EDMONTON — You can’t practise pressure.
Those were the words head coach Dave Cameron used on the eve of the 2022 World Junior Championship’s gold-medal game, as he envisioned the situation awaiting his team. Well, Saturday night, out on the ice at Rogers Place with the lights beaming down, his team came face-to-face with that pressure, walked right through it, and touched history.
After the heartbreak that spilled across this ice in the world junior finale 19 months ago, Canada is golden once again.
“It means the world to all of us,” said Kent Johnson half an hour after he’d put away the golden goal that sealed the victory. “It’s been a crazy last eight months. Everyone just wanted it so bad, and we’re so glad.”
Reclaiming the crown didn’t come easy, though.
After a nervous start from both sides that saw pucks bouncing off sticks and shots flying wide, it was the captain, Mason McTavish, who settled his team down, as he has all tournament. Intercepting a puck along the left wall midway through the opening period, the Anaheim Ducks prospect showed some veteran poise as he patiently wheeled around the Finnish net and got a shot off, leading to a rebound tucked in by linemate Joshua Roy.
Defender Olen Zellweger and winger William Dufour added another for Canada a minute into the second period, linking up on a beautiful play that saw Zellweger weave up ice and drop the puck to Dufour, who pulled off a curl-and-drag wrister that fluttered the twine.
But the Finns weren’t content to let the red and white coast to a 2-0 win on home soil. In the third, they mounted an attack of their own, Aleksi Heimosalmi and Joakim Kemell both sniping in a six-minute span to erase Canada’s lead, heaping all the pressure back onto the host nation’s shoulders. The deadlock held as 60 minutes expired, forcing both sides into a do-or-die, three-on-three overtime for the gold.
Two minutes into the extra frame, it all looked over for Canada.
Three blue and white jerseys descended on netminder Dylan Garand, with a lone defender in front of him. An initial shot was gloved, but soon the puck was back on a Finnish stick in the slot, with all the time in the world.
The shot came, the puck flipped over Garand, but at the last minute, as it seemed destined to end this 2022 tournament, Canada’s MVP intervened, batting the puck out of mid-air and clearing it off the goal line.
“That was the best play of OT,” Johnson said of The Save — high praise coming from the man who finished with the game-winner.
Said Garand, equally stunned by McTavish’s heroics: “I can’t believe he saved it. Save of the year.”
Asked how he’d rate McTavish’s save given his elite understanding of technique in the cage, the netminder cracked a wide grin: “Best I’ve ever seen.”
The man who authored that historic play was just as flummoxed by the wild turn of events as his teammates.
“It was pretty crazy, my stick was just in the right place, right time I guess,” McTavish said after the chaotic game had wrapped up.
“I don’t even know why I was behind our goalie, just thinking about that now,” he added with a chuckle. “Probably not the best positioning, but I guess it worked out.”
In the end, it was Johnson who stepped up and finished things off, linemate Logan Stankoven hitting him with a spinning backhand pass, Johnson sticking with the play at the netfront until he’d finally wired the puck into the cage to clinch gold.
“I remember the puck going over to Kent and I think he missed on the first chance but then he got the rebound, and everybody just went nuts,” Stankoven said of the winning play, marvelling at the thunderous crowd who showed up for the tournament’s finale. “He had that wide open net and he put it in — the rest is just one of those things where you black out. It was unbelievable.”
Soon after, once the mess of sticks and gloves had been pushed aside, once the Canadians had gotten all of their cheering out of them, the 2022 squad hoisted their trophy high, got their medals hung around their necks, and took a moment to celebrate the tournament’s MVP, McTavish.
It was never going to be anyone else, not after a run that saw the young centreman lead the 2022 tournament in scoring by a hefty margin, not after he put up a point in every game of this golden stretch and came up with the play that kept his team’s dream alive.
Certainly not after he put himself into historic company, tying legends Wayne Gretzky and Eric Lindros for the most points ever amassed in one world junior tournament.
Asked what the captain meant to this group, to what they were able to do here, Johnson summed it up aptly.
“Just about everything,” he said. “Great leader, great teammate, great player.”
“The most amazing thing about Mason is that of all the guys that didn’t come, he probably had the best reason not to,” Cameron added, referring to the monstrous season McTavish just endured in the OHL, AHL, NHL, and at the 2022 Winter Olympic Games. “He had to talk his NHL team into letting him come. That says everything about Mason McTavish.“
To hear it from him, he was never going to miss it.
One night ago, the captain had stood in the bowels of Rogers Place in his Canada sweater, a white “C” stitched to his chest, and took a moment to reflect on what it would mean to get to this point. What it would mean to raise that trophy, to hear that anthem, to have that medal draped around his neck.
“It’s something special,” he’d said then, a fire in his eyes. “You know, it’s why you play the game. Every kid dreams about the gold-medal game.”
Now, for a new generation of young Canadians, when they dream those golden dreams they’ll remember McTavish. His arms raised, his gloves flying, the crowd on its feet. They’ll remember the black jerseys piling on Garand at one end of the sheet, and then lined up single file, gold glinting over their maple leaf-adorned chests.
They’ll remember this team, champions once again.