Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Juniors carry weight of World

Canada expects pure gold from its teams, every time, every place

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OTTAWA -- Pat Quinn calls it the Fear Factor, a uniquely Canadian dilemma that appears like an unwanted ghost at almost every international hockey event where an entire snow-covered country puts its self-identity on the line with a win-or-damn-the-saints mentality.

Nowhere is that ghost more prevalent than in times such as these, when another gold medal final is imminent, and Canadians by the millions hunker down, holding their breath, while their young proxy hold the fragile pride of a nation in their talented hands.

The enemy doesn't matter, really. Could be the Russians, as it was Saturday night. Or the Americans, as was the case on New Year's Eve. This time, it's the Swedes, but even that gifted collection of Nordic youngsters might not scare the teenagers in red as much as this: Losing and, worse, ending a streak of gold stretching back to 2005.

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"You have to talk about the situation, basically," Quinn told the Free Press. "The situation is unchanged. It's there. There's no magic to this. Somehow players have to be able to push out what's not important. That's not to say that care and love and hope isn't important. It is. But you've got to put it where it belongs right now. None of that helps you do your job right.

"Somehow we have to find a way to help them concentrate, to help them focus on what's going on," the veteran coach added. "Simple mantras often do that. Especially after a bad shift. You've got to blow those things away. People worry about all the stuff they can't control. You can't control the crowd, it's going to be there."

50 years

Heck, this isn't just about young men who may or may not need to shave the next morning. Just before guiding Team Canada to its first Olympic gold medal in 50 years at the 2002 Games in Salt Lake, Quinn openly talked about how fear can paralyze the most grizzled of competitors.

"In '98," Quinn noted, referring to the Nagano Olympics, where Canadian NHL stars, Wayne Gretzky included, finished a disappointing fourth, "even the coach's reports and the manager's reports said that the team played great, but they played in fear.

"That fear got hold of a lot more of those veteran guys than these kids."

Still, if fear of failure can preoccupy the likes of Gretzky, Steve Yzerman or Mario Lemieux, how can young men barely old enough to vote deal with the same incredibly high and unwavering expectations of their countrymen? After all, Team USA, widely expected to challenge for gold, never even made it to the medal round after a shocking loss to lightly regarded Slovakia.

But did anyone in the United States of America really care? Did they even know?

Even in hockey nations such as Sweden and Finland, or the Czech Republic and Russia, junior hockey is an afterthought. But in Canada, we seem to tie our collective psyche to the unpredictable bounces of a rubber disc being batted around by kids from Regina and Oakville or Moncton.

And it's not just this tournament, but every tournament.

Seriously, what kind of pressure are we putting on these kids?

Is it fair? Doesn't matter. It's reality.

"Obviously, every time Canada goes into a tournament, especially at the world junior level or the NHL, they're expected to win," said Blair Mackasey, the head scout for Canada's gold-medal teams in 2006 and 2007. "There's that fear of failure and letting people down.

"I've seen coaches who don't want any part of these teams because they look at it as a no-win situation," said Mackasey, now director of pro scouting for the NHL's Minnesota Wild.

"If I win it's because I was expected to win. But if I lose, it may haunt me forever."

In fact, Mackasey was the assistant coach of the world junior team that defeated the Swedes to win gold in the 1995 WJHC in Boston. With 30 seconds left and holding an insurmountable 4-1 lead, Mackasey walked down the bench to congratulate head coach Marcel Comeau.

"It was like a sigh of relief," Mackasey recalled. "Obviously, you were happy to win. But there wasn't that elation. It was more like, 'Thank gawd.' "

One can only imagine it was a similar sentiment after Canada's improbable, incredible comeback victory over the stunned Russians in a 6-5 shootout victory here on Saturday night.

The Canadians had absolutely no business winning that game. They were dead teenagers skating until, miraculously, Jordan Eberle found himself alone with the puck in front of the Russian goaltender and buried the game-tying goal with just 5.4 seconds left on the clock. The grateful Canada's went on to claim victory in a shootout.

Is there any possible, rational explanation? Yes, according to Team Canada star John Tavares.

"We knew what we had to do," Tavares calmly submitted to reporters moments later. "That's the great thing about Canadians. We don't quit. "There's nothing else we want (but a gold medal)," he added. "There's nothing else we came here for. That's not what our country believes we're good enough for. They believe we can compete for the gold medal every year."

Winston Churchill once famously told his countrymen they had nothing to fear but fear itself.

Figures. The British never played hockey.

It's Canada's high-octane attack vs. Sweden's stingy defence

 

Team Canada takes on Sweden in today's gold-medal match at the world junior hockey championship in Ottawa.

Here's a look at how the two teams match up:

 

Goals for: Canada 41, Sweden 26

Goals against: Canada 11, Sweden 6

Goals against average: Canada, 2.14 (fourth), Sweden 1.20 (first)

Power-play percentage: Canada, 51.35 (first), Sweden 25.93 (sixth)

Penalty killing: Canada, 81.82 per cent (second), Sweden 85 per cent (first)

Penalties: Canada, 56 minutes (seventh), Sweden 42 minutes (ninth)

 

Canada's leading scorers

John Tavares: 8 G, 6 A, 14 pts.

Cody Hodgson: 3 G, 10 A, 13 pts.

Jordan Eberle: 5 G, 5 A, 10 pts.

 

Sweden's leading scorers

Erik Karlsson: 2 G, 7 A, 9 pts.

Mikael Backlund: 5 G, 2 A, 7 pts.

Andre Petersson: 3 G, 3 A, 6 pts.

 

 

Game time -- 6:30 p.m. TSN

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 5, 2009 C1

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About Randy Turner

While attending Boissevain High School in the late 1970’s, Randy Turner one day read an account of a Winnipeg Jets game in the Free Press when it dawned on him: "Really, you can get paid to watch sports?"

Turner later graduated with a spectacularly mediocre 2.3 GPA from Red River Community College’s Creative Communications program. 

After jobs at the Stonewall Argus and Selkirk Journal, he began working on the Rural page for the Free Press in 1987. Several years later, he realized his dream of watching sports for a living covering the Winnipeg Goldeyes and Bombers.

In 2001, Turner became a general sports columnist, where he watched Canada win its first Olympic gold medal in men’s hockey in 50 years at Salt Lake, then watched them win again in Vancouver in 2010.

He also watched everything from high school hockey and volleyball championship to several Grey Cups, NHL finals and World Junior hockey tournaments.

In the fall of 2011, Turner became a general features writer for the paper. But he still watches way too much sports.

Turner has been nominated for three National Newspaper Awards in sports writing.

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