UFA, Russia — For the first time since 1998, Team Canada will come home without a medal from the world junior championship.
“It’s tough to put into words,” said Canadian captain Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. “It’s disappointing because it’s not what we came here to do. It’s not something Canada does – come fourth.”
Russia beat Canada 6-5 in overtime to secure a bronze medal in front of a raucous crowd of 7,617 fans at Ufa Arena. Forward Valeri Nichushkin, one of the top European prospects for the 2013 NHL draft, cut to the outside and blew past Canadian defender Ryan Murphy before beating another rearguard, Morgan Reilly, to the front of the net.
Nichushkin, donning the full cage of a 17-year-old, then slipped the puck past the outstretched pad of goaltender Malcolm Subban.
Once the red light went on, it was bedlam.
The Russian fans celebrated and their players dove on top of one another in the corner just to the right of the net where Subban sat dazed in his crease. As they skated around celebrating, the Russians slowed near Canada’s bench and could be seen shouting at their longtime hockey rivals.
To the victor go the spoils, especially when you’re dealing with emotional teenagers.
“They can do whatever they want,” said Canadian forward Jonathan Huberdeau. “They won. They had the crowd on their side. They can do whatever.”
The Russians had been criticized in the media on Friday when former NHLer and current Ufa junior team coach Alexander Semak said he had seen the players out partying. After beating Canada, the players were asked about the comments.
“I wouldn’t say we were partying too much,” said Edmonton Oilers prospect Daniil Zharkov. “I wouldn’t say we partied, just don’t listen to the media.”
But will they party tonight?
“Maybe,” said Zharkov with a laugh.
Many of the Russians said the combination of winning a medal at home against Canada – even a bronze – was the best they could have hoped for outside of the gold.
“I’m really happy we beat Canada, especially at home,” said Zharkov.”For me it’s kind of my own final. It’s a bronze medal, but for me it’s kind of gold.”
For most of the tournament, Canadian head coach Steve Spott has tempered the gold-medal expectations placed on his team by saying how good the global competition has been. Gold is not Canada’s birthright, Spott said on more than one occasion – but coming home without bronze or silver is apparently unacceptable.
“Fourth place for Canada is unacceptable,” said Spott. “Unfortunately that is something we are all going to have to answer questions to, but today was a tough game and I thought our players played extremely hard. At the end of the day when you look at the big picture, the result for our country is unacceptable.”
It’s a sentiment that was echoed by Spott’s players.
“I think we battled pretty hard, but it’s unacceptable to not win a medal,” said Huberdeau. “I think we had a pretty good team in this tournament … as a Canadian you can’t come to this tournament and not win a medal.”
Spott, who coaches the OHL’s Kitchener Rangers, said he was proud of Team Canada and shoulders the blame for the fourth-place finish. This year’s team was stocked with talent thanks to the NHL lockout. It was the labour strife at the pro level that allowed a player like Nugent-Hopkins, who had already played a season with the Edmonton Oilers, to skate in the tournament. Other first-round NHL picks like Huberdeau, Ryan Strome, Mark Scheifele and Dougie Hamilton all started the season with their respective junior teams because of the lockout, making Team Canada an all-star group.
“That’s the tough part about all of this,” said Spott. “I will say that Ryan Nugent-Hopkins delivered the way we all thought he would. He was great both on and off the ice.”
Nugent-Hopkins was the only Canadian named to the world junior all-star team and finished as the tournament’s top scorer with four goals and 15 points in six games. He was also named best forward by the championship directorate along with two American players, defenceman Jacob Trouba and goalie John Gibson.
The Canadians were forced to play without the services of defenceman Griffin Reinhart, who was suspended four games by the International Ice Hockey Federation on Friday. The 18-year-old New York Islanders prospect was banned for a high stick to the head of American forward Vincent Trocheck.
On Saturday, IIHF president Rene Fasel called a press conference to explain the rationale for the suspension meted out by the two-man disciplinary panel of ex-NHL referee Dan Marouelli and former NCAA coach Jeff Sauer.
Reinhart, who has a total of 12 penalty minutes in 31 WHL games with the Edmonton Oil Kings, said his stick had ridden up Trocheck’s and that the contact was accidental during an interview with media on Friday.
Marouelli and Sauer proceeded to break down the video frame-by-frame for reporters. Their attempt to clarify the situation only caused more confusion, however, when they suggested that Reinhart’s stick made no contact with Trocheck’s stick. It was inconclusive, but a freeze frame appeared to show the two sticks together.
In addition, one of the referees on the ice at the time of the incident – Didier Massy of Switzerland – was assigned to work the gold medal game between Sweden and the U.S. During the semifinal between Canada and the U.S., the call on the ice was left as a two-minute minor for high-sticking.
“It shouldn’t have been a major, it should have been a match penalty,” said Marouelli of the call on the ice. “Let me be very clear here, Jeff and I have nothing to do with the officials or the assignments. We strictly rule on the player’s safety and the incident as it happened.”
Regardless, the Canadians weren’t using the suspension as an excuse.
“We had our best,” said Scheifele. “We gave it our all and we came up short a few times and that’s the tough thing about hockey.”
Team Canada was set to board a 3 a.m. flight to begin their trek back from Ufa. The lengthy flight will provide a lot of time for second-guessing and what-ifs for Hockey Canada’s staff and players, though Spott said his burden might be longer.
“It’s disappointing and we have some time now obviously to reflect,” said Spott. “I have the rest of my life to reflect on this and that’s not going to be easy to do.”