Fast, skilled and spirited, Canada’s juniors had it all
WHEN THE CANADIAN PLAYERS skated onto the ice for the third period of the final at the world junior championships, they weren’t really playing for gold medals anymore— with a 6-1 lead over a downcast Russian team, the gold was a done deal. No, these Canadian teenagers in Grand Forks, N.D., were playing for their place in history. They didn’t exactly go through the motions over the final 20 minutes—any player doing that would have incurred the wrath of Canadian coach Brent Sutter, one of the sprawling clan of no-nonsense Sutters of Viking, Alta. The Canadian juniors continued to grind away, to chase down any loose puck, to hit any Russian who might have his head down, to
zealously defend their blueline. They just didn’t run up the score.
Thus they exhibited a quality they had concealed throughout the tournament and that will only enhance their legacy: mercy.
Who’d have guessed it of this crew? While Canada had captured the world under-20 tournament 10 times before, including five straight in the mid’90s, none of the nation’s teams had ever won as decisively as this one. The 2005 juniors plowed through their schedule undefeated and unchallenged. They never trailed over their six games, outscoring opponents 41-7. Sutter talked about his team “striving for perfection,” but redemption was on the minds of 11 players in the lineup for the final—returnees from last year’s squad who squandered a two-goal lead in the goldmedal game against the U.S. “I can’t remember seeing a team more ready to win,” said Ottawa Senators director of player personnel Anders Hedberg. Or as one NHL
scout put it mid-tournament: “The rest of the teams are intimidated. They’re beaten before the puck is dropped.”
‘THEY’VE played as well as any Canadian team, ever,’ Gretzky said of the champions, who outscored their opponents 41-7
It’s a glorious time for Canadian hockey, which just five years ago was caught up in a spate of national soul-searching over the state of the game. The men’s and women’s teams came back with golds from the Salt Lake City Olympics in 2002. Canadian men have won the last two world championships, while Canadian women have won every world championship ever staged. And last September Canada skated to the title at the World Cup of Hockey—just before commissioner Gary Bettman and the owners who employ him shut down the National Hockey League. A certain irony there: luminous victories on international ice, lights out at NHL arenas.
But for all the triumphs, none was nearly as emphatic as what the juniors wrought in North Dakota. “They’ve played as well as any Canadian team, ever,” said Wayne Gretzky.
It didn’t hurt that, while ostensibly a road team, the Canadians were effectively at home. In the parking lot on the University of North Dakota campus, there were three Manitoba licence plates for every local one. A flag-draped, face-painted throng turned the spectacular Ralph Engelstad Arena into a far-flung suburb of Winnipeg, with vintage Jets sweaters running a distant second to licensed products from Hockey Canada.
Nor was there any sign of the unsettling Canadian inferiority complex, a nagging notion that European nations do a better job developing skills in young players. In recent years the Canadian junior team’s performance caused a lot of hand-wringing by fans and hockey editorialists. In 1999, it prompted a Hockey Canada despair-fest called the Open Ice Summit. Many well-intentioned recommendations emerged, including increasing the ratio of practices-togames and raising the draft age for players entering the major junior ranks. While Hockey Canada deserves praise for its work in training coaches, change has been slow at the grass-roots level, and player development looks much the same as it did a decade ago. Many youth league teams still schedule more games than practices, and the notion of raising draft ages was never going to fly.
Still, the much-vaunted European coaches might well call for their own town-hall meetings and white papers after watching
the Canadian game’s virtues on display in Grand Forks. The decisive moment of the final featured its two most talked-about prospects in an unexpected confrontation. Sutter had the last change, meaning he could match his top defensive pair, Dion Phaneuf and Shea Weber, against Russia’s Alexander Ovechkin, the winger selected first overall by the Washington Capitals in last year’s NHL entry draft. Everyone awaited a showdown between Phaneuf, who would be named the tournament’s top defenceman, and Ovechkin, who, before the big game, pithily declared that “Canada is not God.”
But in the early going, Ovechkin met his un-maker—not Phaneuf but Sidney Crosby, the 17-year-old prodigy from Cole Harbour, N.S. Ovechkin pulled up at the Canadian blueline and veered to the centre of the ice, away from Phaneuf but squarely and blindly into the oncoming Crosby. Though Crosby is four inches shorter than
Ovechkin and, by conservative estimates, 25 pounds lighter, he drilled the Russian. Ovechkin, who would play only a few more shifts in the game and have his right arm in a sling afterwards, looked back disbelievingly at Crosby, as if he couldn’t imagine that a headliner would do heavy lifting.
It shouldn’t have been a surprise, though. Since taking on 22 players just a few weeks earlier, Sutter instilled an ethic of team play and sacrifice. The voice of experience in the dressing room was Patrice Bergeron, who at 18 played last year with the Boston Bruins and on the Canadian squad that won the world championship. “I’ve played on junior teams and an NHL team,” said Bergeron, who led the tournament in scoring and was named its most valuable player. “This is much more like a professional team than those teams I played with back in the Quebec league. Everyone is so much more focused and serious. It’s all business for us.”
Even in fly-over country, far from the NHL, there was no escaping the business of the game. Bettman flew in to Grand Forks for the final, but elected not to speak to the
press. He was reeling like Ovechkin—BusinessWeek magazine had just named him to its 10 worst managers list. He sat in a private box with René Fasel, boss of the International Ice Hockey Federation. They almost certainly discussed the matter of the NHL’s participation in the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin, which would be threatened if the league can’t guarantee an end to the lockout. Meanwhile, Gretzky, a part-owner of the Phoenix Coyotes, enthused about the longterm future of the Canadian juniors—but
suggested they might not have a league to play in next fall. “If it’s not decided in the next few days,” he said, “we could be looking at a year, or a year and a half.”
The Canadian players were too busy enjoying their glorious present to give much thought to the far-off future. “We all feel like we’ve been a part of something special here,” said Corey Perry, who played on a line with Bergeron and Crosby, “and we’ll have memories and friendships that will last the rest of our lives.” lifl
WHAT happened to the nagging notion that European nations do a better job of developing skills in young players?
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