Canada’s under-20 men’s hockey team got to know adversity intimately over the past year and a half.
The trials and tribulations paid off Saturday night as the team won gold at the world junior hockey championship in Edmonton.
After going up 2-0 midway through the second period, the group saw Finland roar back to tie the game 2-2 in the third and force overtime where a highlight-reel save by captain Mason McTavish turned into a championship-winning goal by Kent Johnson at the other end of the ice.
“It’s almost a year and a half since our first training camp so for all of that hard work to have kind of paid off, it’s just so special,” McTavish said, gold medal draped around his neck.
The team initially came together in the summer of 2021, with the original tournament set to be played in Edmonton and Red Deer, Alta., that December.
Rising COVID-19 cases among players and officials caused the forfeiture of games and the event was halted after just four days.
The International Ice Hockey Federation promised to replay the tournament, but the only available time was in August — a period where young hockey players are often gearing up for training camps.
In the meantime, Canadian hockey came under fire as sexual assault allegations emerged against players of two former world junior teams. Hockey Canada faced intense scrutiny for how it handled the allegations, with the federal government freezing the organization’s funding and big-name sponsors pulling their support.
Several players opted not to take part in the summer tournament, creating big turnover on the Canadian squad, but the group persevered, said head coach Dave Cameron.
“This is a tough enough tournament to win when it’s a normal tournament at Christmas time,” he said. “And for this group to come in here under the cloud that they came in under, with what was going on with Hockey Canada, and the turnover, we had seven or eight guys that didn’t come.
“Just the commitment. … This group just stuck with it. That kind of was a theme.”
Canada was undefeated across the tournament, winning all seven games it played. The team trailed just once, falling behind 1-0 in a preliminary game to Czechia, the country commonly known as the Czech Republic, before eventually recording a 5-1 victory.
McTavish — the tournament’s most valuable player — led with 17 points (eight goals, nine assists), tying Wayne Gretzky and Eric Lindros for the second-most points ever scored by a Canadian player at the world juniors.
“They’re obviously in the Hall of Fame and to even have a quarter of their career, what they had and the success they had would be a success for me,” McTavish said. “I feel so honoured. I feel like I don’t belong there.”
An 18-year-old Anaheim Ducks’ prospect, McTavish has had a busy year. He suited up in nine games for the NHL team before returning to the Ontario Hockey League and ultimately helping the Hamilton Bulldogs to an Ontario Hockey League championship and berth in the Memorial Cup where they finished second. In between, he pulled on the Maple Leaf for Canada at the Beijing Olympics.
Winning world juniors gold, though, is a dream come true, he said.
“I think any championship you win is so special,” he said. “Here, it’s an unbelievable feeling. Any time you get a chance to win anything, it’s one of the best feelings in the world and it’s so addicting. So hopefully I’m able to do it again.”
McTavish is one of 11 players on the Canadian squad eligible to play again when the 2023 tournament takes place in Moncton and Halifax.
Defenceman Olen Zellweger believes the group has a lot to build on moving forward.
“I think coming to this tournament, the experience and what you learn is invaluable,” said Zellweger, who had 11 points (two goals, nine assists) in the tournament.
“So coming back, I have a better understanding of how hard it is to win, how committed you need to be, how tight as a group you need to be to come out on top.”
While the 2022 world juniors was an odd affair — held during the hot summer without the packed crowds generally seen at the December events — the group has learned that the tournament comes with a lot of close games and a lot of expectations, Cameron said.
Having lived through that will serve the young players well, the coach added.
“Certainly they can draw on the experience that they had here and the pressure,” he said. “So when they do go to that tournament, there should be no surprises about what to expect.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 20, 2022.