Fourth place at junior tourney not all that bad

So it finally happened.
As a result of their 6-5 loss to Russia on Saturday at this year’s World Junior Hockey Championship in Ufa, Russia, Canada’s streak of 14-straight tournaments of earning a medal came to a screeching halt.
Immediately following Valeri Nichushkin’s overtime goal for the tournament hosts, the pitchforks came out towards Canada’s national team and how this was nothing short of a disaster.
Granted, the amount of second-guessing always was going to happen if Canada didn’t win gold this year—even though the sometimes harsh bashing of teenage athletes definitely is something that’s never worth doing.
But to describe it as a dark day in the history of Canadian hockey is way over the top.
Firstly, a fourth-place result at the world juniors, while not a medal, is something other countries in the tournament only can dream of having.
Plus, this isn’t even Canada’s worst showing at the event (they finished in eighth place back in 1998 in what was the last time the squad failed to earn a medal).
If that showing, which saw Canada lose to Kazakhstan in the seventh-place game, were to take place today, I’m convinced hockey sticks throughout the country would be torched in a five-alarm blaze out of the frustration.
Secondly, while a certain generation of hockey fans in this country may think it’s automatically assumed Canada should win gold every year at the world juniors, it is extremely hard and rare to go on the medal run the team just finished.
Sure, Canada twice won five-straight gold medals. But only two other countries (the Soviet Union/Russia and the Czech Republic) have been able to win back-to-back titles since the tournament started back in 1977.
As in any sport, to go on a medal run, you’re going to need a lot of luck on your side, which is something Canada has had during the past 14 years (Jordan Eberle’s game-tying goal against the Russians in the 2009 semi-finals is a picture-perfect example).
But the fact of the matter is that when it came to this year’s tournament, Canada wasn’t the best team when push came to shove—despite having a solid squad on paper.
Even though they had the benefit of players like Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Jonathan Huberdeau up front, who would have been playing in the NHL if it hadn’t been for the lockout, Canada just didn’t show up to play at the start of their semi-final against the U.S. last Thursday.
And when you are going up against a team that has spread out scoring, a rock-solid defence, and one of the top junior-aged goalies in the business in tournament MVP John Gibson, you will have major issues no matter how good your roster may appear.
So is this the start of a rough era for Canada at the world juniors? Yes and no.
As has been stated often over the last couple of years, the game is growing and the elite junior-aged talent is getting better in other countries, which has helped to make the world juniors a stronger tournament and one that is better to watch.
Let’s face it, as much as we Canadians enjoy seeing our team win, wouldn’t you get bored after seeing the same thing take place year after year?
However, I do think that no matter what, Canada always will be viewed as the favourite because of the success that they have and the amount of players who are available each year.
Sure, there won’t be any young NHL stars like Nugent-Hopkins available to play next time around, and Halifax Mooseheads’ star Nathan MacKinnon actually might be playing in “the show” by the time selection camp rolls around.
But the players who will be on next year’s team aren’t slouches and they certainly will be even hungrier to try and get back on the podium—even if teams like Sweden or the U.S. might be the favourites on paper.
Either way, we all will be watching with great interest come Christmas time when the next edition of the tournament takes place in Malmo, Sweden.