The Chase For World Junior Gold Should Be Kept In Perspective

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The chase for World Junior gold should be kept in perspective

It seems like life and death, and nobody can tell those young men chopped from Team Canada’s junior squad on Wednesday this wasn’t a big deal.

But perspective matters.

First, lots of very good players — great ones, actually — haven’t made the grade in years past, so it’s no shame.

Second, cast your mind, if you will, back to last year’s gold-medal game at the 2011 world junior championships in Buffalo.

A stunning five-goal, third period outburst by Russia left Team Canada shell-shocked and beaten, a defeat rubbed in by Russian forward Denis Golubev, who skated around the ice before time had even expired, taunting the disappointed Canadian fans.

But that wasn’t the most enduring memory.

It was seeing defenceman Yuri Urychev, undoubtedly noticing some of his teammates weren’t acting in the classiest fashion, circling the ice after the medal presentations, handing sticks to fans with a happy wave. He was a young man who understood that his greatest hockey joy didn’t have to be shoved in the faces of those who supported and cheered for his country’s most bitter hockey rival.

Urychev, sadly, was also one of those killed Sept. 7 in the shocking and tragic crash at Tunosha Airport near Yaroslavl, Russia, which claimed the entire Lokomotiv hockey club. Urychev wasn’t actually eligible for the road game Brad McCrimmon’s team was heading off to play that day, but he wanted to go anyway to cheer on his teammates.

Also on that flight was forward Daniil Sobchenko; he also one of those jubilant Russian teenagers who shocked the junior hockey world last winter.

So no, being cut from the Canadian national junior team shouldn’t be treated as a crushing setback for these kids. It’s a hiccup, a disappointment for young men from which they can and likely will recover.

For those 22 players that made it, there is jubilation, but undoubtedly also an immediate realization there’s a very tough job ahead as the longest home stand in hockey history comes to a close.

This may purport itself to be the world junior championships, but it’s become like a Jr. Canada Cup in some ways. Holding the event in Calgary and Edmonton this year marks the fourth straight year, and sixth year in eight, that Canada will have competed with all the advantages of the home team.

That’s not a true world tournament and not a level playing field.

Yes, there was last year in Buffalo and 2005 in Grand Forks, N.D., but those were for all intents and purposes home tournaments for Team Canada.

Next year, the tournament shifts to Ufa, Russia, and while the money is great when the tournament is held in Canada or near the Canadian border, it’s about time the IIHF began thinking a little more about the integrity of the event.

At least partially because of home ice advantage, Canada will be a solid bet to win it all again despite losing to the Russians last year and the U.S. two years ago in the Saskatoon gold-medal game.

It looks like a good team led up front by Mark Schiefele and a host of talented junior snipers, and the Hamilton brothers are a great story. Injuries to Jonathan Huberbeau, the MVP of last year’s Memorial Cup, and returning winger Quinton Howden are worrisome, and there’s no obvious leader as there was last year in Braydon Schenn.

More worrisome, however, would be the goaltending and the blueline. Sure, there’s talent. But despite the presence of Jared Cowan, Simon Depres, Ryan Ellis and Erik Gudbranson on the back end last year, the Canadians collapsed in the third, allowing five goals in 16 minutes and 11 seconds to blow a 3-0 lead.

This year, there are no returning defencemen, no vets with a sense of what this will be like. Mark Visentin is back in goal, but he was the victim of the Russian blitz and Canada has received weak netminding in the big game two years in a row.

So we’ll see how this group fares. One of the returning lads, Jaden Schwartz, was injured during the competition last year, and part of his story then were the medical problems of his hockey playing sister, Mandi, who was battling leukemia. She put up a brave fight but, despite public appeals for a bone marrow donor, she died in April at the age of 23.

She won’t get to see her brother play again over these holidays, and those Russian teenagers won’t get to watch from home as their countrymen go for two straight.

So incredibly sad.

Their families will miss them terribly at this time of year, and not because of the world junior hockey championships.

The only benefit, if any, can be if those left behind understand the value of sport and its correct place in our lives.

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