Canada's brain trust reflects on world junior exit: 'It's always a little empty'
GOTHENBURG, Sweden — Scott Salmond and Peter Anholt watched Canada's hopes at the world junior hockey championship evaporate in an instant.
Seated in the last row of an aging Scandinavium arena, the program's brain trust had cobbled together a roster without five players in the professional ranks, plus two more lost to injury and illness that forced last-minute additions.
The Canadians looked good for stretches of the under-20 tournament, and completely disjointed in others. The second and third periods of Tuesday's quarterfinal against Czechia was probably their best hockey.
Salmond and Anholt, like fans watching at home, were baffled by players' refusal to shoot the puck from prime positions.
In the end, it cost them dearly.
Canada largely dominated the final 40 minutes, but were bounced from the tournament on a goal that nicked a defenceman's leg and stick before glancing in off the post with 11.7 seconds left in the third period.
The stunning 3-2 result was a bitter pill for a hockey powerhouse that had won two straight gold medals and — despite the significant absences — still viewed itself as a contender.
"It's always a little empty," Anholt said of the feeling Wednesday. "A little sick to your stomach."
Canada's loss to Sweden in the preliminary round meant the country finished second in Group A to set up a tougher quarterfinal matchup.
Against both the Swedes and Czechs, Salmond saw a group unable or unwilling to direct pucks on the net. By his count, the team passed up 30 opportunities to shoot Tuesday.
"Those are hallmarks of Canadian teams that find ways to win," he said. "This time we weren't able to."
Anholt said getting to the blue paint to make the opposition goaltender's life difficult with second and third opportunities never materialized for a group built around speed, skill and tenacity.
"These are elite players," said the general manager of the Western Hockey League's Lethbridge Hurricanes. "But when you're getting to this level, being simpler probably for this group would have been better."
Canada was coming off back-to-back golds after also winning in 2020 and making the 2021 final.
Tuesday's loss was its first to Czechia in the knockout round — a result made even more disappointing with Russia, another of the game's giants, currently banned from international play.
"They gave it all that they could," Salmond said. "Represented Canada to the best of their abilities."
He pointed out that players born in 2004 were significantly impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Tournaments were cancelled and development opportunities were missed.
"They're learning on the job," Salmond said. "Getting international experience at the most critical time."
Connor Bedard (Chicago), Adam Fantilli (Columbus), Kevin Korchinski (Chicago), Zach Benson (Buffalo) and Shane Wright (Seattle/AHL) all could have joined Canada from the pro ranks.
"We have to count on the depth," said Salmond, whose program did get Matthew Poitras from Boston. "We should be able to overcome that."
Canada, which has eight potential returnees from the group that initially flew to Europe last month, also lost Tristan Luneau (Anaheim) to a virus that required hospitalization, while fellow blueliner Tanner Molendyk was sent home with a wrist injury.
"He had an opportunity to be the best defenceman in this tournament," Salmond said of Luneau. "When you take that out of your lineup, it hurts."
Even with the record-breaking Bedard last year in Halifax, the country came within an inch of losing in the quarterfinals. Mason McTavish also cleared the puck off the goal line in overtime of the 2022 gold-medal game.
"The margin of error here is so thin," Salmond said. "Did we do enough? Probably not. We could have finished (the Czechs) in regulation, but we didn't."
Salmond said the goal remains the same — with or without NHL talent.
"We have the same expectations of ourselves as Canadians," he said. "We don't come to these tournaments to medal. We come to win."
Despite the disappointment, management has already turned the page with the 2025 world juniors set for Ottawa.
"You recover quickly," Anholt said. "We move on. We'll be better next year."
Salmond said centre Macklin Celebrini, who led Canada in scoring and is expected to go No. 1 at June's NHL draft, exceeded expectations.
"Sometimes you wonder about a 17-year-old playing that kind of role," Salmond said. "But when you see how his teammates embrace him, how they look to him at times to bring offence and that talent, that's a special player."
LUNEAU BACK HOME
The 19-year-old Luneau spent four days in hospital with a virus after getting sick before Canada's pre-tournament games. His parents travelled to Sweden to be with him before they flew back to North America on Monday.
"It was a tough go for him," Salmond said. "I feel horribly for the young man."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 3, 2024.
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