Canada players celebrate after defeating Russia in the gold medal game at the World Junior Hockey Championships, Sunday, January 5, 2020 in Ostrava, Czech Republic. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz

‘How could you create a better story?’: World junior squad voted CP team of the year

‘How could you create a better story?’: World junior squad voted CP team of the year

Akil Thomas felt like he was living in a movie. The script seemed predetermined and, as it would turn out, he had an unlikely starring role.

Canada trailed Russia 3-1 with 11 minutes left in the gold-medal game of the 2020 world junior hockey championship last January when a shot pinballed in off Connor McMichael to cut the deficit. Canadian captain Barrett Hayton, who suffered a separated shoulder in the semis and was a huge question mark for the final, then tied things moments later with a bullet shot on a power play.

That set the stage for Thomas — a forward used sparingly throughout the tournament in the Czech Republic, but handed one final shift by head coach Dale Hunter — to play hero on a breakaway that materialized out of almost nothing with 3:57 left in regulation.

The Russians, however, weren’t done. They got a man advantage of their own, and with the goalie pulled, Aidan Dudas accidentally cleared the puck over the glass from the defensive zone, only to see it strike a remote television camera to avoid another penalty — some miraculous luck that spared Canada having to weather a 6-on-3 attack in the dying moments.

Russia imploded from there with two late penalties before Canada killed the clock and spilled onto the ice to celebrate its 18th gold medal at the under-20 tournament in front of a throng of travelling, rabid fans.

“It felt like everything that was happening was orchestrated beforehand,” Thomas recalled nearly 12 months later. “How could you create a better story? It seemed like someone wrote a movie, and we just did it. It was nuts. I feel so in that moment to this day.”

That group of peach-fuzzed teenagers, who overcame an early blowout loss, injuries, suspensions, controversy and illness, were rewarded a second time for their perseverance throughout a roller-coaster, edge-of-your-seat world juniors Wednesday by winning the team of the year award from The Canadian Press for 2020.

The squad secured 26 of 68 votes — 38.2 per cent — in a poll of writers, broadcasters and editors across the country. Canada’s Olympic and Paralympic teams garnered 14 votes for their stance on postponing the Tokyo Games amid the widening COVID-19 pandemic, while the Toronto Raptors, who won the award in 2019 after securing the franchise’s first NBA title, were third with 13 after finishing with the league’s second-best record in the regular season.

It’s the sixth time Canada’s world junior outfit has earned team of the year honours, and the first since receiving back-to-back nods in 2008 and 2009.

“I think about it all the time,” defenceman Bowen Byram said of the gold-medal game. “I wish I could go back to that moment. It’s something you can’t really explain to people that weren’t part of the team.

“I get goosebumps thinking about it.”

But thoughts of gold, or any other accolade, seemed unlikely to most outsiders after Canada’s second game in gritty Ostrava.

After beating the United States in their opener, the Canadians were embarrassed 6-0 by Russia — the national program’s worst-ever defeat at the event — on a disastrous night that also saw star winger Alexis Lafreniere suffer what looked like a serious knee injury.

To make matters worse, workhorse centre Joe Veleno was handed a one-game suspension for a dubious head-butting incident, while Hayton added to the drama by forgetting to remove his helmet for Russia’s anthem.

Some teams might have crumbled. But not this one. Not this group.

“There were some big, ugly things that happened,” said Mark Hunter, Dale’s younger brother and Canada’s general manager. “It didn’t rattle them. They just kept playing.”

Lafreniere missed two games with that injured knee — Canada’s most talked about joint for a couple days — but returned to finish with four goals and 10 points in five outings to win MVP honours, while also dragging his team into the fight with inspired physicality not often seen among elite talent.

“Being focused on one goal was really big for us,” said Lafreniere, who cemented his No. 1 overall NHL draft status at the tournament and was selected first by the New York Rangers in October. “We faced a lot of adversity and were able to come back stronger.”

With the benefit of hindsight, players on the Canadian roster feel that horrendous early performance against Russia provided a necessary wake-up call.

“It fuelled us,” Byram said. “You want to avoid those things as much as possible.

“But when you do go through something like that, you’ve just got to make sure you learn from it.”

McMichael said while fans back home were panicking, confidence among the tight-knit group from places like Bay Roberts, N.L., Truro, N.S., Saint-Eustache, Que., Port Perry, Ont., Brandon, Man., Canmore, Alta., Kelowna, B.C., and Whitehorse never wavered.

“You know you’re going to face adversity,” McMichael said. “But you don’t know how it’s going to be until you do.

“And we faced a lot of adversity.”

After finishing a disappointing sixth in Vancouver in 2019, the Hunter brothers — who have dominated the Ontario Hockey League for the last two decades with the London Knights, but had taken part in just one under-18 event with Hockey Canada — were tasked with restoring the country’s pride at the showcase tournament.

In the wake of that Russia debacle, however, it was probably a good thing an ocean separated the Canadian contingent from the vast majority of their supporters.

“Somebody called me and said, ‘You two guys are just getting buried on social media. (The Hunters) are overrated, they don’t know what they’re doing,’” Mark Hunter recounted. “I go to Dale, ‘Hey did you see this? They sure turn on you pretty quickly.’

“But that’s part of the business. It’s about having experience and not overreacting.”

Canada took a deep breath and recalibrated, beating Germany and thumping the Czechs to finish atop its group. Lafreniere returned to lead the charge in a 6-1 whitewash of Slovakia in the quarterfinals — Nolan Foote got the early boot for an illegal check to the head to provide another bump in the road — and a 5-0 defeat of Finland in the semis minus a flu-ridden Byram, setting up the Russian rematch that once again didn’t start according to plan.

“Even after we went down 3-1 in the final, I had a feeling we weren’t going to lose,” Byram said. “That’s the feeling we had the whole tournament.”

And following the goals by McMichael and Hayton, who couldn’t lift his arm over his head because of that bum shoulder, Thomas found himself almost improbably on centre stage, poking a loose puck past a defender, moving in alone and burying a backhand to send the travelling Canadian support inside Ostravar Arena into a chaotic, spine-tingling frenzy.

But the 2018 second-round pick of the Los Angeles Kings said if it wasn’t for the positive mentality he forced on himself — players of his calibre aren’t used to sitting — things could have played out much differently.

“The hardest thing I’ve ever had to overcome in my career,” Thomas said of waiting for a chance he knew might not come. “Maybe in the back of my head I was thinking: ‘I’m doing this for no reason, I’m not going to get a shot.’ But I just tried to block the negative thoughts out.

“If Dale saw me on the bench slouched over and I had negative body language, it’s not an appealing sight and he probably wouldn’t have picked me. The fact that I was ready to go, positive, didn’t care about the past, just wanted to look forward, it taught me a lesson I can use in any situation.”

And that moment the puck crossed the line?

“I can’t really explain how I felt because it was an accumulation of so many different things,” he said. “When I watch that goal, I feel how I felt during that game … just so surreal.

“It honestly feels like I did that just a minute ago.”

A dramatic plot twist — one of many — Thomas, his teammates and Canadian hockey fans won’t soon forget.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 30, 2020.

Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press

hockey

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

The first Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine dose in Canada is prepared at The Michener Institute in Toronto on Monday, Dec. 14, 2020. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn)
Not all long-term care workers have received their vaccines including a Red Deer facility

There continues to be confusion in long-term care and supportive living facilities… Continue reading

Cattle graze winter pasture in the foothills of the Canadian Rockies near Longview, Alta. on Jan. 8, 2004. Concern over the provincial government’s decision to drop a coal policy that has protected the eastern slopes of the Rockies for decades is growing among area communities. At least six cities, towns and municipal districts in southwest Alberta have now expressed concern about the decision and the fact it was made with no consultation. The latest is Longview, where mayor Kathie Wight is drafting a letter to the government opposing the move. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh
More southern Alberta communities voice concern over province’s plans to expand coal

Concern over the Alberta government’s decision to drop a coal policy that… Continue reading

Some residents say there is no longer an effective Nordegg fire department to respond to emergencies in the West Country. (Contributed photo).
Some Nordegg residents worry about lack of emergency response in the West Country

The possibility of wildfires or accidents is ‘scary’ says former fire leader

(Advocate file photo).
Six idling vehicles stolen in last 48 hours: Red Deer RCMP

Red Deer RCMP said Wednesday six idling vehicles in the city were… Continue reading

FILE - In this Jan. 20, 2021, file photo, Diners Susan and Hank Gill eat inside at Nunzio's Restaurant in Loves Park, Ill. Several states are loosening their coronavirus restrictions on restaurants and other businesses because of improved infection and hospitalization numbers but are moving cautiously, in part because of the more contagious variant taking hold in the U.S. (Scott P. Yates/Rockford Register Star via AP, File)
States lift restrictions gradually amid fears of new variant

States lift restrictions gradually amid fears of new variant

FILE - In this Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021 file photo, Trump supporters try to break through a police barrier at the Capitol in Washington. Right-wing extremism has previously mostly played out in isolated pockets of America or in smaller cities. In contrast, the deadly attack by rioters on the U.S. Capitol targeted the very heart of government. It brought together members of disparate groups, creating the opportunity for extremists to establish links with each other. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez, File)
US terrorism alert warns of politically motivated violence

US terrorism alert warns of politically motivated violence

People march towards Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland's office in Toronto, during a rally led by current and former international students calling for changes to immigration rules during COVID-19, on Sept. 12, 2020. A new work permit program for international students in Canada is taking applications starting today. THE CANADIAN PRESS/ Tijana Martin
New work permit program for international graduates in Canada taking applications

New work permit program for international graduates in Canada taking applications

A woman types on her laptop in Miami in a Monday, Dec. 12, 2016, photo illustration. An investigation into a scourge of NetWalker ransomware attacks has led to the arrest of a Canadian man, the U.S. Department of Justice said on Wednesday. According to an indictment, police in Florida charged Sebastien Vachon-Desjardins of Gatineau, Que., with illegally obtaining more than $27.6 million. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP/Wilfredo Lee
Canadian man charged in U.S. with NetWalker ransomware attacks

Canadian man charged in U.S. with NetWalker ransomware attacks

Hassan Diab holds a news conference on Parliament Hill, in Ottawa Friday, February 7, 2020. nbsp;A lawyer for Diab says a French appeal court's order that the Ottawa sociology professor stand trial for a decades-old synagogue bombing is the latest misstep in a long odyssey of injustice. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Fred Chartrand
Order to stand trial in Paris bombing flies in face of evidence, Diab’s lawyer says

Order to stand trial in Paris bombing flies in face of evidence, Diab’s lawyer says

Minister of Indigenous Services Marc Miller participates in a news conference on the COVID-19 pandemic in Ottawa, on Wednesday, Jan. 27, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang
Every leader must work to rid health-care system of anti-Indigenous racism: Miller

Every leader must work to rid health-care system of anti-Indigenous racism: Miller

Members of the RCMP on June 13, 2020 control the scene where a man was shot near Miramichi, N.B. The chief of a New Brunswick First Nation that was home to a man killed by the RCMP last year says it was infuriating to learn Tuesday that no criminal charges would be laid in the case. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ron Ward
Report into police shooting of Rodney Levi called ‘infuriating’ by First Nation chief

Report into police shooting of Rodney Levi called ‘infuriating’ by First Nation chief

Canadian writer Elan Mastai developing his novel ‘All Our Wrong Todays’ for Peacock

Canadian writer Elan Mastai developing his novel ‘All Our Wrong Todays’ for Peacock

Most Read