For a nation that long dominated international hockey, Russia found itself in a drought during the 2000s. The World Junior Championship, a tournament the Soviet Union had ruled early on, was now largely the domain of Canada, which won five straight gold medals from 2005 to 2009, after having a previous five-year streak in the 1990s.
After winning back-to-back golds in 2002 and 2003, the Russians hit a Canadian roadblock, settling for silver three straight years, then bronze the next two. In 2010, the Russians suffered the indignity of losing in the quarterfinal to Switzerland, keeping them off the podium altogether and helping spawn the junior hockey legend of ‘El Nino’ Niederreiter.
So what would 2011 bring? The roster looked good, and the Russians had a new coach in Valeri Bragin, a veteran international bench boss who was born in the restricted city of Lesnoy, which made nuclear weapons during the Cold War.
While Canada had lost the previous WJC to the United States on John Carlson’s overtime goal in Saskatoon, the Canucks were still seen as a formidable squad for the 2011 installment in Buffalo. With thousands of fans streaming over the border from Southern Ontario, Canada was practically playing home games in the U.S., especially in the Boxing Day opener when they waxed Russia 6-3.
In the quarterfinal, the Russians almost got upset again, trailing Finland 2-0 in the third before forcing overtime, where Evgeny Kuznetsov scored the winner. In the semifinal, Russia needed a late goal in the third to push Sweden into overtime before beating the Tre Kronor in the shootout. In the meantime, Canada cruised to the final by crushing Switzerland 7-1 and beating the U.S. 4-1 in a revenge semifinal victory.
So the final was set between the juggernaut Canadians and the cardiac kids from Russia. The most important thing for the Russians? Learn from that Boxing Day blowout.
DMITRY ORLOV: (Team Russia defenseman) Sometimes at that level, you get too emotional. There’s a lot going on. At that time, it was probably the most important thing in our lives to get that gold medal.
NIKITA ZAITSEV: (Team Russia defenseman) We knew we could play with them, and that helped us.
ANDRE TOURIGNY: (Team Canada assistant coach) We were even keel, our focus was really good. We dominated most of the games in that tournament, maybe all of them, so we were confident. When we arrived at the tournament, we weren’t the favorite, everybody was talking about other countries, so we used that as motivation. We were well prepared.
RYAN ELLIS: (Team Canada defenseman) For me, the big test was getting by the United States in the semifinal. The tournament was in Buffalo, and they had used that to their advantage. But we come out for that game and it felt like 90 percent Canadians in the rink. We felt they were the next-best team besides us, and we knew them well. A lot of us played together, Jack Campbell lived in my billet house that year. We played a good game against them and won 4-1. We weren’t cocky, but we had a healthy confidence.
Canada came into the gold-medal game with a packed crowd of raucous Canadian fans and the tournament’s most dangerous player, center Brayden Schenn.
ORLOV: Schenn was good. Team Canada is always good in that tournament. We lost the first game of the tournament to them, and we wanted to give it back to them.
ZAITSEV: It was the loudest building I had ever been in, because we were kids. It’s the gold-medal game. We were excited.
EVGENY KUZNETSOV: (Team Russia center) For us, it was still pretty exciting. Even if the full crowd is against you, you still enjoy it. It’s still loud. That whole day was special for us. It had been a long time since Russia had won the gold medal, and we had the opportunity to beat Canada, the best team. Half of them were playing in the NHL already. Then we didn’t start the way we wanted to in those first two periods.
Canada got the ball rolling less than five minutes into the game after Russian defenseman Georgi Berdyukov took a hooking penalty. On the ensuing power play, Schenn found Ellis on a cross-ice pass that Ellis rifled home from the right faceoff dot.
ELLIS: Every year I played at the world juniors, the power play was a weapon. My first year, we had guys like John Tavares, Jordan Eberle and P.K. Subban, I think we were like 60 percent. Getting that lead early on the power play, there was a lot of emotion. Your whole career has culminated in trying to win this game.
KUZNETSOV: Every time you play against Canada, you think the referee is bad, because they make so many penalties on us! (laughs) It’s not really like that, but sometimes it happens because they always jump out pretty hard. They got the goal on the power play, but we knew we just had to wait and we’d have our chances.
It was Team Canada who struck again, though, as Carter Ashton won a battle in the corner behind the Russian net, then played give-and-go with Louis Leblanc. Ashton wristed a shot past goalie Dmitri Shikin to give Canada a 2-0 lead heading into the first intermission.
ORLOV: The game wasn’t over. We didn’t play our best, and the coaches came into the room and yelled at us to wake up.
We didn’t play our best. The coaches came into the room and yelled at us to wake up
– Dmitry Orlov, Team Russia
Early in the second, Schenn scored to give Canada a 3-0 lead. Shikin was pulled from the Russian net in favor of Anaheim Ducks prospect Igor Bobkov, and the two teams spent most of the second period trading power plays. Heading into the second intermission, Canadian goalie Mark Visentin, a Phoenix Coyotes first-rounder, had stopped all 17 shots he had faced. Russia’s coach, however, was far from rattled.
KUZNETSOV: Bragin was pretty solid. He was mad after the first period, but after the second he said, “That’s it, this guy’s done.” That’s what he said. “If you guys score once (on Visentin), they’re going to get nervous and everything will open up.” He’s one of those coaches I will always remember because at that time, I was 18 or 19 and you can miss the words the coach is saying. But you can actually listen to (Bragin), he’s legit.
ELLIS: Getting an early lead can be tricky. Because they were down 3-0, the Russians could play high-risk, high-reward hockey, because if they went down 4-0, would it really matter? They weren’t cheating on their (defensive) assignments, but they started to play a bit more wide open.
At the 2:33 mark of the third period, the Russians got their first goal thanks to an undrafted, unknown 19-year-old winger named Artemi Panarin, who picked up a rebound in the slot and popped it past Visentin.
KUZNETSOV: When you’re under 20, the game can change pretty quick. One shift, one goal. From 3-0 to 3-1 it’s still a good lead, but the other team has the momentum and the emotion. That’s why that tournament is so cool to watch because you never know what is going to happen the next shift. One goal can change everything. In the NHL, if you give up that one goal, you’re down a bit, but somehow you get back. It’s like boxing, when you get knocked down, you take your time to get up, you’re smart about it. When you’re under 20, you’re just going, going, going. You’re not thinking.
TOURIGNY: As soon as they scored, we didn’t feel any panic or urgency on the bench. You never want your team to panic, but you want to feel some urgency or concern. We just didn’t step up. We just stayed the course and we should have played with more urgency.
Just 12 seconds after the Panarin goal, Maxim Kitsyn, a Los Angeles Kings pick playing for OHL Mississauga, finished off a Kuznetsov rush to make the score 3-2.
ORLOV: We had to get going. Team Canada probably didn’t know what to do after we scored two quick ones. Sometimes it happens, one team scores a few quick and the other team starts struggling.
SZYMON SZEMBERG: (IIHF director of communications) Part of my job during the gold-medal game was to make sure that the all-star ballots were in from the media, then getting my crew to count them. In the beginning, I was paying attention to the game, but during the comeback I had to watch with one eye on the all-star counting. A couple of Hockey Canada officials were sitting nearby and they were obviously giddy early on. But in the third period, they could not believe what they were seeing.
Less than five minutes later, at 7:29 of the third period, St. Louis Blues first-rounder Vladimir Tarasenko scored to tie the game. Eight minutes after that, at 15:22 of the third, Panarin tallied his second to give Russia a shocking 4-3 lead.
ZAITSEV: We had a feeling we could make it. That’s the momentum of the game, we turned it another way. They just lost their confidence.
SZEMBERG: Once you have that momentum swing in hockey, there’s nothing you can do. Preach everything you preach as a coach, take all your timeouts, it doesn’t matter once the floodgates open. And Canada let the floodgates open by sitting back. That’s the worst thing you can do, to simply sit back.
ELLIS: In the NHL, your coaches talk about momentum and I never fully understood what it meant until that game. Once we lost the momentum, it was also like there was nothing we could do. Everything we did seemed to bite us.
Though Visentin was getting lit up with four goals on just nine shots in the third, he stayed in the Canadian net.
TOURIGNY: Mark was not the problem. He didn’t give up soft goals, they were legit goals. We had a timeout to try and break the momentum. (Coach) Dave (Cameron) talked about it, but on my side I did not feel it was on Mark to pay for it.
ELLIS: You’re going to make that push. We were all in a bit of shock, being up 3-0, then down 4-3. They got confident making their plays, and I think there was only five minutes left when they took the lead. When you don’t have much time, it’s tough to come back.
With 1:16 remaining in the game, Kuznetsov sprung Nikita Dvurechenski for a breakaway, which he promptly buried past Visentin to give Russia a 5-3 lead. It was the finishing touch on one of the most stunning comebacks in hockey history.
KUZNETSOV: I just rimmed it around. I threw the puck out of our zone, and our guy was pretty fast. He got a breakaway and scored. After that goal was probably when we understood that this was really happening.
ZAITSEV: I still can’t believe it, the Dvurechenski goal. After that, we were confident we would win.
ORLOV: When we scored that, we knew we were going to win. We were so pumped emotionally. We did everything we could to come back and win the tournament.
What I like about those moments is you’ll remember them forever. That happens rarely
– Evgeny Kuznetsov, Team Russia
TOURIGNY: I will tell you, Tarasenko and Kuznetsov were really damn good. They were tough to play against and they led the way. Panarin was good, too, but those two guys were the lead dogs. We didn’t know much about Panarin. I had coached against Tarasenko and Kuznetsov before.
Canada could not come back. The final faceoff came in the defensive zone, with the Russians barely containing their excitement on the bench before streaming off when the final buzzer sounded.
KUZNETSOV: What I like about those moments is you’ll remember them forever. That happens rarely in your life. You see guys who don’t know what to do, they’re so happy. You live for those moments.
ZAITSEV: Just craziness. Unbelievable emotions. I had never felt that way before, it was probably one of the best days of my life.
SZEMBERG: This was a special team. They were virtually out in the quarterfinal against Finland. After that, they were on a mission. You can talk all you want about Canadian superiority, but this Russian team had character.
TOURIGNY: For 40 minutes we were in full control, we were dominating every aspect of the game. Give them a lot of credit. They came back in the quarterfinal, they came back in the semifinal and they did it again in the final. But on our side, we lost our focus a little bit…or a lot. It seemed like we had nothing in the tank in the third. If you look at the shots after two periods, I wouldn’t be shocked if we were doubling them. We were in full control of that game. We had a power play to start the third period, too. That was probably where we lost our momentum. We weren’t very good on that power play and they got a scoring chance on their PK. From there, we were not the same team.
ELLIS: It took a second to realize what happened. It was tough. Being a kid, you work your whole life for that gold medal, and it gets snatched out of your hands in one 20-minute period. But I think it made us all better in the long run. You appreciate the ups and downs that much more.
TOURIGNY: You’re dead. What do you want to say? I’ve never been good at that. Five minutes ago you were fighting for your life, now you want to talk to them and say something emotional and really cool, but in reality your head is not there and you’re not prepared. You don’t know what to say. Less is more, I think.
PYOTR KOCHETKOV: (2019 WJC bronze medallist with Team Russia) I watched that game with my entire family. It would be crazy not to remember it. It’s one of those once-in-a-lifetime games. It proved something for our country and that team. I almost felt like I was playing because of the emotions in that game.
VASILI PODKOLZIN: (2019 WJC bronze medallist with Team Russia) After that game, I got that spark to play for the world-junior team and play for Bragin. Kuznetsov was my favorite player. That rivalry resonates with every Russian. It’s pretty much a war. Every one of my family members watched me at the world juniors on New Year’s Eve. It’s crazy. Probably one of the most important games in my life.
While the comeback was remarkable, the headlines didn’t end with the medal. When the Russians boarded their flight, they were seen as being a little too jubilant and were kicked off the plane, forcing them to stay an extra day in Buffalo.
SZEMBERG: Once the players leave the building after the final game, they are no longer the responsibility of the IIHF. From there it’s up to the Russian Hockey Federation.
ORLOV: Some guys were already on the plane, myself included. I had my headphones on, trying to get some sleep, then my teammates picked me up and told me we were getting kicked out. Some people said they didn’t want to fly with us. Doesn’t matter for us, we were still celebrating. It gave us an extra day.
ZAITSEV: I was on the plane, too. And they said we gotta get out. It was actually better not flying out right away. We got to spend one more day with each other and have fun.
KUZNETSOV: In Russia you’re allowed to drink if you’re 18 or 19. In the U.S. it’s 21, right? We didn’t know about that. (laughs) Nobody cares about that. I think they just messed with us. I don’t think we did anything bad. A couple guys walked on the plane, and a few people said, “We don’t want to be on with these guys, they’re going to be loud,” or whatever. You know, we were kids celebrating a win. But I loved the response from our coach. He said, “It’s fine. Get pizza and beer and go back to the hotel.” That’s the coach you play for. When he’s telling us, “Go to sleep at 11, wake up at seven, practice hard and one day it’ll pay back.” That day happened. And in a tough situation, the coach ordered pizza and beer for us. We had the pool at the hotel, and we just spent the night. I was surprised, the next day we were more drunk than the day before, but they let us on the plane.
SZEMBERG: Me and IIHF president Rene Fasel were scheduled to go to Montreal the next day for a Penguins-Canadiens game. We came into the Bell Centre press room and many of the reporters wanted to talk to Fasel, not about the game or the tournament, but about the state of the Russian players after the game.
Eventually the Russians did get home, and they would always have their gold medals. Despite having a great run under Bragin, the team hasn’t won the World Junior Championship again since that incredible 2011 tournament.
SZEMBERG: Russia was always more inspired when they can win gold on North American ice. This was perfect for them, because the tournament was in America, but everybody knew a lot of fans were coming from Canada.
ZAITSEV: We played Russian hockey. Lots of skill. The most important thing was team-building. All of Bragin’s teams are really close to each other with a great climate. We’d be together every day, 25 guys in one room in the hotel playing cards or something. Together, always as a group, as one piece. That month before the tournament, you get so close. That’s the most important thing about junior tournaments, it’s not about systems. Of course we had so many skill guys and unreal players, but without that closeness, we don’t win anything. We had confidence, and that’s why we made the comeback. We also had a really good group of people, we were all friends. There was a really good climate in the room. It was all together. Everybody was the same, and I think that’s why we won.