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McKenzie: What happened in WJC final? Well, that's hockey

Bob McKenzie
1/6/2011 5:56:21 PM
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The sun did come up this morning, didn't it?
   
Maybe in Russia it did.
   
I am sure for most Canadian hockey fans it doesn't look any prettier the morning after. As for the coaching staff and players on Team Canada's ill-fated 2011 World Junior championship entry, well, I can't even imagine.
   
It's been billed as the greatest collapse in the history of the WJC and that about sums it up. If there's been one worse than that, I don't recall it. It might just be, as the kids like to say these days, the greatest "epic fail" in Canadian international hockey. Ever.
   
How would you like to throw that on your resume?
   
All that said, it's not as if blowing a three-goal lead in the third period never happens in hockey.
   
In the NHL, since the lockout, it has happened, on average, at least once a season. Eight times in 1,226 regular season games since 2005-06 have teams with a three-goal lead going into the third period lost in regulation time, if you are looking to be precise.
   
But there weren't six million Canadians watching those collapses, it wasn't the World Junior Championship and the team falling apart in the third period didn't have a Maple Leaf on their chest. Well, at least not a red one.
    
I wasn't able to get numbers for blown three-goal leads in the third period of WHL, OHL or QMJHL games, but I strongly suspect the ratio is even higher than the at least once-a-season figure in the NHL. After all, junior hockey is played by kids, teenagers, and the emotion and momentum swings increase significantly the younger the players.
   
Because the WJC has become such a huge event in Canada - more people watch important WJC games involving Canada than they do for most Stanley Cup finals - we tend to forget sometimes the players are kids. Teenagers. Albeit not normal teenagers. Fifteen of Team Canada's 22 players are NHL first-round draft picks and one more, Sean Couturier, will be one of the first two or three selected in this year's NHL entry draft. So they get held to a higher standard for performance than we would our own kids, with their teenage foibles and follies that any parent knows all too well.
   
So the question everyone wants an answer to is: What happened? As I was sitting at our location on the concourse of the 200 level at HSBC arena last night, gobsmacked Canadian hockey fans exited and yelled it over and over again, "What happened?" As I sat in traffic on the Queenston-Lewiston bridge in Niagara Falls, NY, waiting to cross the border to go home at midnight, fans rolled down their windows and yelled out at me, "What happened?" The answer I wanted to give was simply, "That's hockey, and I don't mean it as a promo for Gino Reda's show either. That's hockey, that's junior hockey."
   
But as much as I believe it - that's junior hockey - that's not exactly sterling analysis either.
   
In terms of the nuts and bolts, the seeds were planted with a below-average second period that was masked by Canada's 3-0 lead. The Russians first started to swing momentum back in their favour a bit with their first penalty kill of the second period. Canada's vaunted power play went 0-for-3 in the second period, the Russians started to generate more, Canadian netminder Mark Visentin had to come up with a few good saves, but when Team Canada went to the dressing room for the second intermission, the passionate overflow crowd could not have been more confident with the three-goal lead and only 20 minutes to play.
   
But the Team Canada coaching staff, headed by Dave Cameron, didn't like all that they were seeing. Cameron, as a rule, never goes into the dressing room between periods until there's nine minutes or less on the intermission clock, but he felt things were slipping away a bit on his guys so he went in at the beginning of the intermission to talk to them.
   
"I just wanted to tell them to relax and get them re-focused, get back to playing our game," he said.
   
To that point in the tournament, Cameron and his staff had done an amazing job in getting this team to play to its strengths. Outside of the shootout loss to Sweden in the preliminary round, this edition of Team Canada had shown remarkable poise, patience, discipline and ability to execute a game plan. The victory over the United States in the semi-final was arguably one of the finest, most complete games a Canadian team at the WJC had ever played. This team was 20 minutes away from one of the most impressive perfomances ever by Canada at the WJC.
   
Which made what happened in the third period all the more remarkable and astonishing. The Russians reeled off five straight goals in 16:11 and the breakdown by the Canadian team was universal. There was no one immune to it. From netminder Visentin on out, Canadian players who had looked so formidable and played so impressively were breaking down all over the ice.
   
Ryan Ellis, voted best defenceman in the tourney, was minus-2 in the third period. Jared Cowen, who had looked so poised, got caught a day late and a dollar short on watching Russian star Vladimir Tarasenko. Quinton Howden, whose industriousness and relentless backchecking was a thing of beauty for much of the tournament, couldn't get a puck out on the half wall. Simon Despres and Erik Gudbranson, who kept their game simple and effective and physical, overskated a puck and missed assignments that they had made look routine only one or two periods earlier.
   
Cameron didn't call timeout until Russia tied it 3-3 and in most of the post mortems, the second-guessers figured that was too late, that it should have occurred after the first or, for sure, after the second goal.
   
"I didn't call it after the first or second goal because what I told them in the intermission is what I would have told them during a timeout after the first or second goal," Cameron said. "We knew what we were supposed to do, we just couldn't do it."
   
Some pundits felt he maybe should have lifted Visentin for backup Olivier Roy -- as the Russians did when they replaced starter Dmitri Shikin with Igor Bobkov after Canada made it 3-0 -- but there's a big difference between lifting your tender when you're down by 3 in the second period than putting a cold goalie who got picked apart in his last outing into a gold medal game tied or down by a goal in the final 10 minutes.
   
Of course, second guessing is just that. Guessing. We all think we know better than the coach, but there's no way to prove it. Maybe Cameron could have called timeout after the first goal or the seond goal, maybe he could have lifted Visentin, maybe that would have stopped the bleeding. But then again, maybe not. Maybe the wheels weren't getting put back on this vehicle as it careened toward the abyss no matter what. Maybe. Maybe not. Who really knows?
   
"Coulda, woulda, shoulda," Cameron mused the morning after. "It's always a lot easier in hindsight. They say time heals all wounds, and I've always believed that, but this one is going to take some time for all of us. No question about that. I feel bad for the kids. They worked so hard. It's so hard in the moment (after the game). We were all devastated. I just told them when some time passes and it doesn't hurt so much, to remember that they played a lot more good hockey than they did bad hockey and in spite of what anyone says or thinks, they did themselves proud. It's not an easy tournament to win, it's not easy to get to the gold-medal game."
   
There'll be all sorts of talk now, as is always the case in Canada after a devastating international hockey defeat, about whether the team had the right players or the right coach and in this case, it's pretty much all nonensical to even go there. This team played well, consistently well, physically dominated games, scored goals without problem, excelled on special teams, showed incredible disicpline while playing an unbelievably aggressive and physical game. They were focused and diligent and played their asses off, many of them banged up pretty badly in terms of injury, illness and fatigue.
   
I know if I had a son on that team, I would be awfully proud of him.
   
They were 17 minutes from a tremendous victory where they would have been lauded as heroes. They had a letdown -- a monumental, can you @$%&*!@ believe that letdown admittedly -- that will stay with them all for quite some time, but, hey, it may not be sterling analysis, but that's hockey, man, that's junior hockey.
   
Of course, as a hockey nation, we Canadians tend to be a touch on the myopic side. I mean, we're deep into this essay and it's only ever been about the Canadian collapse, not the Russian comeback.
   
What a truly remarkable effort by a group of Russian youngsters who started the tournament losing to Canada and Sweden before fashioning amazing comebacks first against Finland, then against Sweden and ultimately Canada. Evgeny Kuznetsov was their Jordan Eberle, almost singlehandedly leading the uprising against Finland and then getting three assists in the third period vs. Canada. Vladimir Tarasenko took a skate boot to the head last night and came back to score a terrific goal. Their passion and their skill was undenaible. Their spirit was refreshing and watching them belt out their anthem after their come-from-behind wins over Finland, Sweden and Russian was awe-inspiring. They turned out to be a team of destiny, after all.
   
I would hope no one thinks too poorly of the Russian party boys who, apparently, were a little, or maybe a lot, too inebriated to take their flights home this morning because I can't begin to tell you how many gold-medal winning Canadians I've seen poured onto the plane for the ride home.
   
In the wake of Russia's tremendous victory, some used this performance by the Russians to note that Canada doesn't have a monopoly on heart, and while that's true, I don't want to sound smug about it, but covering so many world junior championships taught me that lesson a long, long time ago. Russians, Americans, Swedes, Finns, Czechs, Slovaks, Swiss...it doesn't matter, they all want to win and win badly and on any given day in any given year, they're capable of doing great things that require all the attrributes Canadians hold near and dear about their hockey.
   
It's less about the players from different countries and their inherent levels of drive and more about Canadian hockey fans and how we tend to view it all through a pretty narrow prism.

Canadians' passion is so great for this game -- and good on them for that, because next to the Russians' wonderful comeback to win gold it was the Canadian hockey fans who turned out en masse to Buffalo that was the story of the tournament -- that everything is seen through red-and-white colored glasses. When Canada wins, Canadians don't spend much time thinking about the loser or the other side of the coin. And when Canada loses, Canadians don't dwell too much on the winner or what he did. It's just the Canadian way.
    
When Jordan Eberle scored the most unlikeliest of tying goals in the 2009 WJC semi-final vs. Russian in Ottawa, few in Canada took time to imagine the Russian perspective. Can you imagine how they felt? The sheer improbablity of it. Hell, no, it was time to party.

Same as when Canada blitzed and embarrassed the Russians at the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver. They're likely still not over that one in Moscow.
   
For all the winning Canada has done at the WJCs, and they've done a lot, an incredible amount -- 10 straight appearances in gold-medal games, winning five of them, are you kidding me? -- no one remembers some of the more bizarre circumstances that permitted those and others before them.
   
Like in 1990 in Helsinki, when a really poor Swedish team tied the Russians at the 59:59 mark of the game, stealing the gold from Russia and giving it to Canada, which found out with two minutes left in its game with the Czechs that it was suddenly playing in a gold-medal game. Or in 1991, when the Russians allowed an also-ran Finnish squad to tie them in the dying seconds when a Russian win over Finland would have rendered the Canada-Russia/John Slaney game a moot exercise. There are years when Canada does simply dominate -- going unbeaten in 2005 in Grand Forks, N.D., and 2006 in Vancouver comes immediately to mind -- but for every one of those there's another where Serendipity showed up to the world junior dance wearing a Maple Leaf dress.
   
Like the year after, in 2007 and that incredible Jonathan Toews-led shootout win over the U.S., or 2008, when in spite of being outplayed by Sweden, Matt Halischuk scored the overtime winner and of course Eberle in 2009. Of course, there was also the seven-year drought between 1998 and 2004 when Canada couldn't win a gold medal to save its hockey life.
   
So if you really want to know the truth of what happened last night in Buffalo, it was really no different than the collapse against the Americans in 2004 or the overtime loss to the U.S. last year in Saskatoon, albeit on a far grander scale than anything we've ever seen or may see again.
   
Yup, that's hockey, that's junior hockey.
   
And maybe, just maybe, it's the hockey gods' way of balancing the scales a touch and sending along a little message, as hockey gods are wont to do sometimes.
   
Perhaps something along the lines of, Stay humble, Canada, stay humble.

Bob McKenzie

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