A collective cheer went up across Canada undoubtedly late Thursday night, when Dylan Guenther scored the overtime-winning goal that propelled Canada to gold at the World Junior Hockey Championships.
His goal brought an end to a remarkable tournament. One for the ages.
It was supposed to be remembered for something different, for the black mark hanging over Hockey Canada – only it wasn’t.
Some part of me wanted to dislike it – ignore it – I wanted to be mad about it, but I just couldn’t. This sport just has such a pull on us as Canadians, that despite all the issues that have been brought to light surrounding Hockey Canada, I couldn’t keep myself from watching.
However, the magic came crashing down for me anyway, just minutes after the game when IIHF President Luc Tardif said with ignorant bliss, “This was the best medicine for Hockey Canada.”
With all due respect sir, this was the exact opposite of that. We cannot forget the missteps of this organization. We cannot forget the victims that were failed by a multitude of adults, who then tried to hide the truth from the world to protect the young men that allegedly perpetrated despicable acts on a young woman.
It was easy to forget that while watching Connor Bedard score a goal for the ages in overtime of the quarter-final, or when Canada staved off a wicked Czechia comeback to win gold in overtime. In those moments, hockey fans across the country were glued to the TV, with the horrors of Hockey Canada’s failings buried well below the surface.
In a sense, it’s exactly what the organization needed. It is exactly what they hoped for, but it is not great medicine. It’s like taking Buckley’s — knowing it’s horrible, but it sort of works. Maybe that’s what Tardif meant, but at the moment he delivered it, the facade fell apart. It was a distraction at best, it shouldn’t be a cure.
Because, on the surface, the tournament itself was excellent. The play on the ice was some of the best junior hockey I have ever seen. It was thrilling, non-stop, wall-to-wall action. Edge of your seat, don’t get up to go the bathroom-type stuff.
The fans in Halifax were unbelievable. They brought the noise for every game and surely played a small role in helping Canada edge out gold. Heck, they even chanted for Latvia in a relegation game, that hardly ever sees a crowd.
The tournament wasn’t played under a dark cloud or with a somber tone. Anyone who thought that would be the case underestimated the power of this sport in Canada.
You had to squint to notice that major advertisers like Tim Hortons or Esso weren’t on the ice. Because the hockey was so spectacular, Hockey Canada is being spared from criticism or ridicule.
It’s not fair to let them off the hook because these players brought some of the best action they could drum up for hockey fans around the world.
Sure, we all what to forget the drama, forget COVID, forget inflation for a few minutes while we watched Canada try and capture gold once again. That’s the magic of this tournament. That’s the magic of it being played at this time of year.
The IIHF and Hockey Canada are both desperately aware they needed this tournament to be good, in order to flip the narrative and generate some good press. They had to for the bottom line mostly of course because I’m sure those paused and cancelled sponsorships weren’t coming back if this tournament didn’t blast off like it did.
But now we’re back in reality. In reality where Hockey Canada needs to make some tangible steps to ensure that participants and those who interact with players at treated with the respect and dignity they deserve. We now need action.
On one hand, that shouldn’t be too hard.
On another, did you watch the gold medal game?
Those kids would have no doubt been treated like gods in Halifax yesterday and they will for as long as they live because they delivered a gold medal for Canada.
They are heroes. They are household names, now until forever because of what they accomplished on the ice.
And what’s problematic about that, is when you make heroes out of teenagers, because let’s not forget that’s what most of these players are, they are bound to make mistakes. We all did as teenagers. But their mistakes become amplified, all because a country and its people worship something they did over two weeks in December.
Sometimes I wish this tournament wasn’t as big as it was, that the game of hockey isn’t as big as it is in this country because of what it does to the young kids who play it. Not all of them of course, but some.
It is a beautiful game and it’s a blast to play, but sometimes we get caught up in what success in the sport means and what it allows us to do off the ice.
With just a stick and a puck on an outdoor rink, with the jersey of your favourite team, hockey can be magical.
But the business of it, what it’s become as a giant production, creates heroes who maybe aren’t ready for the spotlight.
We should watch – we should cheer because it’s a unifying and uniting experience – and we all know the world needs as much of that as we can get right now.
In saying that, we should never forget these are just kids. Just your neighbour who shoots 1,000 pucks into his garage door or the kid who spends the Christmas break, from dusk to dawn at the outdoor rink.
We don’t want them to grow up too fast and let the pressure of a nation wear them down before their 21st birthday.
Watch the games, enjoy the games, then let it go. Future generations of players will thank you for it.
Byron Hackett is the Managing Editor of the Red Deer Advocate.