It is hard to craft a more perfect script than Team Canada winning World Junior Gold.
But this year felt different. After losing in the quarterfinals in Vancouver, Canada was on a mission to avenge that World Junior disappointment. Whenever the young Canadian talent suit up for the IIHF World Junior Hockey Championship, winning gold is always the priority. Anything less than a gold medal is considered a failure.
This is why Hockey Canada decided to bring on the Hunter Brothers, Dale and Mark, to create the golden squad. Given their success with the London Knights, which has included two Memorial Cup titles, the Hunters know what it takes to win in junior hockey.
When the Canadian junior hopefuls participated in the World Junior Camp in Oakville last December, it was clear this team was going to be fast. More important, however, was the squad’s innate ability to buy into Coach Hunter’s attention to detail and bond with each other.
Team Canada Overcomes Struggles
Achieving redemption could not have been a more difficult path for Team Canada. It started in the second game of the Round Robin against Russia, where top-2020 NHL Draft eligible prospect Alexis LaFreniere went down with a leg injury. Team Canada Captain Barrett Hayton did not take his helmet off during the Russian anthem, stirring a controversy known as “Helmetgate.” If losing 6-0 to Russia wasn’t bad enough, Joe Veleno would be suspended for Canada’s third game of the tournament against Germany.
The early adversity shaped Canada as a team with fortitude. Good fortune would eventually come their way. LaFreniere would come back in the quarterfinals, getting a goal en route to Canada’s 6-1 win over Slovakia. Next on their way to gold would be Team Finland, who beat the Canadians in the quarterfinals at last year’s World Junior Hockey Championship.
LaFreniere along with Ty Smith and Jared McIssac understood the pain of losing on home ice. Canada would put those demons to bed, putting together a 5-0 shoutout performance against Finland, thanks to a brilliant performance from St. Louis Blues goalie prospect Joel Hofer.
The Canadians would not escape their share of adversity in the semifinals. After taking a hard hit along the boards, Hayton would have to exit the game with a shoulder injury. There was considerable doubt if the Arizona Coyotes prospect would even be able to suit up for the Gold Medal Game against Russia. At 6:48pm local time, Hayton was cleared to play, after passing medical tests and getting his family and the Coyotes organization to sign off.
They were down 3-1 late in the third period. However, Canada would rely on its captain and unexpected World Junior heroes to pull off their historic comeback. Connor McMichael, who plays for Hunter’s London Knights, cut it to within one goal. He did not getting as much ice time throughout the tournament. Then on the powerplay, Hayton, who could barely raise his arms, fired a blazing wrist shot top shelf to tie the game. It is the stuff that only a legend could produce. He was down and wearied by injury, only to propel his country towards golden glory.
If Hayton’s goal represented gutsiness, then what Akil Thomas would do epitomizes unpredictability. The Los Angeles Kings prospect and Niagara Icedogs forward was on the fourth line, waiting patiently for his chance to shine on the big stage.
Dale Hunter’s decision to put Thomas on the ice in the dying moments of the game paid off. Thomas would get a breakaway chance, using his backhand to beat the Russian goalie, scoring Canada’s golden goal. The highlight will be one that will be part of Canadian World Junior lore forever. It demonstrated how the unsung hero could produce a storybook ending.
“I am so happy for this team,” said Thomas after winning gold. “The guys worked so hard through the whole process. The guys battled tonight, and we found a way to get it done. This might be the happiest day of my life.”
What It Means for the Future
With its dramatic 4-3 win over Russia, Canada would capture its 18th gold medal at the World Junior Hockey Championship. Canadians have been treated to dramatic moments at this tournament, from Carey Price’s dominant goaltending to Jordan Eberle’s late goals.
This 2020 team will be remembered for its grit and tenacity. Nothing phased them despite the adversity that is thrown their way.
“I am so proud of this group. The resiliency they showed throughout the tournament is a tribute to the quality young men they are,” said Dale Hunter. “This group dealt with everything from injuries to illness to penalties, and they found a way.
Redemption and unlikely players coming through are the fabrics that define this Team Canada squad.
A truly perfect Canadian hockey script.
OSTRAVA, CZECH REPUBLIC – JANUARY 5, 2020: Canadian players and coaching staff pose for a group photograph during the medal ceremony for the 2020 World Junior Ice Hockey Championship final match between Canada and Russia at Ostravar Arena; Canada won 4-3. Peter Kovalev/TASS (Photo by Peter KovalevTASS via Getty Images)