BUFFALO – The game started long before the teams ever set foot on the ice.
On one side there were the Americans, who were in the minority despite being the host city for the 2011 World Junior Championship. On the other side were the Canadians, many of whom had waited hours at the border to invade their neighbours to the south. And much like the play on the ice, whenever Team USA tried to start something up, they were drowned out by a Canadian onslaught which ended on the scoreboard with a 4-1 victory and in the stands with fans singing “Hey, Hey, Hey Goodbye.”
“That was kind of disappointing, I’m not going to lie,” said American goalie Jack Campbell of the unwelcome home. “Hearing the tournament was here in the U.S., I was really hoping we would get that advantage – it’s fun to play in front of a Canadian crowd – but at the same time it’s an advantage. I have to give the U.S. fans credit, they battled out there to try to keep up.”
It would only be fitting, then, that the opening goal came courtesy of American-born Curtis Hamilton, wearing the red-and-white maple leaf via Tacoma, Wash. After Canada’s Cody Eakin had his initial shot stopped by Campbell, Hamilton jumped on the rebound with the goalie caught out of position.
“It was kind of a lucky goal, I guess, I just kind of mucked it in there,” said Hamilton.
The tally sent the sellout crowd of 18,690 into a frenzy, and neither the fans nor their on-ice compatriots looked back. Campbell, who finished the game with 37 saves, took the loss particularly hard after having been the hero of Team USA’s 6-5 overtime victory against Canada in the gold-medal game last year in Saskatoon. He still appeared stunned as he stood in front of reporters – with his eyes tearing up – and spoke of how his teammates had dreamt about creating a new American world junior dynasty.
“I’ve never been through this before,” said Campbell after the game. “(Team USA forward) Jason Zucker and I have been talking, hopefully about going four straight ever since last year and to be shut down by a great Canadian team – it’s already hit me and it sucks.
“Canada came out and brought their ‘A’ game and I think we left a lot of it in the locker room. I don’t think every guy in the locker room can go around and say he played his best – including myself.”
In the second period, when the score was already 3-0 in favour of Canada, the crowd – most decked out in red-and-white maple leaf gear – started chanting, “This is our house!”
“The biggest thing was our fans, I thought they were unbelievable,” said Canadian forward Ryan Johansen. “In every warm-up, you’re shivering pretty much skating around because we know we have our country behind us and it’s a really good feeling.”
Adding salt to the wounds for Campbell was the fact that he billets with Team Canada captain Ryan Ellis in Windsor, Ont., and that he gave up the fourth goal to his Ontario Hockey League teammate Zack Kassian. It was Ellis that made sure his Canadian teammates knew exactly what needed to be done in order to beat Campbell with some inside information. Johansen credited Ellis’ advance scouting report with helping him score a power-play marker in the second period.
“I told them to just throw the pucks on net,” said Ellis. “(Johansen’s) such a big body, he’s the guy that has to get the traffic … And on that power play goal he got that traffic and he banged in a rebound, and to beat Jack that’s about the only thing you can do is hopefully get a good bounce in there.”
The loss in the gold-medal game to Campbell’s Americans last year motivated Canada’s four returnees – Ellis, Brayden Schenn, Calvin de Haan and Jared Cowen – to make sure their new teammates wouldn’t waste this opportunity for revenge.
“Losing last year stung a lot for a lot of Canadians,” said Ellis. “Then everyone kind of bashed us in the media saying we’re not skilled, we’re not the go-to team, and we’re underdogs. So that lit a fire and everyone doubting us – you can never count us out.”
Now, Team Canada have to come up with a new storyline to ignite the faithful for Russia, who advanced to the world junior final with a 4-3 shootout victory over Sweden. Prior to the U.S. game, the returning veterans spoke about how losing the gold medal to the Americans had left them waiting a full year for a rematch.
“They pretty much said, ‘We’ve all played in big games so we know how to handle this. We know our game so we just have to play our roles,’ “said Johansen. “It was pretty much just little things to get you fired up. They did a great job of that today and against the Russians I’m sure they’ll have some more to say.”
Ellis, who won gold with Canada in 2009 and silver in 2010, celebrated his 20th birthday with the victory, meaning his world junior run will end on Wednesday in Buffalo. And he already knows what he wants as a present.
“Hopefully I can go out with a bang – with a win,” said Ellis. “I think that’s the biggest thing, coming home with that gold medal.
“After losing it last year, it’s all about the gold.”
And that’s something all Canadians can celebrate.