There’s a tendency to focus on the winners in sport. With good reason. Winners bask in the glory and adulation of fans and media. But in sport, there are always two sides. With winners, there are losers. Every team has lost a big game at some point. Sometimes it’s a matter of the opponent being better. But there are some losses that are so painful, they crush the soul of the players, coaches and supporters. This series of articles focuses on the deep pain of sport. Bring tissues if your team is featured.
Christmas in Canada is always a special time of year. It’s like everywhere else. The merriment. The good cheer. The presents. The parties. The egg nog. (With a splash of Bailey’s.) But there is one event that makes Christmas a bit more Canadian. The World Junior Hockey Championships.
The rest of the world really doesn’t notice this event (exceptions being Finland and Sweden) but in the Great White North, it’s one of the most celebrated and most watched events on the sporting calendar. Many great memories and stirring victories have been held with high esteem in my home and native land. But this isn’t about wins and happiness. These five games are about the times Canada left the World Juniors with a lump of coal in their stockings.
January 2, 1986. USSR 4, Canada 1.
Canada entered the 1986 World Junior tournament as defending champions and as favourites to repeat. With future NHLers such as Joe Nieuwendyk, Shayne Corson, Joe Murphy, Gary Roberts, Luc Robitaille, Jim Sandlak and Sylvain Cote on the squad, the Canadians were confident that they could go back-to-back for the first time since the tournament’s inception. Another reason for Canada’s high confidence was the fact they would be playing at home as Southern Ontario (mainly Hamilton) would host the event. Instead of playing darkened, half-full arenas in Europe, (which is part of the charm of this tournament) Canada would be playing in glittering NHL style arenas that were filled with boisterous supporters.
Canada got off to a strong start by blowing out Switzerland and West Germany by a combined score of 30-3. Their first test was against the United States before a sold out crowd at Copps Coliseum and a large television audience watching on CBC. (Yes, CBC once had the rights to this tournament. TSN won the rights in 1991.) In a physical, hard-hitting affair, Canada emerged with a solid 5-2 victory to remain perfect. After routing Sweden, Canada got a scare from Finland who despite having a mediocre tournament, played the Canadians extremely tough. While Canada did win 6-5, their flaws were exposed and a sense of doubt crept into the country.
That doubt could be erased if Canada defeated their bitter enemies, the Soviet Union (RIP Communism) in the penultimate game of the tourney. There was no playoff format as the World Juniors were strictly a round-robin setup so this game was the de facto gold medal game.
The Russians were as impressive as Canada in the tourney. They won their first four games, outscoring the opposition 30-7. But like the Canadians, the Russians got a scare from a lesser opponent as Czechoslovakia gave the Russians all that they could handle. The Soviets escaped with a 4-3 win but had their flaws exploited as well. The game would come down to whose flaws would be most detrimental.
Copps Coliseum was roaring just before the opening faceoff. Hamilton was a market that desperately wanted an NHL franchise and the Steel City was hoping this event would showcase why Hamilton deserved an NHL team.
Canada came out using their physicality to soften up the smaller Soviets in hopes to wear down the USSR later in the game. The danger of playing a physical game is being vulnerable to penalty calls by IIHF officials who were notorious for calling games more tightly than their North American counterparts.
Early on, the officials let the teams play which favoured Canada and led to the opening goal. Cote’s point shot was stopped but no Soviet defender was around Corson who shovelled the puck past Soviet keeper Evgeny Belosheikin to give Canada the lead at the 6:36 mark. The crowd was sent into a frenzy as they got their dream start. The crowd went ballistic when Sandlak levelled Alexander Semak with a clean yet crunching hit that Semak over the boards and into the penalty box. This was Canada’s type of game and the home crowd was loving every minute of it.
Canada had some tremendous scoring chances but Belosheikin kept the Soviets in the game by making some sparkling saves. Canada’s lack of finish combined with their over-exuberance in their physical style would bite them. Sandlak was issued a charging minor late in the first and the Soviets capitalized as Semak blasted a shot past a screened Craig Billington to tie the game and quell the Canadian support.
The Soviets carried the momentum from the Semak goal into the second period when Sergei Osipov picked up a loose puck after two Canadian defenders converged on Valeri Kamensky. Osipov broke in and slid a backhander past Billington to give the Soviets the lead.
The rest of the middle frame was an exercise in frustration for Canada as the Soviets did a splendid job in containing the neutral zone. When Canada had chances, Belosheikin was equal to the task. The Soviets were also getting under the skin of the Canadian players with some chippy stick-work and diving as the Soviets would feign injuries that would have made pro wrestlers blush.
It remained a one goal game until early in the third period. Ravil Khaidorov was sent in on a breakaway and he made no mistake with it as he deked Billington out before flipping a backhand over the sprawled Canadian keeper to put the Soviets firmly in control.
The Soviets iced the game a few minutes later as Igor Vyazmikin went through the Canadian defence like a knife through melted butter to score a dazzling goal and ending Canada’s dream to win gold on home soil.
Although the result was difficult to take for Canadian fans, it was the start of the Christmas tradition that is the World Juniors. Record attendance and huge TV numbers reflected how much this tournament meant something to Canadians. With every heartbreak comes a silver lining.
January 5, 1999. Russia 3, Canada 2. (OT)
After a poor showing in the 1998 World Junior tourney that saw Canada place eighth, Hockey Canada was looking to right the ship. There’s always pressure on a Canadian team at a World Juniors but it felt like the scrutiny was increased heading into the 1999 tournament. Winnipeg was selected as the host city and it came at a time when the city was still reeling over the loss of the Jets who moved to Phoenix three years prior. The city didn’t just want a winner, it needed a winner.
Canada did have some talent on their roster, most notably Simon Gagne, Brendan Morrow, Brian Campbell and Robyn Regehr. Those four players later made an impact in the NHL. But the key player for Canada in this tournament would be goalie Roberto Luongo. Selected fourth overall by the New York Islanders, Luongo was expected not just to be great but to steal games and possibly the gold medal. This was expected to be a defensive minded team and Luongo would have to carry the weight of a nation on his goalie pads.
Luongo was spectacular in Canada’s opening game against Slovakia but he got no support from his teammates in terms of offence as the game ended in a goalless draw.
Luongo wasn’t at his best versus Finland but his teammates picked up the slack in a 6-4 Canadian victory. Luongo bounced back in a shutout performance against the Czech Republic while the offence did just enough by scoring twice to give Canada the win.
However, things went flat against the United States. Luongo was average at best, mediocre at worst while the Americans played their best game of the tournament en route to a 5-2 loss for Canada which cost them first place in Group A which forced the Canadians to play a quarterfinal game.
Canada drew Kazakhstan in the quarters and it was time for revenge. Kazakhstan shocked the Canadians with a 6-3 victory at the 1998 tournament which was called the greatest victory in Kazakhstan’s brief hockey history. The Canadians waited a year for vengeance and they provided payback in a 12-2 thrashing to advance to the semifinal.
Awaiting Canada was Sweden who were tagged as the gold medal favourites. The Swedes were led by the Sedin twins who went on to have fantastic NHL careers with the Vancouver Canucks. But this day didn’t belong to the Sedins as Canada played their best game of the tourney with a 6-1 whipping of the Swedes. Canada was onto the gold medal game where their old rivals from Russia awaited.
The Russians were also on a path to redemption. The previous year, they lost a heartbreaker to Finland in the gold medal game. Led by future NHLers Maxim Afinogenov, Artem Chubarov and Vitaly Vishnevsky, the Russians had one goal in mind. Gold medal or failure.
After losing to Sweden in their opener, the Russians bounced back with wins over Kazakhstan, Belarus and Switzerland in Group stage action. Russia gained revenge against Finland in the quarterfinal by scoring an overtime victory. Russia then defeated upstart Slovakia in the semifinal and were one win away from their goal.
The Winnipeg Arena was sold out as fans were decked out in white, continuing a tradition that was born during the Jets playoff appearances. It was the biggest hockey game in the Manitoba capital since the Jets last game in 1996. It was as loud as any rink in the NHL and it was a message sent to the NHL. You were wrong in taking away our franchise and a team will come back.
The first period was a tight-checking affair with very few scoring chances. Russia did a fine job of controlling possession which subdued the Winnipeg crowd. The Russians found the icebreaker in the final minute of the period as Chubarov was left all alone in front of the net as he neatly put the puck past Luongo with a backhand flip. Canada were outshot 14-4 in the opening frame and needed to be better in the second period.
The Russians continued to control play early in the second but some missed opportunities combined with excellent goaltending by Luongo kept Canada in the game. Midway through the middle frame, a Canadian power play finally led to an equalizer as Gagne blasted a shot through Alex Volkov’s legs to send the Winnipeg Arena crowd into delirium.
The joy in Winnipeg was short-lived. Four minutes later Maxim Balmotchnykh broke in one a one-on-one rush. Balmotchnykh made the move to the outside to gain position before firing a perfect wrist shot over the glove on Luongo to give the Russians the lead into intermission.
Canada were down but not out. Even though they weren’t playing their best game, Luongo was keeping the Canadians alive with his stellar goaltending. All that was needed was one goal to be level.
Yet it was the Russians who stayed in control at the start of the third period. Luongo had to be great just to keep the Canadians alive. But as the period wore on, Canada started to carry the play as the desperation and tension started to mount. Canada finally found an equalizer with 6 minutes remaining as Bryan Allen’s seeing-eye point shot found its way past Volkov. The roof of the Winnipeg Arena nearly came off as the noise shook the TSN cameras. The fans inside the old Arena and the millions watching were expecting another great moment in Canadian hockey as overtime loomed.
However, it wasn’t meant to be. Off a faceoff in the Canadian zone, the puck was moved out of the corner by Afinogenov who made the pass to Chubarov who was waiting in the slot. In one motion Chubarov fired a wrist shot that eluded Luongo that found the bottom left corner of the net and hearts were broken in Canada.
It was especially tough for Winnipeg as they had to go back to a long cold winter with no NHL hockey. A tournament that brought much relief and joy to the city, ended with pain and agony.
January 5, 2004. USA 4, Canada 3.
Entering the 2004 tournament, Canada was in a midst of a drought. It had been 7 years since the gold medal was hung from the Maple Leaf sweater. That type of dry spell brought waves of panic from the Canadian media and fans. Why aren’t our kids winning? What’s wrong with our developmental programs? Are we no longer the best nation on earth when it comes to our national pastime and passion? It was all a bit much. What many in the panicked throng failed to mention was that Canada had medalled in 5 straight tournaments.
But there were reasons for optimism in 2004. Canada were icing a strong team led by 16-year-old sensation Sidney Crosby. The Cole Harbour, Nova Scotia native was tearing up the QMJHL on a nightly basis, leading the league in scoring while leading the Rimouski Oceanic to a first place finish in the Eastern Division.
But Crosby wasn’t alone. Ryan Getzlaf, Jeff Carter, Dion Phaneuf, Brent Burns and Brent Seabrook were joining Crosby on this quest to bring home the gold. But the most important piece was between the pipes. Marc-Andre Fleury was outstanding at the 2003 tournament as he was named top goalie by the media and the IIHF. Fleury needed to be the backbone and somehow not get crushed by the pressure of a wanting nation.
Helsinki, Finland would host the tournament, a city where Canada had seen success and failure in the past. Canada won gold in 1985 but an 8th place showing in 1998 was still fresh on many Canadian fans. The opener was a massive test as the host Finns awaited Canada on Boxing Day.
Fleury was superb while Canada scored in each period for an impressive 3-0 shutout and bolster the hopes of the country. Blowout victories over Switzerland and Ukraine were followed by an impressive win over the Czech Republic gave Canada top spot in Group B and a bye into the semifinal.
A rematch against the Czechs was next but Canada were on a mission. Two goals from Carter paced the Canadians to a 7-1 trouncing of the Czechs and a berth in the gold medal game. Next up, their neighbours and rivals, the United States.
The USA had never tasted victory at the World Juniors prior to 2004. Their best finish was silver in 1997 in which they lost to Canada in the final. The Americans were bringing a strong lineup to Finland in hopes of breaking the glass ceiling. Led by Zach Parise, Ryan Kesler, Patrick Eaves and Ryan Suter, the United States were confident and ready. Easy victories over Austria and Slovakia gave the Americans confidence. A dramatic 4-3 victory over Sweden was followed by an impressive 4-1 win over Russia gave the Americans first place in Group A.
The Americans faced the hosts Finland in a tense semifinal. Despite some nervy moments, the Americans kept their poise and emerged victorious and earned a spot in the final.
Despite the game was being played on a Monday afternoon in Canada, (it’s a 6 to 9 hour time difference between Canada and Helsinki.) many Canadians either skipped work or called in “sick” to watch the game.
The Canadians got off to a terrific start as Nigel Dawes opened the scoring at the 3:25 mark. But the Americans bounced back over 5 minutes later as Daniel Fritsche evened the score. It remained tied after the first though Canada had a slight edge in play.
Canada took control in the middle frame. Dawes notched his second goal of the game after only 12 seconds had elapsed. Midway through the period, Anthony Stewart made it 3-1 Canada and it looked like the drought would be over.
Canada had a wonderful opportunity to ice the game early in the third as Getzlaf but was thwarted by Al Montoya. Canada decided to sit back and defend the lead. That decision turned out to be fateful. Patrick O’Sullivan drew the Americans to within one at the four-minute mark. Three minutes later, Kesler tied the game and the Americans had all the momentum. All Canada wanted to do now was hold on and force overtime. Then came a moment of pure pain for Canada.
Drew Stafford attempted a breakaway pass to O’Sullivan. But the puck bounced off O’Sullivan’s skate and rolled to Fleury. The Canadian goalie wanted to clear the puck but his attempt hit defenceman Brayden Coburn and bounced into the yawning cage, giving the Americans the lead.
Canada tried desperately to draw even but could generate little in terms of scoring chances. As time ran out Canada could only sit and watch as the Americans celebrated their first ever World Junior Championship.
Most of the blame was centred on Fleury for his gaffe that led to the winning goal. While it was a grievous error by Fleury, the rest of the team didn’t do much to rally around their keeper. Crosby was held pointless in the final. The defence sat back and were too passive. The team stopped skating in the third period thinking the game was over. It was a painful lesson to learn and Canada would have to wait one more year to end the drought.
January 5, 2010. USA 6, Canada 5 (OT)
The mood was considerably different in Canadian hockey circles as the 2010 tournament approached compared to 2004. Canada were a dynasty in junior hockey, winning 5 consecutive World Junior Championships. The most thrilling may have been in 2009 when Canada came from behind to defeat Russia in a classic semifinal that some have ranked as the best game in the history of the tournament. The hero of that game, Jordan Eberle, was returning to the tournament and was asked to take a leadership role.
Saskatoon was the site of the tournament. Saskatchewan’s biggest city held pleasant memories for Canadian hockey fans. Back in 1991, Canada won the tournament making it the first time in history that the host team won the World Juniors. 19 years later, Canada were looking to make more history as they were searching for their sixth straight championship with the Paris of the Prairies providing the backdrop.
Canada scored easy wins over Latvia, Switzerland and Slovakia, outscoring their opponents 30-2 in the process. Their final game in the group stage was much more difficult as the United States were more than stiff opposition. In a thrilling contest, Canada edged the Americans in a shootout to clinch top spot in the group and a bye to the semifinal.
Canada crushed Switzerland in the semis to reach the gold medal game where a rematch with the Americans awaited.
The United States also breezed through their group stage games with victories over Slovakia, Switzerland and Latvia. But the loss to Canada forced the Americans into the quarterfinal and a date with Finland. The Americans got over the loss to Canada quick with a dominant 6-2 victory over the Finns.
In the semifinal, the Americans faced Sweden who topped Group B. The Americans were impressive yet again, scoring a 5-2 win and a chance for revenge against Canada.
Credit Union Place was jammed to the rafters and a massive television audience tuned in to TSN to see if Canada could sixpeat.
Canada couldn’t have asked for a better start when Luke Adam slipped a backhand through the pads of American goalie Mike Lee just 2:40 into the game to give Canada the early advantage.
Undaunted, the Americans struck back with six minutes remaining in the opening frame as Chris Kreider’s snap shot found its way over the shoulder of Jake Allen and into the top corner. Just 36 seconds later, Jordan Schroeder broke in and wired one over the glove hand of Allen who committed too soon and the Americans were ahead.
It was Canada’s turn to respond which they did. Only 1:31 after Schroeder’s goal, Greg Nemisz picked up a loose puck and snuck one past Lee to tie the game heading into intermission.
The middle frame started with Canada shorthanded and the Americans made them pay for it. John Carlson’s point shot screamed past Allen who was screened on the play and the US was back in front.
But Canada had an answer. Taylor Hall fired a shot that bounced high into the air and somehow found its way into the net. It was fluky but it counted. It also caused a goalie change as Lee was replaced by Jack Campbell.
Both teams had scoring chances but neither team could break the deadlock as the second period ended. It would be a frantic 20 minutes to see who would win gold. Perhaps even more than 20 minutes would be required.
It was the Americans who took the lead four minutes in. Derek Stepan and Jerry D’Amigo broke in on a two-on-one break. Stepan made a perfect pass to D’Amigo who finished neatly and Canada were trailing.
Two minutes later, the US extended their lead. A simple dump in gave Allen all sorts of problems. Stepan outraced the Canadian defenders, made a move around Allen before slotting the puck home and Canada were in big trouble. It looked like the Canadian dynasty was going to be overthrown. Allen was replaced by Martin Jones between the pipes.
But Canada weren’t dead yet. Putting on enormous pressure, Canada forced an American penalty. The power play needed to capitalize and it did as Eberle finished an Alex Pietrangelo pass to draw Canada to within one with 2:49 remaining. Just 1:14 later, Eberle struck again. In 2009, Eberle scored the tying goal against Russia in the semifinal with 5 seconds left. Fast forward to one year later, Eberle came through in the clutch again as he finished off a rebound from a Ryan Ellis shot which sent the Saskatoon crowd into a thunderous craze. Overtime was needed to decide the gold medal.
Canada had the first great chance in sudden death as Pietrangelo’s point shot went off Campbell’s skate and hit the post. Oh so close. The Americans had the next chance and it would be heartbreaking.
The US broke in two-on-one with Carlson leading the rush. Carlson was patient with the puck, forcing the Canadian defender to commit to the pass which gave Carlson room to shoot. He froze Allen before firing a wrist shot which eluded Jones on the stick side to silence Credit Union Place and give Canada a broken heart for the first time in 6 years.
Dynasties usually end at some point. This one made Canadians drown their sorrows in their cold lagers.
January 5, 2011. Russia 5, Canada 3.
Looking to avenge what happened in 2010, Canada looked ahead to 2011 and the city of Buffalo to reclaim the title as World Junior Champions. Even though they would have to cross the border, Canada felt at home in upstate New York as thousands of Canadians, mostly from southern Ontario, made the trek down the Queen Elizabeth Highway into the Queen City.
Canada were drawn into Group B which was dubbed the Group of Death. Joining the Canadians were Sweden, Russia, Czech Republic and Norway. Knowing that a good start was vital for success, coach Dave Cameron ran an intense training camp prior to the tournament.
The opener against Russia would serve as a litmus test for a young Canadian team with only 4 returning players from 2010. They passed the test with flying colours as six different players scored in an impressive 6-3 win.
Canada’s dominance continued in a 7-2 rout of the Czech Republic. Balanced scoring was the key again as 7 different marksmen lit the lamp for Canada.
An easy 10-1 win over an overmatched Norway side set up a first place showdown with Sweden. Canada wanted to finish first to get the bye into the semifinal.
In a wild, see-saw affair, Canada fell in a shootout to the Swedes which meant a second place finish and a quarterfinal match with Switzerland.
The Swiss scored early and tightened the reins on the Canada attack. But Canada eventually wore down the Swiss and emerged with a 4-1 win and a semifinal date with the United States was on deck.
Even though most of the players weren’t on the team the previous year, they knew what this game meant. The Americans broke Canadian hearts a year earlier. It was time to avenge that crushing defeat. Even though the Americans had home ice advantage, the sold out crowd was dominated by Canadian fans as roughly 70% of the attendees at HSBC Arena were rooting for the Great White North. The game was no contest. Canada outshot the US 41-23 and received balanced scoring yet again as four different scorers lit up the scoreboard in a 4-1 win to the delight of the travelling Canadian supporters.
The gold medal game was a rematch from the curtain raiser of the tournament. Russia recovered from their loss to Canada but it wasn’t easy. They fell to 0-2 after getting blanked by Sweden. But victories over Norway and the Czech Republic saw Russia make the quarterfinal. Russia overcame a 3-1 deficit to edge in Finland in overtime then scored a shootout win over Sweden to reach the final.
A packed house filled with partisan Canadian support filled the home rink of the Buffalo Sabres while a record Canadian television audience tuned in to TSN to see if Canada can win their sixth gold medal in 7 years.
Canada started strong as they took advantage of an early power play opportunity. Brayden Schenn made a perfect cross-ice pass to Ryan Ellis who one-timed a shot past Russian goalie Dmitri Shikin who was caught swimming out of position.
Just before the first period expired, Canada extended its lead Carter Ashton won the puck in a board battle, came out and fired a bad angle shot over the shoulder of Shikin who committed too soon, to give Canada a 2-0 lead heading into intermission.
Canada looked to be home and cooled when Marcus Foligno fed Schenn who scored his eighth goal of the tournament. It looked like it was a done deal. Canada led 3-0 after two periods. Russia pulled Shikin in favour Igor Bobkov between the pipes. A wild crowd was behind the Canadians. There was no way Canada was going to lose this. But no one told the Russians.
Just 2:33 into the third period, Artemi Panarin snapped home a shot over the glove hand of Canadian goalie Mark Visentin to put Russia on the board. Just 13 seconds later Maxim Kitsyn squeezed one through Visentin’s legs and suddenly, Russia had all the momentum while Canada was on its heels. The loud Canadian crowd was suddenly quiet and very nervous.
Russia continued to build on that momentum while Canada had no answers. Midway through the period, Evgeny Kuznetsov made the perfect cross-ice pass to Vladimir Tarasenko who slapped home the equalizer. Russia were in control while Canada was fading badly.
Russia kept putting on the pressure and were rewarded with 4:38 remaining in the third as Panarin scored his second of the game as Canada could not move the puck out of their own end as relentless forechecking by Panarin and Tarasenko led to the go-ahead goal.
Canada tried to mount a comeback but they look spent while the Russians were playing with a world of confidence. Russia put the finishing touches when Nikita Dvurechenski raced past Canadian defenceman Tyson Barrie to skate in alone and slid a backhand past Visentin to send Canadian fans into tears. TSN analyst Pierre McGuire called it the greatest collapse in World Junior history.
It hurt even more for the Canadians to see the Russians celebrate and sing their national anthem with such glee. It was the cold war all over again with Canada getting the cold shoulder.