Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Canada's streak stopped at five as USA becomes World Junior Champions

“We played Canadian hockey. We played gritty. We blocked shots. We back-checked … You learn from the best.”-- USA head coach Dean Blais, explaining the secret of their Gold Medal success.

When the youth of the hockey world gather again next in Buffalo, New York in December, the home side will be the defending champions, after the USA wrestled the World Junior championship away from Canada at a highly entertaining gold medal game on Tuesday night.

With what seemed almost to be a replay of the New Year's Eve classic match up between the two teams, the Americans held on during a frantic third period which saw them surrender a two goal lead, only to claim victory in the early stages of the overtime period.

For hockey fans it was everything you could have hoped for in a dramatic conclusion to a tournament which more often than not featured far too many blow outs for the good of a competitive game.

The juniors played the game at such a pace, that channel surfers checking out the NHL action on Tuesday night couldn't have helped but notice that the best examples of the passion, speed and urgency of the game was clearly best found in Saskatoon and nowhere else.

With both teams playing similar styles and many of the players familiar with each other from their junior hockey assignments, the final provided much of the same kind of flow that the Memorial Cup playoffs have, though with a few international twists thrown in to keep things a tad off kilter.

The Americans were portrayed at the start of the tournament as under dogs as they went up against a Canadian team that had made the Gold medal theirs over the last five consecutive years, yet they served notice on New Years Eve, that they were a force to be reckoned with.

Tuesday, they took the play to Canada early on, setting the pace and tone for the game and taking Canada out of their normal rhythm of play. Their transition game was superior to Canada's, they played the physical game as well as Canada did and while they too made their fair share of glaring errors whether in the form of misguided passes, poor defensive play or suspect goal tending and bad penalties, in the end their miscues did not hurt them as bad as those made by the team in red and white.

Canada, which had scored at will when facing the lesser talented squads of Latvia, Switzerland and Slovakia suddenly found that gaining just that one more goal to win was in the end beyond their reach.

That early run of sideshow hockey at the start of the tournament perhaps came back to bite the Canadians a bit, never really tested in the tournament until that match up on New Years Eve, they didn't seem to develop until the third period the same sense of urgency that the Americans had from the opening face off.

And while Canada once again provided the storyline of the team that never quits, this time there would be no miracle finish to secure the gold, and as Canadians bemoan the open nets missed or the rattled goal posts, it does seem that by sheer perseverance the right team on this night won the medal that everyone wants.

The USA was full value for their victory, they went onto Canada's home ice and refused to be sent away without their treasure, they skated hard, they executed their game plan almost flawlessly and they showed that when it comes to heart, Canada isn't alone in that intangible that most defines victory in these do or die games.

Canadians sometimes take the gold medal as some sort of hockey Manifest Destiny, an assumed right that should be offered up at the end of every tournament. Dismissing the silver as a consolation prize barely worthy of mention.

This year, that's certainly not the case, that silver medal is a testimony to a team that was a worthy competitor, one which offered up as much as they had in the tank, but couldn't make that mad dash to the finish line first.

The end result while most likely disappointing for each and every one of them, should be taken in the context of the sport, on most nights it's the team that plays the best over the sixty or more minutes that deserves the win, there is no short changing on that theory from this years World Juniors.

The USA earned their victory by those very traits that Canadians best identify to the game, hard work, a refusal to let go of the prize and yes a little bit of luck. In a tournament that provided far too many lopsided matches and cries out for a reconfiguration of the seeding, there were two pivotal games that offered up evidence as to why the World Juniors is a holiday tradition in Canada, and one that this year set records for television viewing for TSN, not surprisingly both of those game involved the neighbours to the south.

May they enjoy their year as reigning champs, we'll see them in Buffalo in December, where once again we hope we see the same calibre of hockey and the same passion.

Though we must admit perhaps a different end result, after all there's a new streak we'd like to get underway if you please.

Globe and Mail-- The Winning streak is over - Let the rivalry begin
Globe and Mail-- Victorious Americans steal from Canadian textbook
National Post-- U.S. ruins another Canadian party
National Post-- Record audience takes in world junior heartbreak
National Post-- Demographics may be catching up to Canada
Toronto Star-- Junior loss means pressure's on Team Canada at Olympics
Toronto Star-- Heartbreaking end to Canada's gold medal streak
Toronto Sun-- Heart-breaking loss for Canada
Winnipeg Free Press-- Team Canada denied by Americans
Saskatoon Star Phoenix-- Americans win junior hockey gold
CBC Sports-- Canada settles for silver medal at world juniors
CBC Sports-- Putting Canadian defeat in perspective
The Canadian Press-- U.S. captures gold at junior hockey championship with 6-5 OT win over Canada Character is golden for Team USA in World Junior Championship
USA Today-- Carlson scores overtime goal for U.S. gold in world juniors
Los Angeles Times-- No, Canada! Team USA wins world junior title in OT

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