It’s been a long and enjoyable World Juniors, featuring plenty of upsets – from the absence of Canada in the tournament’s final game, to the failure of the United States to overcome Czech and Finnish rivals, resulting in their humiliating assignment to the relegation round.  Russia shocked many with their win over Canada, and while Sweden was picked by many to compete few had them as the favourites for gold.

We saw spirited performances from underdog teams representing Finland and the Czech Republic, and we saw the resiliency of overwhelmed teams like Latvia and Denmark.  The World Juniors are a flawed tournament, to be sure, but even so there are moments of greatness to be found in both winning and losing efforts.  The importance to Sweden of the win is difficult to understate, but I actually came away most impressed by the emotional young men representing the Czech Republic – they showed their mettle in defeating the Americans and then again in taking Russia to the limit.  It was an inspired performance from a team that started and ended the tournament well under the radar of the average fan. 

Sweden Gold, Russia Silver, Canada Bronze

 The crowd in Calgary was not happy with the semi-final outcomes, but they certainly got what they wanted from the games in the final day of the World Juniors.

First, Canada beat Finland in a one-sided match with an outcome that never felt in doubt.  Then, in the evening game, Sweden dominated the Russians for the entirety of the contest and eventually won in overtime by the precarious margin of a single goal.

 Sweden 1, Russia 0 (OT)

 Through 60 minutes of regulation, there was really only one, two-part story: Sweden’s territorial dominance and the inability of their forwards to cash in on it for a goal.  The shot clock over the first three periods favoured the Swedes by a 50-to-16 margin, and even that number flattered the Russian effort over the first two periods, during which time the Russians managed just four shots, including one embarrassing power play where the Swedes both outshot and out-chanced them 2-0.

The shot clock was a little misleading.  The Swedes were shooting from everywhere, and their number of quality chances, while still higher than the Russians, was considerably lower.  Even so, there was no doubt that they outplayed their opponents for the vast majority of the game.

For a while, it felt like that determination would not be rewarded.  Not only did Andrei Makarov play exceptionally in the Russian net – a gutsy call by coach Valeri Bragin that paid off in spades – but the Russians picked up their play in the third period.  With regulation time coming to a conclusion, Johan Gustafsson made a vital and incredibly difficult save to force overtime.  It was, undoubtedly, the highlight of the tournament for the young Swedish goaltender, who started with some shaky performances, but eventually rewarded his coach’s trust in him.

Eventually, the Swedes won on a goal from Ottawa Senators prospect Mika Zibanejad

 Canada 4, Finland 0

 The oft-repeated maxim that the Canadian team views these tournaments as gold or bust proved untrue in their bronze medal game against Finland.  Canada was aided in no small part by some poor Finnish discipline – the Finns took three sloppy stick penalties in the first period alone – but still deserve credit for coming out strong and dominating the Finns on the majority of shifts.

The dynamic duo of Mark Scheifele and Tanner Pearson did the damage early for the Canadians, with Pearson scoring the goal’s first game and the setting up Scheifele for the second after a good hard forecheck on an overwhelmed Finnish defenseman.  It was almost certainly Pearson’s best game.  Quinton Howden also scored (twice) for Canada.  On the Finnish side of the ledger, the top line of Mikael and Markus Granlund along with Teemu Pulkkinen was consistently dangerous, but Mark Visentin was up to the task of stopping them in what was a very strong outing for him.

Canada walks away with the bronze medal, hardly the result they came into this tournament looking for, but still an accomplishment worth celebrating.  It’s especially true in the case of Visentin, who was pilloried after Canada’s gold medal loss last year.  Visentin was brilliant in the bronze medal game after losing the starting job in the semi-finals to Scott Wedgewood, and his behind-the-back save in the third period is certain to be a staple on World Juniors highlight reels for years to come.

For the Canadians, it was a bittersweet end to a tournament they’re expected to win every year.  For the Finns, the final result was just bitter.  Pulkkinen probably put it best after the game, asked if he could take pride in his team’s fourth-place finish.  “I don’t think so, no,” he said.

Around the Rink

 Both coaches in the gold medal game were rewarded for their faith in their goaltenders.  Roger Ronnberg stuck with Johan Gustafsson despite some shaky performances early in the tournament; he received in exchange perfection in the most important contest.  Valeri Bragin turned to Andrei Makarov after a great cameo against Canada, and he got an inspired performance that kept his team in the game far longer than they deserved.

  • Don Hay was ambiguous on whether he would be interested in returning to coach Team Canada next year, saying that he really enjoyed it but that he would “take some time to think about it.”
  • Tanner Pearson played very well for Canada in the bronze medal game, picking up a goal and a primary assist.  He was active throughout the game, and afterward Hay commented that “he really earned the right to make Team Canada.”
  • Hay was proud of the character his team showed in battling for bronze and throughout the tournament, but made it clear that today’s victory was met with mixed emotions.  “There was a really empty feeling yesterday, knowing we didn’t have a chance to win,” he said.
  • Raimo Helminen looked devastated in the post-game press conference.  After his initial `comments (and congratulating Team Canada) there were, predictably, no questions for him, so the Finnish media representative jumped in and asked if there were any questions for him before excusing him and allowing Hay to finish the press conference.  It was a good decision and an appropriate reprieve for a coach who obviously felt each loss deeply.
  • Teemu Pulkkinen was disgusted with his team’s finish, and just as plainly unhappy with himself despite the fact that his line actually played pretty well in the team’s final game.  “I could barely play today,” he said in describing his effort.
  • The finishes in this tournament mean that next year the ‘A’ group will feature Sweden, Finland, the Czech Republic, Switzerland and Latvia, while the ‘B’ group (instantly named the “Group of Death”) will feature Russia, Canada, Slovakia, the United States, and Germany.

Final Thoughts

This was the first opportunity I’ve had to cover a major hockey tournament as an accredited member of the press.  It was a revealing look – both of the effort required from all parties involved, be they the volunteers of Hockey Canada or the oft-maligned beat writers covering the tournament, and of the flaws inherent to the media machine.

The strengths are mainly based on the hard work of the people involved.  In some cases, media members are flown in for the medal round and are all but oblivious to the entirety of the tournament, but far more often dedicated people put in long hours to get a complete picture of what has happened and to report it with both accuracy and integrity.  The camaraderie of the media corps caught me by surprise, and I was welcomed and helped by far too many people to thank individually.  Beyond those people, the volunteers serve a vital and sometimes thankless role in making a tournament like this come together; their efforts are greatly appreciated.

The weaknesses, more often than not, are based on the structure of the event rather than the flaws of the people covering it.  Deadlines force stories to be written prior to talking to the players, but that’s okay because most of those players – especially the Canadians and Americans – can be relied upon to give banal quotes that can be slid with ease into the piece afterward.  They do this out of necessity, of course – it’s far safer to say something clichéd and innocuous than to put one’s reputation and character on the line by stepping outside the accepted norms.  Beyond that, the picture of dozens of reporters each scrambling to collect the same reheated lines from the same players is an affront to efficiency; surely their time could be better spent elsewhere.

Regardless, it was a true privilege to cover this tournament for theScore, and an honour to talk to the many passionate individuals coming to the games, be they media, volunteers, fans or players and staff.  My knowledge has been vastly increased, and I’ve been gifted with something few fans ever get: the chance to watch and cover hockey at one of its highest levels.  Most of all, thank you to everyone who has read these posts, and let’s do it again sometime.