SPORTS

Still good as gold

The Canadian juniors sweep to their third straight world title

MARY NEMETH January 16 1995
SPORTS

Still good as gold

The Canadian juniors sweep to their third straight world title

MARY NEMETH January 16 1995

Still good as gold

The Canadian juniors sweep to their third straight world title

MARY NEMETH

It was the eve of what turned out to be the decisive game of the World Junior Hockey Championship in Alberta. The Russians had just beaten the highly touted Swedes and looked like they could still challenge Canada for gold—resurrecting a rivalry that stretches back to the dawn of international hockey. “The Russians are still the Russians—we still remember the Paul Henderson goal [in the 1972 series],” said defenceman Jamie Rivers. Remember? ‘Well, no,” blushed the 19-yearold. “I wasn’t around for that. But I’ve seen the old tapes. And it still gives you a special feeling.” Canada’s junior team was composed of kids, after all, 17to -19-year-olds imbued with hockey mythology but still dreaming of their role in the game’s future. And although the RussiaCanada game did not live up to its billing—the Russians lost their cool, drew too many penalties and fell 8-5 to the clearly dominant home team—the Canadians exceeded already great expectations throughout the round-robin tournament. Not only did they wrap up the country’s third straight gold medal after beating the Russians, but, playing for pride, they went on to whip the Swedes to sweep all seven games—a Canadian record. At the same time, the team’s enthusiastic and disciplined brand of hockey was the perfect antidote for fans disillusioned by bickering millionaire players and owners in the locked-out National Hockey League.

SPORTS

The fate of this year’s NHL season remained in doubt last Saturday, although some observers still held out hope for last-ditch negotiations before the Jan. 16 deadline imposed by NHL commissioner Gary Bettman. Regardless of the outcome, however, the NHL may already have lost at least a few fans. “I don’t care if they ever go back,” said Mitch Oshman, 45, a purchasing agent who attended the Canadian junior team’s final game against Sweden in Red Deer. “Nobody’s worth the kind of money the players are making, and the owners are making too much, too.” Oshman said he is a convert to junior hockey—to the “bunch of kids who are out there just to play the game.”

The NHL lockout did benefit the junior championships. Most of the games were played be-

fore sold-out or near-capacity crowds of hockeystarved fans at 12 sites around Alberta. The labor strife also allowed Canadian coach Don Hay to employ a half dozen players who might otherwise have been toiling in the NHL—earning his squad the moniker “junior dream team.” But there was more to the team’s success than that. Calgary Flames prospect Marty Murray, who shared most-points honors in the tournament with teammate Jason Allison, is still playing junior, earning $60 a week with the Brandon Wheat Kings of the Western Hockey League. Allison is skating with the London Knights during the lockout, but has already signed a four-year, $2.5-million contract with the NHL’s Washington Capitals.

Hay got much of the credit for forging a cohesive team out of regular-season rivals, superstars and unknown talent. A fireman from Kamloops, B.C., he took a leave of absence to coach the Kamloops Blazers, and is considered an NHL coaching prospect. He already bandies about clichés like “focus” and “team discipline” as well as any pro. But Hay actually appears to have made those principles stick. Although Team Canada played a physical game, it earned fewer penalties than any other team. “Our guys would rather suck it up, take a hit or a slash and go on the power play,” Hay boasted after besting the Russians. That disciplined play contrasted sharply with the 1987 showing in Czechoslovakia,

where the Canadian team was ejected from the world championships after a bench-clearing brawl with the Russians.

Although Hay’s team was the first to so thoroughly dominate the world championships, the Canadians have been on an impressive streak. Canada used to send club teams to battle the national teams in Europe— with poor results. But in 1982, Canadian Hockey started a Program of Excellence to begin identifying and molding players as young as 16 for the national team. That program involves gruelling summer training camps. “And it develops teamsmanship,” said defenceman Rivers. “It teaches you to play for the emblem on the front—not the name on the back.” The program helped gamer three golds for Canada in the 1980s and has now produced five goldmedal-winning teams in the past six years.

The tournament, meanwhile, is expected to boost the careers of individual players. Murray’s performance may help him overcome his size (a diminutive five feet, nine inches) to eam a slot on the Calgary Flames roster. And unheralded forward Eric Dazé of Quebec’s Beauport Harfangs made a name for himself by scoring eight goals, tying for tops in the tournament. Meanwhile, the solid play of 17year-old defenceman Wade Redden should boost his chances of becoming the number 1 pick in the NHL draft in June. The league may have a cap on rookie salaries by then. “I’ve thought about that,” Redden grimaced. “But even with a salary cap, there’s going to be a lot of money around.” Mind you, he added, “if the game doesn’t get started pretty soon, there won’t be any cap to have.” After a happy interlude of victorious, uncomplicated hockey, it is to that uncertain world that the junior champions, and hockey fans, now return.