaltender was panicking but did not change goalies. With barely five minutes to go in the game, Fleury tried to clear the puck, but his shot hit his defenceman and bounced back into the Canadian net. The Americans held on to win the gold medal.
A shattered and tearful Fleury later told the assembled media, “I have no choice but to live with it for the rest of my career.”
Just to keep everything in perspective, Fleury picked up his 500th NHL victory this month when his Chicago Blackhawks shut out the Montreal Canadiens 2-0, making Fleury the goaltender with the third-most wins in NHL history.
Not bad for someone who “lost gold.”