Sunday, January 5th, 2020 – Canada beats Russia 4-3 for the gold medal in the finals of the World Junior Hockey Championships in spectacular fashion, storming back from a 3-1 deficit in the third period with three unanswered goals and a late penalty kill that gave Russia a 6-4 man advantage with their goaltender pulled. This victory is particularly sweet for Canada on a number of different fronts, including overcoming tremendous adversity throughout the tournament and getting payback for Russia’s 6-0 drubbing of Canada in the group stage a week earlier.

But Canada’s biggest loss in that December 28th game wasn’t reflected on the scoreboard. It came when one of our top young stars (and projected first overall pick in the 2020 National Hockey League draft) Alexis Lafrenière went down with what seemed at the time like a potentially serious knee injury.

After a multitude of tests and grave concerns over Lafrenière’s future (as well as numerous warnings that he shouldn’t return to the tournament—he did miss the final two games of the group stage), Lafrenière returned to finish out the playoff round in style, beginning with a one goal and one assist performance in a quarter-final victory over Slovakia on January 2nd. He also had two goals in the semi-final game against Finland and two assists in the final against Russia. In fact, Lafrenière was named World Junior Championships MVP at the end of the tournament on the strength of his four goals and six assists in just five games played.

Yet another of the many adversities to befall Canada in this tournament also took place in that infamous and disastrous group stage game against Russia. It happened at the end of the game as players lined up for the playing of the Russian national anthem. Unfortunately, Canadian captain Barrett Hayton, whose head was clearly not in the present moment after suffering the humiliating loss, committed the evidently unforgivable sin (or should we call it the crime of the century?) of forgetting to remove his helmet for the Russian anthem.

Hayton was roundly criticized in the aftermath of this oversight—a mistake for which he later sincerely apologized, though many members of the cult of the perpetually offended still called for his immediate banishment from the tournament and return to Canada where he could be properly and publicly shamed—a gross and disgusting overreaction! What is particularly shameful about this situation is that many of the most outraged cultists are themselves Canadians who should have had their countryman’s back. It seems that in the current year, common sense is dead.

In the even more immediate aftermath of the incident, several Russian players not only complained to the referees about Hayton (what were they going to do with the game already over?), but a few of them also refused to shake his hand as part of the post game hockey tradition of opponents shaking hands at the end of important games or series. While Hayton’s helmet incident was inadvertent, the actions of these Russian players was quite deliberate, and therefore far more disrespectful than Hayton’s faux pas. The next Canadian players whose hands the Russians did shake should have done their best to make them regret that decision!

In fact, that wasn’t even the Russians’ only show of disrespect towards the Canadian team at this tournament. Several of their players also proceeded to jeer and mock Canadian goalie Nico Daws after he was pulled from the infamous game for allowing four goals on 18 shots in just over 22 minutes of play. This marked the second straight game in which Daws allowed four goals and ultimately ended his tournament as Joel Hofer took over in the Canadian goal from that point on. Though the outcome of that early game was far from Daws’ fault, he certainly didn’t need to be mocked over it. Of course, there were also rumours (very easy to believe rumours) of the Russians mocking the injured Lafrenière after the same game, claiming that several of their top players are better than him. Classy!

But all of that nonsense is precisely what makes the outcome of this year’s tournament so sweet. Canadian hockey teams have always thrived on adversity—provided there’s enough time to recover from it. An early, humiliating loss in a tournament like this is sometimes just what the doctor ordered—just the ass-kicking needed to get Canada to commit emotionally and bond as a team.

For instance, I have no doubt whatsoever that Canada’s quarter-final loss last year to the Fins stuck firmly in the craw of every returning Canadian player from that tournament (all five of them: Barrett Hayton, Joseph Veleno, Jared McIsaac, Ty Smith, and Alexis Lafreniere). A broken stick at one end of the ice led to a goal at the other, and in overtime no less. A very tough loss to swallow! But when Canada finally got its chance at redemption, they absolutely dominated the Fins with a 5-0 thrashing to advance to the gold medal game. I was hoping Canada would meet the Fins in this year’s playoff round!

For his part, captain Barrett Hayton suffered still one more adversity in the tournament besides the one I’m calling helmetgate; He also separated his shoulder in a very scary fall in the semi-final game against Finland yesterday, and it neither looked (nor sounded, from the ensuing scream) like he’d be coming back any time soon. However, in a shocking turn of events, Hayton not only played in the final today, but he also scored a massive (and beautiful) goal against the Russians. Good for you Hayton! Way to get the last word over all your detractors!

Bottom line: never count Canada out, and don’t disrespect the Number One hockey nation on this (or any other) planet. Go Canada!

___

Notes: In addition to Lafrenière being named Best Forward and Most Valuable Player in this year’s World Junior tournament, Canadian goaltender Joel Hofer was also named Best Goalie, and both he and Lafrenière, along with captain Barrett Hayton, were named as tournament All-Stars.

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