There’s a special kind of agony on display in the bowels of a hockey arena on the night a championship is awarded.
On the Bell Centre’s ice-level concourse late Thursday in Montreal, it was etched on the faces of the young men in the red Canada-branded team gear.
Tears are the natural consequence of loss, particularly after having experienced perhaps the pinnacle of professional sport – a screaming, partisan crowd exploding after your team takes a two-goal lead in the third period.
But the physical manifestations go beyond reddened eyes; there is visible hollowness, and it isn’t easy to watch it in teenagers.
The vicissitudes of tournament play mean the victors and the vanquished must share space in the mixed zone minutes after a seismic event in the life of all of them, squeezing past one another as questions are shouted; most of them are accustomed to the drill, and the winners respect the losers’ pain by not exulting obnoxiously.
It’s still jarring.
Take Thomas Chabot, the do-everything Team Canada defenceman who logged nearly 44 minutes in ice time in the gold-medal final of the World Junior Championship against the United States, which the Americans won 5-4 in a shootout.
Chabot was asked about how he hopes to use the experience in the next stage of his career – the junior playoffs and then the National Hockey League. “I’ve just lost one of the biggest games of my life,” he said, trailing off.
The 19-year-old from Sainte-Marie, Que., near Quebec City, then turned and left, wiping away tears.
There was goaltender Carter Hart of Sherwood Park, Alta., who was magnificent all night and gave up just one goal in the shootout – the decisive one to U.S. shootout specialist Troy Terry, who scored on all four chances he got in the semis and final – red-eyed, disconsolate and vaguely shell-shocked.
And Mathieu Joseph, a Montreal-area kid who manufactured a breakaway and scored what he surely felt was an insurance goal in the third period.
And Nicolas Roy of Amos, Que., the hulking centre who had the unenviable task of taking Canada’s last turn in the shootout – knowing that anything short of a goal would spell disaster.
The puck rolled off his stick.
It’s no kind of way to determine the victor in what was, by any criteria you care to apply, an absolute classic of a hockey game.
The Canadians roared out of the blocks, scoring twice in a blur of a first period (Chabot opened the scoring, Jeremy Lauzon teed off on a rolling puck to beat U.S. goalie Tyler Parsons).
The Bell Centre, packed with 20,173 fans for the occasion – for all intents and purposes it was a sellout, and by far the largest and most animated crowd of the tournament – erupted with the kind of noise usually reserved for the beloved Canadiens in the playoffs.
But the U.S. is no pushover, and in the second period they tied the game.
“We know how to win,” said defenceman Charlie McAvoy, who scored the Americans’ pivotal first goal.
So do the Canadians, and in the third, two more goals came (first from Roy, on a perfect wrist shot, the next from Joseph).
But within seconds it was 4-3 (Kiefer Bellows cashing in on a nice feed from McAvoy) and minutes later 4-4 (on a deflection from Colin White, who slept all of an hour on Wednesday because of a stomach bug).
Overtime, thrilling though it may have been, did not provide a conclusion. And so it was on to the shootout.
Even U.S. coach Bob Motzko, who had every reason not to say anything, said “sometimes it seems an unfair way to end a hockey game like that. Either team could have won that. What a game. It was an awesome hockey game.”
That’s absolutely true.
Team Canada defenceman and Montreal Canadiens prospect Noah Juulsen, downcast at the result, expressed similar sentiments.
“It was a great experience. We didn’t get the outcome we wanted, but as a group we bonded well and it was a great time,” he said.
And is the shootout an unsatisfactory way to end that time?
“It’s hard to say. If we won I would probably say no.”
Though the result was something of a coin-flip, it’s impossible not to take heed of the emerging generation of American players.
As McAvoy pointed out, they have now won at the under-17, under-18 and under-20 international level.
Motzko said it’s partly a function of copying the homework of the country to the north.
“A good coach is a good thief — we steal ideas and we steal drills. And we’ve learned from the best, you know? And we know Canada’s place. We respect the heck out of it,” he said.
A few hours before the puck dropped on the gold-medal game, Hockey Canada executives talked about how they will analyze “every aspect” of the tournament in a series of postmortems.
The sharpest questions will surely be asked of the marketing and ticketing people, but it will presumably also include an exploration on the hockey side of scouting, development and of what they can do to hone their selection and in-tournament practices.
It’s not likely any summits or white papers will be required; despite hiccups on the organizational front, Canada could easily have been on the winning side.
Magnanimous in victory, Motzko suggested Hockey Canada still does a whole lot of things right when it comes to the World Juniors.
And it is being imitated in the U.S., which hosts next year’s tournament in Buffalo.
“How Canada follows this tournament is impressive. I mean, the fans, the hockey people, we don’t do that down there yet, but it’s growing. And ever since it started to be televised, every game, it’s on every locker room,” he said. “I got a text from a junior coach, he stopped practice and they put it on the big screen and they watched it. That’s been done up here for years. And any time you have success, people are following it.”
The hockey rivalry between Canada and the U.S. is not new; we now have fresh evidence that it may soon reach new heights.