About an hour ago, everybody watching the World Junior Hockey Championships (including the half dozen viewers south of the border in Bronzeland*) saw one of the most gutsy comebacks in the history of junior hockey unfold on our television screens.
Trailing 3-0 at the outset of the third period of the gold medal game, a gutsy group of teenagers stormed back to claim a stunning 5-3 victory over a traditional rival. If you’re reading this blog, there’s a safe bet you got redirected here from a hockey-centric site, so it’s an equally safe bet that you know the result by now. The kids who walked out of Buffalo with the gold medals were wearing Russian, not Canadian, sweaters.
You can bet your sweet ass (yeah, you…I been lookin’, I confess) that if the roles were reversed, those of us here in the Great White North who like to write about hockey (and for sure those who get PAID to do it) would be trumpeting to high heaven the virtues of the brave Canadians who snatched victory from the jaws of defeat. We would be right about that. It’s no less true tonight because the kids who stormed back from oblivion were yelling Russian (rather than English) swear words into the camera during the post game. Give these Russian kids their due: it took skill, guts and heart to come all the way back in such dramatic fashion in front of a building filled with 18,000 people desperate to see you fail. Enjoy that win, Boris, Igor and Dmitry: you earned it.
There are those – in the media, in the coffeeshops of this nation, and in the blogosphere – who will want to call the Canadians “chokers.” The word “gutless” will get pulled out. Synonyms will be sought for “embarrassment” and “travesty”. Give it a rest.
Look, I think I understand the proper role of sporting events like this in our culture: they’re a diversionary entertainment. Part of the fun of watching is rooting for your team to win. Part of rooting for your team is caring about the result, and part of the fun of rooting and caring is trading good-natured jabs with your rivals. In the run-up to the Canada-U.S. game, our American friends were doing a little shit-talking about the beating their defending champion team was going to put on our entry. It was fun to watch virtual Canadian gums flap back at our Yankee brethren as the game unfolded and it became evident that our red and white rocked, while their red and white just blew. There will be some chirping back and forth now and in the future that refers to this stunning collapse, and that’s as it should be (though it seems to me that the ones who’ve earned the right to do the chirping use a cyrillic alphabet; anybody who lives in the land of White Castle and bronze medals, on the other hand, would do well to remember their place in the Pecking Order of Puck).
All of that heckling and kidding around is as it should be. But don’t let anyone try to seriously tell you that the group of kids who wore the red and white for us this time around should be “ashamed” or “embarrassed” or anything like that. Yes, they got their asses handed to them on a plate. Yes, it was because they stopped skating at the critical moment and allowed their Russian adversaries up off the mat long enough to administer the knockout blows. But watching Brayden Schenn, Ryan Ellis and Mark Visentin look into the camera and own all that just minutes after suffering what must have been a profound disappointment – at their young age – speaks volumes about the character that was in that dressing room. Before you disagree, think back to when you were 18 or 19 years old, and imagine how you would have behaved if YOU had suffered that kind of setback on national TV.
I’m proud of those kids. I wish like hell the result had been different, but there you have it. Things like this happen in junior hockey. We’ve seen them before; things like this are what the legend of Jordan Eberle is built upon. We had seen some pretty epic comebacks from this very Russian team earlier in the tournament. In fact, during the 2nd intermission, Dmitry Chesnokov was lamenting the apparent death of the Canada/Russia hockey rivalry here in Canada (guess what, Dmitry? It’s ON, brother). He then opined that “this loss will hurt.”
I was struck by his apparent certainty that the Russians would go down. I tweeted back at him:
@dchesnokov Not trying to be a jerk here, but are you writing off your guys even though they pulled off those comebacks vs FIN/SWE?
He wrote me back:
@warwalker coming back from 3:0 against Canada will be Miracle on Ice part III
Before the period began, I wrote back to him one more time:
@dchesnokov Of course I hope you’re right, but things happen fast in junior hockey. I never thought Canada would come back in ’09.
No sooner had I hit the “post” button, it seemed, and Russia pumped home a goal. Then two. Not long after, there were three. You know the rest.
Ironically, TSN’s telecast began tonight with James Duthie taking viewers on a tour in the Team Canada dressing room. The tour ended in the vicinity of a quote from Aleksander Yakushev (a Russian player from the ’72 Summit Series) to the effect that Canadians “never stop” trying until they get what they want. It was a reminder for the players of what we like to see reflected in ourselves by way of our approach to this game, a tribute from a respected rival. The Russians have earned from us a tribute to their heart; their determination; their guts. Focussing on what happened on the Canadian side of the ice ignores and diminishes the significance of the accomplishment on the other bench. Russia, your guys played a hell of a period when the chips were down.
In the end, this was a game for the international junior hockey scrap book. For every collapse, there is a comeback. There are those who will want to make this about the failure of Team Canada rather than the success of Team Russia.
See it for what it was: the best of sport, both in the drama of the competition between two great rivals and in the dignity, class and respect for the game and their opponents that the losers showed in the aftermath.
* Oh relax, my American friends. It’s a joke. You know, like your team’s defence.