U.S. junior coach Dean Blais might be surprised to learn he has anything in common with former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, but apparently he does.
"It's a funny old world," the Iron Lady said toward the end of her run.
"Hockey's a funny game," Blais said Saturday night with a slight grimace as his team came to its unsuccessful end of the preliminary round, defeated 3-2 by unbeaten Canada.
Blais meant that the game is relatively unpredictable. You can run into a hot goalie – as his team did against the Czech Republic. You can have trouble scoring, as happens periodically to the greatest and most dependable snipers. Pucks skip on ice chips, bounce oddly off boards, ricochet madly off bodies on a shot from the point.
The unbelievable can also happen, and regularly does as in the world junior hockey championship: Marc-André Fleury of Canada was named top goaltender in the 2003 tournament, and in the 2004 championship he put a puck off his own defenceman into his own net, giving the U.S. team the gold medal. In 2009 a powerful Russian team blew an icing late in the game, allowing Canada's Jordan Eberle to tie the game with 5.4 seconds to play, win the shootout and send Canada on to its fifth consecutive gold medal.
What is so far unbelievable about the 2012 world juniors is how weak the hockey was in Edmonton – where Canada, the silver medalists last year, played – and how strong it has been in Calgary, where Russia and Sweden put on the show of the preliminary round and where the Canadians have now come to play the games that will decide the medals this year.
The Canadians romped over weak opponents with an aggregate score of 23-3 after playing Finland, the Czech Republic and Denmark. While the Finns later overcame their obvious stage fright, growing stronger each match, they were not any force at all when meeting Canada in their first game, which they lost 8-1.
The only game that was even close was the New Year's Eve match against Blais's U.S. squad, a game that ended 3-2 and had the Canadians rather, well, exaggerating the import of the result.
It was simply remarkable how often the players used that beloved hockey word "adversity" in their postgame interviews. "You want to be playing your best," top Canadian scorer Mark Stone said. "That adversity is good for us."
"Every game you face a little adversity," Brendan Gallagher added.
Even coach Don Hay – now 11-0 as world junior championship coach – joined in: "I think that game will only make us better. Whenever you have to deal with a little bit of adversity and pressure, it's good for you. You really see some things from your players when the game is on the line."
In truth, the game against the Americans – the Canadians roaring out to a 3-0 lead, then growing sloppy in the third period – was only a hint of adversity. The game was meaningless to both sides. What energy it had came from a packed rink, the natural animosity between the two teams and an admirable surge of pride from the U.S. youngsters in the last half of the game.
There is, however, a profound difference between must wins and wins. The pressures of the third period in Edmonton were all personal – pressures from now on will be internal and external, but above all national. No one has to tell any one of these Canadian players or coaches that only gold will do, that the long-ago Nike ad that Canadians once disdained – "You don't win silver, you lose gold" – applies perfectly when it comes to Canadian hockey.
Make no mistake: This is a superb team. It has proved it can score when early predictions were that it would have trouble scoring. It is well coached by Hay, an excellent communicator. It has some players with good chemistry – Stone and Jonathan Huberdeau, for example – and some players who have yet to get going. It has two goaltenders – Scott Wedgewood and Mark Visentin – who have allowed a mere five goals in four games, yet no one can yet say which one is the one to carry Canada's hopes into the medal round. All Hay could say Saturday was, "Both goalies have played really well. … Both deserve the opportunity to start the next game."
Which is all to say that this junior Team Canada, from goal on out, has yet to be tested, yet to feel true adversity, yet to feel pressure so real and immediate and unfair and fierce that it is a wonder these child-men do not implode from the outrageous expectations.
They would not wish it any other way.
And, rightly or wrongly, neither would the country.