For the first time since 2009, Canada can lay claim to the World Junior Championship. Canada did not trail in a game for a second in the tournament, but when it looked as though that might happen, the players and coaches rallied and kept their wits about them.
As it turns out, we may never learn what Curtis Lazar looks like without a smile on his face. This one, you would think, will last a pretty long time.
Shedding five years of ignominy for your country will tend to do that to a guy, particularly one as optimistic as Lazar. The kid who came into Canada’s camp late, was named captain and provided much of the spark for the Canadian team was talking about filling his junior resume with a gold medal, which came when Canada defeated Russia 5-4 in yet another classic game between these two hockey superpowers.
It was pointed out that with a gold medal in the World Under-18 championship and a Memorial Cup with the Edmonton Oil Kings, his junior hockey trophy case is now full.
“Now I can start going after Lord Stanley,” Lazar said.
Lazar’s NHL rights are owned by the Ottawa Senators, so good luck with that one, at least in the short-term. By Tuesday night, Lazar will be in Philadelphia, probably watching, but perhaps playing with his NHL teammates. Others from this Canadian team will follow him to the NHL, some will become stars in their own rights and will win Stanley Cups and perhaps Olympic gold medals if the NHL keeps sending its players. Some of them, and we don’t know which ones at the moment, will probably never have much of an NHL career, which means winning the gold medal for Canada in this event will represent the pinnacle of their hockey careers.
But these players all gave themselves the best chance at success, and that will serve them well regardless of how far they get in the game. And they did so by taking the pressure they faced playing on home ice and trying to end a long streak of futility. What concerned a lot of people about this team was how it would react to adversity and since Canada had faced none going into the tournament, nobody knew how it would react. When the Russians scored three times to narrow the gap to 5-4 in the second period, the early returns were not promising.
But great teams, great players and great coaches manage pressure and that’s what they did. Coach Benoit Groulx called a timeout and instead of berating his players, he said three words. They were: ‘Tic-tac-tao.’ The players laughed and realized they were playing a game, Groulx told them to go and have some fun and it worked brilliantly. Groulx compared his team to the Canadian team that won gold 10 months ago in Sochi and held them to the same standard, when it came to handling the pressure they would face.
“Our message to our players was very simple,” Groulx said. “I said, ‘These guys wanted to win the gold medal, so look at what they did to achieve that. You guys are the best players in our country. Exactly like them, the only difference is they’re pro and you’re junior. But you’re still the best. Let’s do it.’ That team in Sochi was unbelievable and I think our team was pretty good, too.”
The ‘tic-tac-tao’ mantra came early in the process when Groulx, who speaks both of Canada’s official languages, mispronounced the last word when he meant to say tic-tac-toe, referring to how he wanted his team to move the puck. Some of the players laughed and somehow it took on a life of its own. (Maybe there was more to it, though. After all, Tao has a much deeper significance and means “the path” or “the way” in Chinese. Perhaps Groulx was having them on all along and it was part of his plan. Or not.)
“When (Groulx) said it the first time, I don’t think he thought it was very funny,” said Jake Virtanen, “but we did.”
So when Groulx needed to calm down a bunch of teenagers caught in a tsunami of a momentum swing against them, he made a joke on the bench of the very thing he didn’t find particularly funny a month previous to that. Connor McDavid, who had scored to put Canada up 3-1 early in the period, tried to stifle a chuckle. But it caught on and the Canadian players managed to use that bit of humor to deflect all the pressure they were facing.
“It’s amazing how something as silly as that will do in a pressure game,” Lazar said. “You could the mood just changed. We just exhaled. That’s exactly what we needed.”
For Lazar, though, it gave him the sense of perspective to allow him to realize that, even on the biggest stage of his life in the midst of the biggest moment of his life, he was living a dream that only a miniscule fraction of the world ever gets to experience.
“In the end, it’s a game. It’s a game we love,” Lazar said. “The fans love it, we love it, the refs love it and that’s why we’re all out here competing and having fun. That’s why I always have a smile on my face. I’m fortunate with the life I have. I get to play the game every day and make a living from it.”
It is a fun game. So is X’s and O’s. And you can bet that there are 22 young men and a couple of coaches who will never be able to play it again without calling it ‘tic-tac-tao.’