The morning after the night before, Canada’s loss in the gold medal game at the World Junior Championship reminds us of the fine line that exists between immortality and irrelevance.
Allow me to explain.
Your trusty correspondent spent the hours before Canada’s 2-0 loss to the United States crunching numbers and sizing up other Canadian World Junior juggernauts from 1995, 2005, 2006 (surprise entry, but a deserving one nonetheless) and 2015 to determine whether this team in 2021 was the greatest Canada has ever produced. And I wasn’t alone. A lot of observers were prepared to declare the 2021 team as the most dominant WJC team in history had it managed to win.
It reminded me a lot of what happened 10 years ago to the day in Buffalo. With Canada leading Russia 3-0 in the 2011 gold medal game, I spent much of the second intermission asking veteran scouts whether this team was the greatest Canada had ever iced. The point became moot when Russia scored five unanswered goals in the third period to shock the Canadian team and win gold.
So now, instead of the 2021 Canadian World Junior team being remembered as one of the greatest teams ever, it will go down with the footnote attached that it was the greatest Canadian team to not win. And many Canadian hockey fans, who swear their undying allegiance to Canadian teenage hockey players for two weeks only to essentially ignore them for the other 50, will go on with their lives and pretty much forget about the whole thing.
So what have we learned? Well, we do know that the greatest overall collection of American talent that this tournament has ever seen decisively beat the best overall collection of Canadian talent this tournament has ever seen in one game. We know that Andre Tourigny is a very good coach, but in one game he was decisively outcoached by Nate Leaman. We know that Devon Levi was a revelation and one day may develop into a very good NHL goalie, but in one game he was decisively outplayed by Spencer Knight. We also know that Canada essentially breezed through this tournament and failed to win when it was faced with its first and only real test. These are all indisputable facts.
This was a team that outscored its opponents 41-4 and had not given up a 5-on-5 goal until the gold medal game. It had 19 first-round NHL picks and had been together for more than seven weeks. It had all the resources of the Hockey Canada machinery at its disposal, was playing in its home country and had millions of people behind it. Much will be made about how the Canadian team, once the tournament started, did not face any adversity until the final game. And that’s not their fault. It’s not something you can manufacture. You can only play against the opponents the tournament places in front of you and if they’re not up to the task and they can’t compete because their federations don’t place as much important and devote enough resources to this event, there’s not a lot a team can do about that.
“It’s a fair statement,” Canadian coach Andre Tourigny said when asked whether the quality of competition was a factor. “(The U.S.) was the first team that really pushed back.”
Perhaps that was a problem, perhaps not, but this team faced absolutely no adversity. Being stuck in your hotel room in Red Deer for two weeks is not adversity. Being tested for COVID repeatedly is not adversity. Losing half of your team and the coaching staff before the tournament starts the way Sweden did? That’s adversity. Playing shorthanded through the first half of the tournament with an already overmatched roster the way Germany did? That’s adversity.
In the end, perhaps it was a case of Canada simply coming out flat at the most inopportune time. They do that against Slovakia or Switzerland and it’s no big deal because they know their talent is going to win out in the end. But not against this U.S. team, not a team this good. The 2001-born crop of players, which includes 2019 first overall pick Jack Hughes and Toronto Maple Leafs prospect Nick Robertson, is by far the deepest and most talented USA has ever produced. (Just spit balling here, but the Leafs held Robertson back, despite the fact that a number of NHL teams allowed prospects they hope will play this season participate in the tournament – including MVP Trevor Zegras (Anaheim) and Alex Turcotte (Los Angeles) of Team USA and German star Tim Stutzle (Ottawa). Can you imagine the outrage the Leafs would have faced if they had decided to hold of the best Canadian players out of the tournament?)
Chances are, it was probably a case of as great a team as the Canadian entry was in this tournament, the American one was better. It went from being one of the greatest teams of all time to not even being the best in the tournament in a space of 60 minutes. Tourigny said Canada played right into the Americans’ game plan by not setting a physical tone, something Canada has done with a lot of success many times on the international stage. “And by the time our guys made the adjustment,” Tourigny said, “it was too little, too late.”
Former USA Hockey executive director Art Berglund, a Canadian by birth who died six days before the tournament began, once said that Canada gave the world a wonderful game, but other countries can play it, too. He was absolutely right.