When you’re a Vancouver Canucks fan, opportunities to celebrate are few and far between.
Sure, there have been great victories and three trips to the Stanley Cup final, but the most important tally is zero Stanley Cups in 50 years.
Being a Canucks fan is almost as painful as being a Toronto Maple Leafs fan under the age of 55.
Therefore, I’m always on the lookout for hockey teams that give me a reason to celebrate.
It’s one of many reasons why I’m such a big fan of Team Canada’s World Junior Hockey Championship team.
Canada won gold at the World Juniors for the 18th time in 39 years on Sunday. It will likely go down as one of the most improbable in the history of the program.
It was the youngest team that Canada has ever had at the tournament. Also, eight days before the gold medal game, Canada lost 6-0 to Russia in the most lopsided loss ever for Canada at the tournament.
How bad was it? Canada’s captain, Barrett Hayton, created controversy when he didn’t remove his helmet after the game for the playing of the Russian national anthem. People were justifiably furious, Hayton was criticized.
Star forward Alex Lafreniere, who will likely be the top pick in the 2020 NHL Entry Draft, suffered a knee injury that appeared would sideline him for weeks or even months.
And veteran forward Joe Veleno was assessed a one-game suspension for a head butt.
It was a terrible loss, but it’s also evidence why you don’t want to suffer from premature evaluation following a loss in the round robin, even if it was a six-goal defeat in a short tournament.
That loss seemed like an eternity ago around 3 p.m. Sunday afternoon, when Canada won gold at the tournament by rallying from a 3-1 deficit and defeating Russia 4-3 in an incredible game that had plenty of intensity, drama, emotion and momentum swings.
Lafreniere was back in the lineup. He missed only two games with what proved to be a relatively minor injury. Veleno was a big part of the victory.
Joel Hofer, who wasn’t the starting goalie when Canada was annihilated by the Russians six days earlier, was outstanding in the gold medal game.
And Hayton, who some wanted to see punted from the team following the helmet flap, became a national hero for his performance. Playing with a Grade 1 separated shoulder that should have sidelined him for weeks, Hayton scored the tying goal on a power play midway through the third period, with a heavy shot that screamed “what shoulder injury?”
This won’t be the most dominant or the most memorable Team Canada entry to win gold at the tournament. That honour belongs to the 2005 team that won gold in Grand Forks, N.D., with a core that would yield Olympic gold medals and a World Cup title.
But it’s hard to imagine a team that went through more adversity to get to the gold medal game, with five undrafted players, the early loss to Russia, the controversy involving their captain, the injuries, the suspensions and the doubts about the goaltending.
I’ll admit that we put too much emphasis in this tournament. It’s great that we love the World Juniors and that there are kids each year who get the opportunity to shine. Many of them will never be in the spotlight again. Many Canadians who have starred at the World Juniors have gone on to have marginal or even non-existent careers in the NHL.
But sometimes people forget that these are young men playing in an under-20 hockey tournament, giving up several weeks of their hockey season, as well as their Christmas break, to play for their country. These aren’t professionals. These aren’t 20-something players.
They’re kids who are representing their country.
The unrealistic expectations of some fans were exposed last year following the insults and even threats directed at Maxime Comtois after he was stopped on a penalty shot by a Finnish netminder in overtime in the quarter-final round.
And while this tournament has become very commercialized over the years, for the players who competed in it, there’s still that level of purity, with young men playing for their country because of the thrill of playing for their country, a chance many of them will never get again.
It’s why we love this tournament so much. It’s why the gold medal game on Sunday will likely be the top-rated broadcast on TSN this year, drawing a better rating than the Grey Cup. It’s why this country comes to a virtual standstill on Jan. 5 each year if Canada is in the gold medal game.
The streaks that Canada has enjoyed in the past – five straight gold medals (twice), 10 straight gold medal game appearances and 14 straight years with a medal – likely won’t be repeated. There are too many good junior hockey programs now.
While we expect to win each year, the parity in the top five teams in the tournament should make these tournament wins even more meaningful, and well worth celebrating.