MONTREAL—This is what you ask for: A chance to win gold, on the biggest stage. Ask any Canadian hockey player and they will tell you this is what they are raised for, this is what they want. You want to be out on the tightrope, with everything in front of you, and you want not to fall.
But someone falls, and that’s the risk. You want to win, you might lose. In the final of the world junior hockey championships, Canada and the United States put on a classic: A splashing, sloshing, lurching junior-hockey classic. After 60 minutes it was 4-4. Overtime.
And there Canada was better, but it just takes one shot, just one. Everyone kept pushing: Canada one way, the Americans back, landslides and near-misses, heart attacks for everyone. Canada had a power play: couldn’t score. Late in the period the Americans came close, and close, and close: Nope. Pierre-Luc Dubois had a great chance, and Mitchell Stephens another. Regrets.
So, the five saddest words in hockey: We’re going to a shootout. The first four shooters were stopped, then five, then six. Troy Terry, the American shootout hero in the semi, goal. Anthony Cirelli, stopped. Jeremy Bracco, stopped. And Nicolas Roy, with the last chance, had the puck slide off his stick. Oh, no.
The United States won the world junior gold, 5-4. It was a shame a shootout was how it ended, but them’s the rules. The crowd, after a moment, chanted “Ca-na-da!” The Americans whooped and hollered. The Canadians, silent, watched.
What a game. Imagine if the NHL was played like this, without coaches trying to erase any sign of jeopardy. Hockey is better with mistakes, with daring, with chaos. With goalies who aren’t near-perfect. With fun.
Oh, it was a game. Thomas Chabot — who played an astounding 44 minutes, and never slowed down — scored Canada’s first goal, on the way to just a towering performance. After five breathless minutes it was 1-0, Canada.
Four minutes later Canada leaned into a cycle, and Jeremy Lauzon, a third-pair defenceman on this team, jumped on a bouncing puck, shuffled sideways to make space, and sent an absolute top-grade rocket fuel blast into the top corner. 2-0. There was another pair of Canadian shifts that pinned Americans in their own zone like so many high school kids stuffed into lockers. Canada came to play.
But the Americans would not quit. The U.S. got one goal back three minutes into the second period on a Canada breakdown that left defenceman Charlie McAvoy alone in the slot. He beat Carter Hart clean, high glove side. Five minutes later Canada took a too-many-men penalty, and on the ensuing power play Adam Fox’s wrist shot from the point skimmed off the shoulder of Kieffer Bellows to tie the game, 2-2.
So, start over. The building was close to full for the first time in the medal round, and it was a Canada crowd. Canada had won one period; the Americans another.
It happened fast in the third. Everything did. Strong Canadian shift, Bellows off for tripping, a few scrapes before the power play was assembled, and then Nicolas Roy wheeled out of the corner and whipped a wrist shot top shelf. 3-2. A stray puck, tapped through Casey Fitzgerald’s legs by Mathieu Joseph, who had just come up limping after a hit. And he sliced past him and scissored in a deke and it was 4-2. Four goals by Quebec kids, and the Bell Centre finally sounded like the Bell Centre.
But the Americans got one back 41 seconds later — Bellows again, after a potential icing got negated — and 2:25 after that they owned the offensive zone again, and Colin White tipped in another Fox point shot. 4-4. What a damned game.
This was a glimpse of what is coming. Canada-Russia is yesterday’s rivalry, even if its echoes still reach all the way into the present. The Americans are what’s coming. Over the past 10 years the Americans have had 13 players drafted in the top 10 of the NHL draft, versus 56 for Canada. In the last two years — a small and perhaps insignificant window — those numbers are six and five. In the last 10 years, recorded American participation in hockey has gone up by almost 100,000, and is now within 100,000 of Canada. Canada’s participation numbers have varied, but aren’t much different than they were five years ago.
This game featured six American first-rounders, one in the top 10; 10 Canadian first-rounders, and two in the top 10. That this wasn’t considered a star-studded Canadian team is a pretty good indication of where our standards are, and remain.
“I think it’s pretty self-explanatory,” said captain Dylan Strome, before the game began. “It’s a better feeling than last year, obviously, (when we lost in the quarters). And we’re not content, we’re not OK with just having a silver medal, it’s not what this country’s about, it’s not what Canadians are built for. Canadians want to see us win a gold medal, and we were born and raised to do that. The way we think is to win, as Canadians. We want to be the best country in hockey, and we want to be the country that’s singing our anthem at the end of the game.”
Everybody wants that. Only one country gets it. And it’s not always us.