When Rasmus Ristolainen scored in overtime of the Gold Medal game at the 2014 World Junior Championships, the story of a stunning tournament was complete. The Finns were walking away with their third World Junior Gold Medal, and an exclamation point was put on the changing face of the international game.
The World Juniors and the Gold Medal, once the near exclusive domain of the Canadians and Russian teams has become a much more competitive event in recent years. In the last six years we have seen five different teams take home the gold, with only the Americans winning the tournament twice.
The Finns themselves went from a 7th place finish just one year ago to Gold Medal Champions. But it wasn’t easy for a Finnish team that lost games to Switzerland and the Swedes in the round robin. While the Finns are the best, and 100% fully deserving of the gold medal, we must also recognize that this tournament has entered an age of parity where nearly any team can win if they play well on any given night.
The Swiss upset the Finns in the round robin. The Czechs have made strides towards returning to the levels they were at a decade ago, and even pulled an upset over the Canadians in the round robin. Those same Czechs lost to the Germans. Meanwhile the Slovaks had a two goal lead on Canada in a crucial round robin game, and fought hard against the Americans.
This year’s results are no fluke. Switzerland continues to improve year in and year out, and more and more Swiss players are being drafted by NHL teams. The Americans, Swedes, and Russians have all won in recent years and remain top contenders year in and year out. Teuvo Teravainen of Finland and Filip Forsberg of Sweden cemented their spots amongst the best junior players in the world (spots well earned in previous years).
For the first time since Canada instituted its “Program of Excellence” in the early 80s, the country has gone two straight years without a medal. This is something that will be questioned and debated throughout Hockey Canada. The now five-year gold medal drought will be debated and lamented. But its time for Canadians to recognize the fact that there are a number of countries who are pretty good at what has always been “Canada’s Game”. The “big six” of international hockey has become the “big eight” and countries like Germany, Denmark, Norway and others aren’t far behind from making it a big nine or big ten.
Sure, seeing Team Canada lose is disappointing for Canadian fans, but this isn’t something to be lamented either. This is something to be celebrated. Winning every tournament as if it were a birthright, is not really exciting. Same with knowing that every tournament will come down to a key game with the Russians, or in recent years with the Americans. However now we have a tournament where winning four or five difficult games is necessary to take home a medal. Knowing that you have to put your best team on the ice, and that they have to come together and play their best hockey in a short tournament in order to win, that is what will continue to make this tournament exciting going forward.
With the Olympics coming up, lets hope that we can see the same sort of exciting tournament, and anything can happen results. Lets hope we see the same tight games in the quarterfinals, semi-finals, and final. The same sort of right down to the wire results that make the game great to watch.
As hockey fans, should we be asking any more than that?
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