MALMO, Sweden — There is hope for next year’s team, but that didn’t make it easier for the Canadian players that left the world junior championship without a medal for a second year in a row.
A bid for a first gold medal in five years had died with a 5-1 loss to Finland in the semifinals, and a 2-1 loss to Russia in the bronze medal game on Sunday left captain Scott Laughton and his teammates in a gloomy mood.
“When you put on this crest and try to represent your country and can’t even bring a medal back to Canada to the people who’ve been cheering for you, and have 4,000 fans come down here, it’s heartbreaking,” said Laughton.
Mikhail Grigorenko got a lucky goal off Mathew Dumba’s skate and Eduard Gimatov wired a shot to the top corner in the first period, but Canada could only answer with defenceman Josh Morrissey’s first of the tournament midway through the third period against sharp Russian goalie Andrei Vasilevski.
It was the second year in a row Canada lost a bronze medal game to Russia after a 6-5 setback last year in the Russian city of Ufa. And it marked the first time Canada has gone without a medal at this event in consecutive years since it happened three years in a row from 1979 to 1981.
The support was there from the start from hundreds of red-and-white clad Canadian fans who went to Sweden to cheer on a team that turned out to be too young, too unlucky and perhaps not talented enough to win this year’s tournament.
But next year may be different when it is held in Montreal and Toronto.
Canada brought its second youngest team ever to Malmo — only the team that was disqualified in 1987 for a brawl with the Soviets was younger. But 11 of them, led by 16-year-old phenom Connor McDavid, are eligible for the 2015 tournament.
Others are defencemen Morrissey, Aaron Ekblad and Chris Bigras and forwards Bo Horvat, Nic Petan, Frederik Gauthier, Sam Reinhart, Curtis Lazar and Jonathan Drouin.
“No one’s thinking about next year,” said goalie Zach Fucale, who is also among those 11. “We wanted to get something done this year. We had a chance to win and we didn’t.
“We came here to win gold and we didn’t. It’s tough to swallow.”
Coach Brent Sutter doesn’t know yet if he’ll be asked back, but he said the returning players will be better for their experience despite their disappointment.
“To learn from this experience, the good and bad from it all,” he said. “And to understand that just because you’re Canadian and you’ve got that Canada jersey on doesn’t guarantee you anything because there are other very good teams in this tournament.
“You have to work for everything you get and you’ve got to compete hard and you’ve got to have urgency every night. That’s probably what hurt us (in the semifinal).”
Later Sunday, Finland beat Sweden 3-2 in overtime in the gold-medal game.
Canada has won more world junior medals than any country, including 15 gold, but competition gets stiffer each year.
It used to be that Canada was the only country missing key players to the NHL, but now other teams are in the same boat. Finland was without its best defenceman, Olli Maatta of the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Hockey Canada plans to evaluate its programs to see if improvements can be made for future junior squads, but Sutter said this team did as well as it could.
“Age is irrelevant because it is the best we had in our country,” he said. “It’s just the way it’s set up.
“It’s where we’re at with the development stage in our country and there’s nothing you can do about it. We brought the best team we could over here. We’re not questioning any of the decisions we made. All the decisions made were the right ones.”
He’d like to see more emphasis placed on skill development over winning and losing in minor hockey, but that’s a matter for Hockey Canada to debate.
This year’s team had three players — McDavid, Ekblad and Sam Reinhart— who are not yet at NHL draft age, which is a lot for a world junior team. Ekblad and Reinhart are favourites to go one-two in the NHL draft in June.
McDavid, considered by some as the best prospect since Sidney Crosby, looked out of his depth as the tournament went on but he finished with a goal and three assists, one point short of what Crosby did as a 16-year-old in 2004. McDavid was not made available to the media after the game.
“I thought his youth certainly showed,” said Sutter. “He’s an exceptional young player, a great kid and he’s going to learn a lot. He is a very important part of this program moving forward.
“Tonight, at times, was overwhelming for him. It wasn’t so much the game but the fact of who we were playing against and the size of those players he was having to line up against.”
Sutter said Canada got strong goaltending both from Fucale and from Jake Paterson, who started the first two games.
But he knew from the start that this year’s team would have to play an aggressive team game to succeed. It worked in the preliminary round as they upset the defending champion Americans to take first place in their group and get what was supposed to be the easy route to the final.
They made it hard on themselves by giving up the first goal in six of their seven games.
And his squad didn’t have the creatively or the patience to penetrate Finland’s tight defensive system in the semifinals.
It was tough for Drouin, defenceman Griffin Reinhart and Paterson — the only returning players from last year’s squad.
“It’s been two years now,” said Drouin. “Obviously, it’s going to bother me for a while now. You’ve got to more on and learn from it.”
Some will get another chance next year on home ice.
“It’s disappointing that’s for sure,” said Lazar. “We played good, but we didn’t bury a couple of chances.
“For guys coming back next year it’s good motivation. It’s Canada, you want to get back on top. Its tough tournament to win. That’s the bottom line. You’ve got to bring your A-game every time.”
Notes — Germany downed Norway 3-1 to win the best-of-three relegation series and will be back at the world juniors for a team-record third straight time next year in Montreal and Toronto. Norway is relegated. Denmark will move up next year.