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Lack of international experience key factor in Canada's ‘heartbreaking’ early exit

Scott Salmond Hockey Canada Scott Salmond - The Canadian Press

Hockey Canada held a media availability at their hotel in Gothenburg, Sweden on Wednesday. 

Czechia, USA, Finland and Sweden held media availabilities at the Scandinavium.

In the immediate aftermath of Canada's elimination at the World Juniors, there was stunned disbelief. 

"It's the worst feeling in the world," said Boston Bruins centre Matt Poitras. "I feel like we left so much on the table. We had a great team. It's really frustrating."

"It feels like the world's ending a bit," said captain Fraser Minten, a Toronto Maple Leafs prospect. "It's such an unbelievable opportunity for all of us in our careers and you never really know if you’re going to get another look with representing your country or playing on such a global stage."

One day later, Hockey Canada's braintrust was still digesting the fifth-place finish, which came on the heels of gold medal wins on home ice in 2022 and 2023. 

"It's always a little empty," said management lead Peter Anholt, who is the GM of the Lethbridge Hurricanes in the Western Hockey League. "You feel a little sick to your stomach."

Canada only had one returning player at the event and Peterborough Petes centre Owen Beck, a Montreal Canadiens prospect, was an injury call up last year in Halifax. 

A lack of international experience due to the COVID pandemic hurt the 2004-born group. 

"It's been difficult for them," said Scott Salmond, Hockey Canada's senior vice-president, high performance and hockey operations. "They had no under-17 Program, they didn't have an under-18 Hlinka [Gretzky] championship. In essence, they're learning on the job. They're here getting international experience at the most critical time."

Canada struggled with consistency and execution in Gothenburg. Players repeatedly passed up shots. The top scorers seemed snakebitten. Salmond counted 30 times in the quarterfinal loss against Czechia when Canadian players had a chance to get the puck on net, but didn't do so. 

"These are elite players," said Anholt. "They want to make plays. You can't stop them from trying to make plays, but when you get to this level being simpler, probably for this group, would've been better."

"I felt like I was gripping my stick too tight," said Poitras, who finished with two goals and two assists in five games. "I couldn't find the back of the net. It sucks. I feel like I let some of these guys down, let the country down. I feel like that."

Poitras was loaned to Hockey Canada for the event, but five other eligible players in the professional ranks were not and that star power undoubtedly could have helped. Canada also lost defencemen Tristan Luneau (illness) and Tanner Molendyk (wrist fracture) on the eve of the tournament. Luneau, who plays for the Anaheim Ducks, came down with a viral infection and needed to be hospitalized. He only went home a couple days ago.  

"He would've had an opportunity to be the best defenceman in this tournament," Salmond said. "When you take that out of your lineup, yeah, it hurts."

Regardless, Hockey Canada still believed they had a group capable of winning it all. 

"We have the same expectations of ourselves as Canadians do," said Salmond. "We expect to be a top-four team. We don't come to these tournaments to medal, we come to win. So, that's an expectation we have for ourselves." 

"The expectations are really high," said Minten, "but they're not higher from the outside than they are from us individually. We want to win more than anyone else wants us to win. It's heartbreaking."

While a quarterfinal loss is rare – this is only the third time Canada has placed outside the top four since 1999 – it's not being viewed as a sign of rough times ahead. 

"When I look deeper and look at our under-17 Program, we were able to win this year for the first time in 11 years in PEI," Salmond highlighted. "We won the Hlinka in the summer, so we got the basis for good teams going forward."

"You look at our '04 group in Canada, I think we all knew it wasn't quite the elite, elite group that we've had in other years," said Anholt. "I think our '05 group is good. The '06 group is good. So, there's some good groups coming. The future is bright."

Seven Canadian players are eligible to return when Ottawa hosts the 2025 World Juniors. 

"We have the potential, with Molendyk, to have eight returnees," Salmond pointed out. "That's a huge number for us, so we'll look to rebound in Ottawa."

Czechia wanted revenge after losing to Canada in overtime of the gold-medal game last year. The returning Canadian players will bring a similar mindset to the nation's capital. 

"They'll probably be way more determined," predicted Team Canada head coach Alan Letang, who runs the bench for the Sarnia Sting in the Ontario Hockey League. "Way more relentless. Way more understanding of how tough it is to play when you get into this tournament." 

Even without Russia competing, the depth of the international game has been on display here. Germany beat Finland for the first time ever at the World Juniors, but lost to Latvia and failed to reach the knockout stage. Czechia pushed the United States to a shootout and then upset Canada. Switzerland rallied from 2-0 down to force overtime against the host Swedes in the quarterfinals.

And it's not likely Canada has been cruising to the top of the podium in recent years. Mason McTavish needed to make an incredible play to knock a puck off the goal line in overtime of the 2022 gold-medal game against Finland before Kent Johnson scored the winner. Salmond recalled Thomas Milic making a save off the knob of his stick in overtime against Slovakia in the quarterfinals last year. 

"The margin of error here is so thin so we've been fortunate," Salmond said. "We've been in the finals four years in a row. We've won three out of those four, no one else has been able to sustain that. I'm proud of that."

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Boston University freshman Macklin Celebrini, who is projected to go first overall in the next NHL draft, led Canada in scoring with eight points. 

"He's special in a lot of different ways," said Anholt. "You can tell he likes the puck on his stick at big times. Also, unselfish. He wants the puck in important times, but he's unselfish enough that if he doesn't have it that doesn't affect how he's playing. That's something that really stands out for me."

The two games Canada lost in the tournament were also the two games that Celebrini was held off the scoresheet. He was tied for the team lead with four shots in the quarterfinal loss. 

"Sometimes you wonder about a 17-year-old playing that kind of role within a team, but when you see how his teammates embraced him, how they looked to him at times to bring offence and then that talent, that's a special player," said Salmond. "He wanted to be a difference maker. His teammates looked to him to do that as well."

Salmond smiled. 

"I told him that he should probably go back to school one more year."

Canada would love to have him at the 2025 World Juniors. Boston University will love having him the rest of this season. Terriers teammate Lane Hutson, a defenceman with Team USA, reached out to Celebrini after Canada was knocked out. 

"I told him he played great," Hutson said. "He was by far their best player and he's going to be hearing that a lot, just being the best player. In a way this could be could really good for us at BU. I think the bear got poked and we're excited he's part of the Terriers."

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Defenceman Axel Sandin Pellikka saved Sweden from what would've been a devastating defeat by scoring the overtime winner on Tuesday night against Switzerland. 

"Completely magical," the Detroit Red Wings first rounder said. "It's pretty unbelievable to score that goal in that situation. We got a knife to our throats and it's just such a relief."

Sweden has only won two gold medals at the World Juniors and never before on home ice. The pressure clearly got to them in the quarterfinals. 

"A lot of nerves there, to be honest," admitted winger Oskar Pettersson, an Ottawa Senators prospect. 

"I felt the nerves in the whole arena," said defenceman Elias Pettersson, a Vancouver Canucks prospect. 

"It's something we need to learn from and learn to play with," said forward Fabian Wagner, a Winnipeg Jets prospect. "The game yesterday against Switzerland, we learned a lot about pressure."

The message from the coaching staff is to forget what happened, with one exception. 

"I told my players what happened when we scored the game-winning goal from Pellikka, we take that with us," said head coach Magnus Havelid. "That feeling on the ice and even when we came into the dressing room. We know we have to do better tactically, technically as well, but just that feeling is what can help us, hopefully, in the semifinals."

Sweden will face Czechia in a rematch of last year's semifinal in Halifax. 

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There was extra emotion in Tuesday's game for Czechia's five returning players. 

"It means a lot," said captain Jiri Kulich. "For us, that was revenge for last year. But now we have to focus on the other game and stay humble."

The Czechs are not dwelling on the win, which was their first-ever victory over Canada in the knockout stage.  

"The message is that the tournament is not over yet," said head coach Patrik Augusta. "We're very happy that we're in the semifinals and we're going to face another tough opponent. We just showed ourselves that we can beat anyone. We need a team effort. We need hard work. And we need a little bit of luck. But everyone needs a little bit of luck to win games. The hockey game is a game of inches and it went for us last game only because we work hard. If we didn't work hard we wouldn't get a lucky bounce."

Czechia built a 2-0 lead with a strong first period against Canada and then held on over the final 40 minutes. The game-winning goal with 11 seconds left went in off the leg of Canadian defenceman Oliver Bonk. 

"It was a little bit lucky," said forward Eduard Sale, who plays for the Barrie Colts in the OHL. "But it's hockey. We won, so nobody will ask how we win." 

"Canada played awesome," Augusta acknowledged. "They really pushed us in the second period. We were kind of lucky it ended up 2-2."

Augusta felt a penalty kill early in the third period helped his team settle down and build more belief. 

"What I liked is how we blocked the shots," he said. "We stayed together and stuck together. I know it looked like they were dominating the second and the third, but we were in the right positions. We blocked the shots and we had some key saves from our goalie. We were just waiting for the opportunity that, fortunately for us, came 11 seconds before the end of the game."

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There are around 3,500 fans from Canada in Gothenburg. Who will they cheer for now? 

"Czech beat Canada and I hope they can cheer on us to take them out," said Pettersson.

Sweden has the most Canadian NHL team prospects with seven (Elias Salomonsson and Wagner from the Jets, Pettersson, Tom Willander and Jonathan Lekkerimäki from the Canucks plus Pettersson and third goalie Kevin Reidler from the Senators). 

"I'm drafted by a Canadian team so I hope that the Canadian fans from Ottawa at least are cheering for me," Pettersson said. 

Salomonsson wasn't optimistic, because Sweden shut out Canada in the preliminary round. 

"Probably not us because we beat them, but we will see," he said. 

Czechia has 11 players from the Canadian Hockey League. But they just beat Canada. 

"I'm sure they are pretty mad," Kulich said of the Canadian fans. 

The Finns are the lowest seed remaining and play against the undefeated United States in the other semifinal. 

"Last year in Halifax they always cheer for the underdogs," recalled Wagner, "but hopefully they cheer us on in Sweden."  

"I've met a couple Canadian fans and they said they're cheering for us," said Finland sniper Kasper Halttunen, who plays for the London Knights in the OHL. "Canada and USA are pretty close together so we'll see about that." 

That geographic proximity is the reason the Americans aren't expecting any support from Canadian fans. 

"I'm sure they're against us," said USA centre Cutter Gauthier, who leads the tournament with 10 points. "Obviously being one of their bigger rivals in hockey."

"I got a couple Canadians here with my family because my dad's from Mississauga," said USA captain Rutger McGroarty, who is a Jets prospect. "So, there's a couple Canadians part of my group cheering me on. Now that Canada's gone hopefully they'll go south of the border and cheer on us."

Then McGroarty reconsidered that thought. 

"I think we may be the last team they'll cheer for," he said with a grin. "But we'll see."

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Hutson will actually be happy if Canadian fans join the Swedes in cheering against his team. 

"Hopefully some boos," he said. "I know our guys love that. If they could make that noise for us, we'd love it and we want to give them something to boo about."

With six assists, Hutson is tied with Slovakia's Maxim Strbak for the most helpers among defencemen at the World Juniors. 

"He's legit," said McGroarty. "He just made a pass out there in practice, it was the most ridiculous thing I've ever seen. Every day you think you've seen it all, but Hutty keeps proving you wrong. He's unreal and one of the most competitive guys I know as well." 

Hutson is logging 23 minutes a game to lead the Americans. No one else on the team is over 20 minutes. 

"He's taking games over at times," said head coach David Carle. "He's got a good feel of the group and the value he adds and where he can find his spots and moments to really impact the game. He's playing a lot for us so he dictates a lot of the pace of the game and what happens in the game. The puck's on his stick a lot." 

Hutson has been a contributor at both ends. It's not all about the offensive flash.

"He's been much better without the puck," Carle pointed out. "People don't talk about his play without the puck enough, his ability to pressure pucks and create turnovers off the rush so we can get into our transitional play."

After picking up one assist in the first two games, Hutson feels like he's now in a rhythm with five points in the last three games. 

"I felt like at the start it was not greatest, but I'm finding my game a little bit," he said. 

Hutson is one of seven players back from the team that won bronze last year in Halifax. 

"Having the amount of returners we have and on top of that having guys who have been through some heartbreak in the past in this tournament only fuels us even more," said Hutson.

The Americans blew a 2-0 lead and lost to Canada in the semifinals last year. 

"It's still with me," Hutson admits. "I don't think I'll ever get over it. Any time you win a medal for your country it's huge, but you want it to be gold."

"For a lot of us it's our last chance to win that gold," said McGroarty. "You never know if it's your last time putting on that USA sweater so you got to embrace the moment. We're as prepared as we can be. We're going to do whatever it takes to get that gold."

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McGroarty sustained a fractured rib and punctured lung after getting hit into the boards during a game with the University of Michigan on Nov. 17. The winger was stretchered off the ice and his chances to return to the World Juniors appeared to be slim. 

"I felt so bad for him because I knew how much he loved this tournament and loved playing for USA," USA general manager John Vanbiesbrouck recalled. "He's done a ton of work. Just his passion to play the game stands out."

McGroarty returned for the Boxing Day opener in Sweden. 

"I was on the ice when it happened so pretty scary," said Wolverines teammate Gavin Brindley. "It's so cool to see how he battled back. He's nothing but normal out there now. It's been awesome to see."

"It's a part of my history now, but that's behind me now," McGroarty said. "I'm 100 per cent healthy." 

McGroarty recorded one assist and six shots in the first three games here. 

"Not an easy thing for him to take the time off and didn't get an opportunity to play in the exhibition games," Carle noted. "He'd be the first to tell you [it was tough] getting up to speed, getting up to timing, but that all seems to be there now. He's playing his best hockey at the most important part of the tournament."

McGroarty recorded a hat trick in the preliminary-round finale against Slovakia and scored again in the quarterfinal win over Latvia. 

"At first I was shaking off the rust, but I've been getting better and better," McGroarty said. "I'm a big-game player. Going into the semifinal, final, I've always had success in those big games. I'll be ready to go. I'm hitting my stride at the right time."

What allows McGroarty to excel in big moments? 

"I trust my instincts," the Nebraska native said. "I know what it takes. I rise in those big games. I have a lot of fun with it. You can take it serious and there's got to be a seriousness, but I have fun with the moment and I love a big crowd."  

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After losing to Canada and Germany to open the tournament, Finland has won three straight games. 

"After that second loss we had a meeting as a whole team," revealed assistant coach Jussi Jokinen. "Us as the coaches and then the players talked and we all shared our thoughts. The next day we decided to have a day off. It was good to get our minds a little bit off the hockey too. I feel in this tournament sometimes it's good that you play bad. You have to take steps back and grow as a team and that's what we've been able to do."

Finland rebounded with a big win over Latvia and then upset rival Sweden in a New Year's Eve shootout. 

"The win against Sweden, that was a huge game for us," said Halttunen. "It didn't matter for points, but after that win we knew that we could beat every team in this tournament." 

What's the key to another upset on Thursday? 

"Knowing USA and their strengths, we can't lose any pucks in the neutral zone," Jokinen said. "We have to get the pucks deep and make it hard for their D all night and then we have to stay out of the penalty box and make the night hard for them." 

The Americans are anticipating a struggle. 

"They're fast," said McGroarty. "I feel like Finland is always a team that's kind of pesky. If you go up one or two, they're never really out of it." 

"They never go away," Carle agreed. "I've coached a few Finns in my time at Denver [University] and they're just hard-working people. We have a lot of respect for them. It's not going to be an easy game by any stretch. They're certainly an accomplished group on the international stage as well. A big challenge."

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Pettersson has just one assist in five games. 

"It's been a little bit up and down," he said of his performance. "First three games started off pretty good, working and got more and more ice time. A little step back against the Finns and then yesterday was OK, but I got more in the bag. I'm looking forward to step up my game here and maybe score a goal or two when it means the most."

How can he do that? 

"I like to play on the inside," said the 19-year-old. "I'm not the typical Swedish player. Some would say I have more of a North American play style. I like to play on the inside and go to the net and play my game from there."

Patric Hornqvist is his role model. 

"He was not the typical Swedish player," Pettersson said. "A little bit greasy sometimes. He liked to play in front of the net. The reason I like to stay in front of the net is because most of the goals are scored by there and I love scoring goals. I try and learn from him. 

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World Juniors schedule for Thursday Jan. 4: 

5 am ET - Relegation game
Norway vs Germany

9 am ET - Semifinal
Sweden vs Czechia 

1:30 pm - Semifinal
USA vs Finland