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


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

Just Posted

Don and Gloria Moore, of Red Deer, are set to celebrate their 70th anniversary later this month. (Contributed photo)
Red Deer couple to celebrate 70th anniversary

Red Deer couple Don and Gloria Moore are set to celebrate their… Continue reading

Chris Scott, owner of The Whistle Stop Cafe, was put in handcuffs after an anti-restriction protest Saturday in the parking lot of the business. (Screenshot via The Whistle Stop Facebook page)
UPDATE: Central Alberta cafe owner arrested after anti-restriction protest

The owner of a central Alberta cafe, which was the site of… Continue reading

Alberta has 1,910 active cases of COVID-19 as of Wednesday. Red Deer is reporting five active cases, with 108 recovered. (File photo)
Red Deer now has 911 active COVID-19 cases

Central zone has 2,917 active cases

Red Deer Regional Hospital Centre's expansion project is still a high priority, says Alberta Infrastructure Minister Prasad Panda. (File photo by Advocate staff)
Red Deer hospital ICU admissions stable, but rising, says surgeon

The Red Deer Regional Hospital Centre’s intensive care unit is in better… Continue reading

FILE - A firefighter wears a mask as he drives his truck. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward, File
VIDEO: Flames rip through Edmonton-area seniors complex, but no fatalities

ST. ALBERT, Alta. — Fire has destroyed part of a retirement complex… Continue reading

Nuns of Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity, carry some of her relics during a vigil of prayer in preparation for the canonization of Mother Teresa in the St. John in Latheran Basilica at the Vatican, Friday, Sept. 2, 2016. In which city did she do much of her charitable work? (AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia)
QUIZ: How much do you know about these motherhood issues?

In honour of Mother’s Day, take this 10-question quiz

Dr. Robert Strang, Nova Scotia's chief medical officer of health, is setting off a social media reaction with his calls to stop non essential shopping, such as "buying sandals at Costco", with this photo of his worn sandals, which he published to social media on Saturday, May 8, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-Dr. Robert Strang, *MANDATORY CREDIT*
Nova Scotia’s top doctor sparks meme with caution on non-essential shopping

HALIFAX — Nova Scotia’s top doctor has launched a social media meme… Continue reading

Chief Public Health Officer Theresa Tam speaks during a technical briefing on the COVID pandemic in Canada, in Ottawa on Friday, Jan. 15, 2021. Canada's chief public health officer is reminding Canadians even those who are fully vaccinated are not immune from transmitting the COVID-19. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Tam warns that full vaccination does not equal full protection from COVID-19

Canada’s chief public health officer reminded Canadians on Saturday that even those… Continue reading

Carolina Hurricanes coach Rod Brind'Amour conducts drills during NHL hockey training camp in Morrisville, N.C., Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)
NHL relaxing virus protocols for vaccinated playoff teams

The NHL is relaxing virus protocols for teams that reach a threshold… Continue reading

Canada skip Kerri Einarson directs her teammates against Sweden in a qualification game at the Women's World Curling Championship in Calgary, Alta., Saturday, May 8, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh
Canada’s Einarson eliminated at curling worlds after 8-3 loss to Sweden’s Hasselborg

CALGARY — Canada’s Kerri Einarson was eliminated at the world women’s curling… Continue reading

Jennifer Coffman, owner of Truffle Pigs in Field, B.C., poses beside her business sign on Thursday, May 6, 2021, in this handout photo. Her restaurant and lodge have been hit hard by a closure of a section of the Trans-Canada Highway and by the British Columbia government discouraging Alberta residents from visiting during the pandemic. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-Jennifer Coffman, *MANDATORY CREDIT*
‘Why we survive’: B.C. boundary towns struggle without Albertans during pandemic

Jennifer Coffman didn’t expect to get hit with a double whammy at… Continue reading

A courtroom at the Edmonton Law Courts building, in Edmonton on Friday, June 28, 2019. The effect of the coronavirus pandemic will have a lasting impact on the Canadian justice system warn a number of legal experts. The Alberta Court of Queen's Bench announced Sunday it would adjourn all scheduled trials across the province for at least 10-weeks limiting hearings to only emergency or urgent matters. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson
Edmonton mother found guilty of manslaughter in death of five-year-old girl

EDMONTON — An Edmonton woman was found guilty Friday of manslaughter in… Continue reading

A Statistics Canada 2016 Census mailer sits on the key board of a laptop after arriving in the mail at a residence in Ottawa, May 2, 2016. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Statistics Canada sees more demand to fill out census online during pandemic

OTTAWA — Statistics Canada says the response to the census is higher… Continue reading

Most Read