I’ve seen strange things at this tournament. Great teams disappointing and talented players falling flat: Happens every year. Mouses roaring and mighty upsets: Ditto. And then there was Canada losing the seventh-place game to Kazakhstan in 1998. That’s the strangest thing I’ve ever seen at this tournament or, for that matter, anywhere else. And it’s not even close for second place.
Your Honour, I’d like to submit into evidence Exhibit No. 1, the box score from the game courtesy of Hockey Canada. No, Your Honour, there is no video from the game. The game was played in Hameenlinna, two hours north of Helsinki and conflicted with the gold-medal final between the host Finns and Russia. TSN opted to broadcast Finland’s 2-1 over the Russia and thus spared the teenage Canadians greater shame. If Hockey Canada had video of the game, it was passed through the shredder. Twice.
How weird was it? Let me just start to list the ways.
1. Look down at the bottom of that box score. The Kazakhs’ first-string goalie was a guy named Vjatcheslav Tregubov. I asked one NHL scout before the game for the book on Tregubov. The scout tried to be polite. “Hard to hit,” he said. Well, at that point, with relegation already safely avoided and with Tregubov puck-weary by the tournament’s final game, the Kazakh coaches decided to go with their back-up netminder. Yup, Roman Krivomazov, the second-best goaltender in a country with ten rinks, turned aside 40 of the first 42 shots mustered by the Canadians.
2. Many of the Kazakhs skaters wore mismatched skates. There were only a half dozen spare sticks on the bench. There was no help with translating so it wasn’t possible to find out if Krivomazov got the newer set of pads and the least worn glove and blocker when he landed the assignment. The trainer appeared to be sans equipment–there weren’t even water bottles to fill. It seemed his job entirely consisted of slicing oranges.
3. The shots on goal more accurately reflected the balance of play that the score. In the first 34 minutes, Canada would control the puck for two or three shifts at a time and pepper Krivomazov–but it was like Ali’s Rope-a-Dope. The Canadians seemed almost punched out and when the Kazakhs picked up the puck they broke the other way where any shot that was drifted at Mathieu Garon found the net. (Until he was yanked at 14 minutes of the second period in favour of Roberto Luongo, Garon was the one who was hard to hit, eight shots, four saves.)
4. Any junior hockey fan knows that Canada finished a worst-ever eighth. It could have been worse. It was that year that the IIHF went to a ten-team format. Previously the world under-20s were an eight-team tournament–so in previous years Canada would have been relegated with an eight-place finish. A narrow win over Germany was the only thing that spared our country relegation in the expanded format–and it spared the IIHF a huge headache, given that Canada was already skedded to host the world juniors the following season.
5. Kazakhstan’s Nikolai Antropov picked up three wizardly assists and soundly out-played Vincent Lecavalier who would go on to be the first overall pick in the 1998 draft.
6. The Kazakhs had a player named Xandopulo. I hoped he’d make it. When you’re putting together your best-ever teams alphabetically you always get stuck at X. The Xavier brothers Frank and Tom managed to play five minor pro games fifty years back but after that it’s slim pickings.
7. The Canadian dressing room was in near-riot mode between periods. Hurled hardware and profanities not found in any Hockey Canada coaching guidebook.
8. If you look at the roster it doesn’t look like the best Canadian team … but it doesn’t look like the worst. Luongo (although a back-up). Eric Brewer was an Olympian not that long after. Vinny would become The Man on a team that would win the Cup. Alex Tanguay would get a Cup as well. Yeah, there are a few where-are-they-nows–e.g. Zenith Komarniski, the man who coughed the puck up on Russia’s overtime winner in the quarter-finals. Still, there was no reason to think that this was a very weak year for Canada.
9. After that quarter-final three Canadian players–Josh Holden, Brad Ference and Brian Willsie–were benched in a loss to the U.S. that sent the team down to the seventh-place game. Word was that they had been late for meetings and that it was a trend with team, that discipline was hardly complete. “What happens on the ice carries over onto the ice,” Jesse Wallin, the Canadian captain, told me at the time. At that point Wallin was on crutches after breaking an ankle in an opening-round game.
10. The attendance for this infamous game: 169. I can name half of them–those being NHL scouts. Everybody liked Antropov (including Anders Hedberg who was probably the loudest voice when the Leafs put together their draft list). Everyone could see that Antropov was an average-to-below-average skater but I think that most if not all those scouts in Hameenlinna would have banked on Antropov having made a better transition to the NHL–although, in fairness, his development was compromised by the Leafs rushing him and injuries suffered when he wasn’t yet ready for the NHL game.
Ah, there was all of that and so much more including a slight hang-over by this witness, Your Honour. I won’t see anything like that when Canada plays the lowly Kazakhs in what promises to be the worst game in tournament this afternoon. (The Kazakhs lost to Germany 8-0 yesterday.) And I suspect that I won’t see anything like the debacle in Hameenlinna ever again. Thank God.