Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Russians have luck, we have birthright

Here's betting latter will prevail tonight

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BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Forgive the Russians if they're feeling a little divine intervention these days.

In the quarter-finals, they trailed the Finns 3-1 with under four minutes left, popped a pair in two minutes, and won in overtime.

They were on the verge of elimination against the Swedes in the semifinal on Monday, but forced overtime with just 1:27 left in regulation and prevailed in a shootout.

"It was good luck," Russian captain Vladimir Tarasenko reasoned, "and God was with us."

He shoots, He scores.

Yes, they believe in Russia now. But what might happen now, with 18,000 Canadians nestled in their pews tonight for the 2011 world junior gold medal final, ready to praise the books of David (Cameron, the coach) and Mark (Visentin, the goalie)?

What we've got here, perhaps, is a theological dilemma. Or maybe Tarasenko was just trying to rationalize how his Russians have come back from the dead twice before Easter.

Either way, it's Russia versus Canada for gold, and somebody's in for a religious experience on the shores of Lake Erie.

Sure, there's going to be millions glued to their television sets across Canada. Thousands have already made the pilgrimage to Buffalo, where they've spent the last 12 days and 11 nights parting (or should that be partying) the Red Sea.

But it will be up to 21 teenagers from places like Maple, Ont. and Oakbank, Man. and Carp, Sask., left to put into words the onus of wearing the Maple Leaf.

"It's tough to explain for those who haven't worn it," noted Team Canada defenceman Erik Gudbranson. "It's really... you put a lot of responsibility on your back when you put that jersey on. We all know that. I mean, the passion just rides out whenever you put it on. The excitement at we felt (in a 4-1 semifinal victory over the U.S.) and the excitement that we're feeling going into the final game is what really got us through and to play so well.

"Now it's a one-game final. There's no reason to hold back."

It's worth remembering that this Canuck outfit was always a contender in Buffalo, but never the favourite. It was the defending champion Americans who were pegged to repeat a gold-medal performance on home soil. But after ousting the Americans on Monday night, it's the Canadians who find themselves in familiar territory -- entering their 10th consecutive WJHC final.

And no one seems too surprised.

"This was our goal from day one," said Oakbank's Quinton Howden, who scored against the Americans. "This is where we wanted to be. We've set our bar high and we're close to meeting it. We've got one more game left and we're looking forward to it as a team."

What goes through the mind of a 19-year-old about to play the biggest game of his young career?

"A bit of everything," Howden replied. "Very excited, a little nervous. When you grow up watching it (Team Canada play for gold), it was just another hockey game. As you get older you hope that one day you could be there. It's definitely been all I expected and a lot more. It's been a whirlwind. Pretty surreal."

Of course, we could start dusting off old memories of a Canada-Russia rivalry that dates back to '72 and beyond. And it's not like these Canadian kids haven't heard the stories or seen the grainy footage from Moscow. But face it, that's like talking about the last time the Leafs won the Cup.

Even Team Canada head coach Dave Cameron wasn't about to wax poetic about the olden days, given that the 21st century hockey player's notion of a Russian-Canadian rivalry is the 2005 World junior final that pitted Alex Ovechkin against a 17-year-old Sidney Crosby.

"I'm not going to give them a history lesson now," Cameron sniffed, adding, "I don't care if it's Russia or whatever (in the final). Bring Kazakhstan back."

No, what it's about now if for the likes of Team Canada captain Ryan Ellis and Winnipeg's Cody Eakin, who shone against the Americans, to make their own history.

Besides, it doesn't matter who Canada plays. There are roots to every rivalry. The Americans, the Russians, the Swedes, the Finns. Yes, even the Kazakhs.

"Apparently." said Team Canada forward Tyson Barrie, "Canada's got bad blood with everybody now."

The kids find out early, that the jersey doesn't just evoke passion in the home country, but it's like waving a red flag in front of the enemy.

Somebody asked Russian coach Valeri Bragin if defeating the Canadians would be special.

"It's the same for Canada to beat the Russians," Bragin replied.

Nyet. They don't care in Russia, not for the juniors. They don't care in Sweden or Finland or America, either.

That's why it's hard for these young men to truly explain what it's like to put on that jersey. That flag. That target.

The Russians might have good luck and God on their side. But they're standing now between a mass of Canadians and what they believe is their divine birthright.

So they just may need both.

randy.turner@freepress.mb.ca

Tonight

 

Canada

vs.

Russia

 

Gold-medal final

 

6:30 p.m.

 

TSN

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 5, 2011 D1

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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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