December 26. For some, it was Boxing Day, for others it was just a regular Thursday and for some it was World Juniors day. This year’s tournament was filled with storylines, from Canada’s quest to prove that they could once again top the podium, to the likely No. 1 pick Alexis Lafreniere’s scary knee injury and ultimate return.
Canada made it through the group stage with a 5-1 record which allowed them to face Slovakia in the quarter-finals. Their singular loss was a frustrating 6-0 game against Russia. The Russians were able to pin the Canadians in their own zone and expose their weaknesses to take the win. Canadian captain Barrett Hayton caused controversy both in Canada and abroad when he did not remove his helmet during the playing of the Russian national anthem. The Russian captain refused to shake Hayton’s hand after the game and pointed to the helmet. There were calls for him to be stripped of the captaincy and removed from the team by Canadian fans, but Hayton released an apology claiming that he forgot and meant no offense to the Russians.
Canada easily moved past Slovakia in the quarter finals and found themselves face to face with the reigning champions. It was Finland who sent the Canadians packing in the quarter-finals last year after a truly disastrous overtime period for the Canadians. Joel Hofer stopped 32 shots to shutout the Finns 5-0. Four quick goals in the first certainly didn’t hurt either. The Finns were left competing for bronze as the Canadians moved on to the gold medal game against the only team to have bested them in the entire tournament.
It seemed that they would be missing their captain, as Hayton was sent into the boards in the game against Finland and left the game. He was seen wearing a sling as early as the morning before the gold medal match. Yet, he was given the go-ahead to play in the final.
Canada and Russia have long been battling for hockey supremacy, it’s a rivalry that truly took root in the 1972 Summit Series between the two nations and has continued through every Olympics and World Championships.
It seemed that Russia would come out on top well into the third period. The first period was scoreless but the Russians came up with a power play goal halfway through the second. Dylan Cozens, the first Canadian from the Yukon to play in the World Juniors answered back but the Russians kept the goals coming. There were just over 10 minutes left in the game and with the Russians leading 3-1, faith was starting to waver — everywhere but on the ice in the Czech Republic, that is. The Canadians mounted a comeback. Connor McMichael cut the lead in half. Two minutes later the Russians took an ill-timed penalty and Barrett Hayton, who had not taken a decent shot in the entire game ripped a shot past the Russian goaltender to tie the game. It was revealed after the game that Hayton had been playing with a grade one shoulder separation, the least severe form of the injury but one that normally takes at least two weeks to heal.
Canada took the lead for the first time with 3:58 remaining when Akil Thomas, a 20 year old centre for the Niagara IceDogs, who was drafted 51st overall by the LA Kings, scored his first goal of the tournament after playing limited ice time.
As it turned out, Thomas’ goal would be the game winner and team Canada brought home their first gold medal since 2017.