MONTREAL – MONTREAL — From Dud to Stud: The story of the 2017 world junior hockey championship.
Over the first nine days of this event, there was little to be excited about when it came to this event. Maybe that’s why there were so many empty seats, even when the host Canadians played.
Attendance — or lack thereof — became a bigger talking point than the product on the ice. And rightly so.
In a tournament that lacked star power, the wow factor was sorely absent. That’s not to take away from some extremely talented kids who worked hard. But there was no Connor McDavid, no Jack Eichel, no Auston Matthews, no one marquee name that would lure you to pay big bucks to watch.
Denmark briefly was a feel-good story, while Finland definitely disappointed. But still, you were left wanting more, so much more.
And then came the semifinals. And everything changed.
In a tournament that looked to be a letdown on so many levels, the final 48 hours of play changed all that. In the final two days of the event, the Canadians, Americans, Russians and Swedes brought us all out of our seats, whether you were in the press box, on the rail against the glass, or in a recliner at home sipping on your favourite beverage.
In one semifinal Wednesday, the Americans and Russians played 60 minutes of five-on-five exhilarating hockey, faced off four-on-four for another 10 minutes, then went to a shootout. Enter Troy Terry, who became a hero along the lines of Jonathan Toews and T.J. Oshie by scoring three shootout goals. And with that, it was off to the final for Team USA.
In the nightcap, Canadian goalie Connor Ingram allowed two goals on the first three shots he faced. Enter Carter Hart, who may has well been wearing Superman’s cape as he entered the game and stopped all 28 shots he faced, leading Canada to a come-from-behind 5-2 win.
But the best was yet to come.
With Montreal fans stepping up to the plate and filling the cavernous Bell Centre when it mattered the most, Team USA and Team Canada produced a roller-coaster of wonderful theatre. Twice the Canadians had two-goal leads. Twice the Americans came back.
And then, overtime. For the gold medal. Score tied 4-4. The way it should be. The only way it could be. The way it was supposed to be.
Perhaps the snapshot that best symbolized this tournament came in the third period Thursday when Canadian forward Mathieu Joseph hobbled to the dressing room, his face clenched in pain, after being tripped by U.S. forward Kieffer Bellows.
He looked to be done for the night. Only he wasn’t.
Just minutes later, a Canadian forward streaked past, through and around the American players before completing a deke for a spectacular goal he — and we — will remember for a long time. The author of that highlight reel play: The aforementioned Joseph, who shook off the pain in order to represent his country.
And an entire country was thankful for that.
So thank you, Team Canada, Team USA, Team Sweden, Team Russia, In one 48-hour span, you showed the world why so many of us consider this to be the best game in the world.
ROCKIN’ THE HOUSE
After all the criticism about the lack of crowds, the Bell Centre was at its vocal best Thursday.
Earlier in the day, International Ice Hockey Federation president Rene Fasel wondered if Montreal is a one-team town, perhaps a reason for the poor attendance prior to Thursday’s gold medal game.
“Here, everyone says, there’s one team — it’s Canadiens, Canadiens, Canadiens,” Fasel said. “Montreal is the Montreal Canadiens, there you go.”
In 2015, total attendance for the event in Toronto and Montreal was 366,370. It will fall short of that when final figures come in for this year’s event.
Perhaps the one person with the most frayed nerves in the entire Bell Centre on Thursday was defenceman Philippe Myers, who arguably had been Canada’s best defenceman until a hit-from-behind by Team USA captain Luke Kunin on New Year’s Eve left him concussed.
Kunin received a major and game misconduct for his actions that night in Team USA’s 3-1 victory but did not receive a suspension. As such, he played in the gold medal game Thursday night. Myers did not.
Oh, he wanted to. Badly. But team officials were not going to risk the health of the Philadelphia prospect, a decision we’re guessing sat well with Flyers general manager Ron Hextall.
“Obviously he’s part of the team, he’s one of the 22 guys,” Canadian captain Dylan Strome said earlier in the day. “We’re trying to win for every guy in that room. Some guys are playing, some guys aren’t playing, and every guy’s a part of that team.”
Thomas Chabot, who rooms with Myers, said his pal was champing at the bit to suit up. Fortunately, cooler (and more logical) heads prevailed.