Here in Canada, people seem to like hockey. It’s been that way forever and it’s hard to find a single reason why that would ever change. Canada, more than any other nation, has taken a serious liking to the World Junior Championships.
Canada is a consistent threat to win any international hockey event it partakes in. That, like the undying love Canadians have for the game, will likely never change. Canadians pay little attention to the World Under-18 championships, but dedicate their winter holidays to the World Juniors, an under-20 event. The hopes of an entire nation are heaped on the shoulders of a few kids barely old enough to be in first year (which, if I may say so, is entirely unfair). But, thankfully this year, Canada failed to make it to the gold medal game.
Yes, you read that right. The World Juniors is a tournament traditionally dominated by four teams: Canada, Russia, Sweden, and the United States. This year marks the first time in a decade Canada has failed to reach the gold medal game. The Americans failed to make it to the medal round at all. And while three of those four teams finished in the top-four again, it still means there will be some new faces atop the leader board, and gives other teams like Finland and the Czech Republic hope moving forward.
When the United States finally dethroned Canada from the top of the medal podium in 2010, hockey pundits said the U.S. saved the World Junior tournament. Canada had won five straight gold medals, and three consecutive silvers before that. The teams over that stretch could easily compete in an NHL game (good luck stopping the 2005 gold medalists) and scores were beginning to get out of hand. Just when it seemed it would be Canada’s tournament forever, their southern neighbours came along, beat them in overtime, and Canada has now gone three straight years without gold.
So after finishing outside the top-two for the first time in 10 years, the tournament is now, going forward, anybody’s for the taking. Those four traditional powerhouses will be top contenders year in and year out, but now no one is invincible, not even Canada. Canadians might not like to admit that, but that’s how it is.
Russia, who beat Canada in the semi-final game, barely squeaked by the Czech Republic in overtime, a team Canada beat handily during the round robin. The Swedes eked out a 3–2 shootout win against Finland to make it to the gold medal game. Finally, parity has made its way back into the World Juniors.
The unbelievable weight of expectation from a hockey-crazed nation will never dissipate, regardless of how Canada performs, for better or for worse. Canadian hockey fans will continue to watch the World Juniors for years to come; there is no doubt about that. They just might have to get used to seeing another team at the top of the podium for a little while.
For the sake of Canadian sanity, let’s hope Canada gets back there soon. But for the sake of the game, may the best team win.