VANCOUVER - The best thing about the rivalry between Canada and Russia at the World Junior Championship is that it is always relevant. One or both teams are always in contention for the gold medal and even the round robin games kick up an electric spark. Canadians didn’t really know what Russians could do before the 1972 Summit Series, but ever since, the international stage has been a large one for the two hockey powers. At the world juniors, both sides can claim incredible victories and each generation can remember a conquest.
Canada took gold over Russia in 2015 for example, holding off a furious comeback from their rivals to win on home ice in Toronto. But Russia did the heartbreaking in 2011, as Evgeny Kuznetsov and Artemi Panarin helped their squad score five unanswered goals in the third period to win 5-3. And, of course, before that, Jordan Eberle helped send Canada through to the final in 2009 when he scored on the Russians with 5.4 seconds in the semi, forcing overtime in an eventual Canadian shootout victory.
But what’s it like to actually play in those games?
Edmonton Oilers superstar Connor McDavid won gold in 2015 and notes that the language barrier does nothing to prevent a healthy displeasure between the teams.
“There are some universal words,” McDavid said. “But it’s more about the gestures with them. They’ll flip their jersey after they score and they love skating past your bench.”
For Florida Panthers winger Evgenii Dadonov, playing Canada on home ice - which he did in 2009 when the tournament was held in Ottawa - brings a challenge made all the more daunting by the fact the Canadians tend to blast out of the gates against the Russians.
“What I remember is that Canada always had a huge push at the start of the game – the first 10 minutes were the most important,” Dadonov said. “It’s always tough. Canada is always good. When I played there, I think Canada had won a couple in a row, so it was a huge preparation for that game. It’s been like that for many years, right?”
The respect goes both ways. Toronto Maple Leafs winger Tyler Ennis happened to be on that 2009 team against Dadonov (and with Eberle) and he puts to bed the notion that these teams are opposites.
“I just remember intensity,” Ennis said. “Russia maybe has the label of being skill guys, but they compete hard - they hit and they’re tough to play against. I remember it being two countries, two teams that just wanted to win so bad.”
This year, Canada and Russia once again meet on New Year’s Eve in a crucial game that will finalize the pool rankings and determine which opponents the two rivals will have to face in the quarterfinal. The winner takes first and gets a much easier crossover opponent. Russia is coming off a 7-4 triumph over Switzerland that was equal parts entertaining and bewildering: not only did the Swiss get two penalty shots off one breakaway (Oilers pick Dmitri Samorukov brought down Marco Lehmann twice in the same sequence), but Ivan Muranov was ejected for a sneaky butt-end.
Even after being down 2-0 early, the Russians’ skill up front was too much, though the defense corps was wonky. “The first 10 minutes was nervous, a bad start for us,” said captain and St. Louis Blues prospect Klim Kostin. “But after the first we talked about it in the room and said ‘let’s go boys, wake up. Keep shooting, keep scoring - that’s our game.' ”
Kostin is one of a handful of players on Russia’s team who plays in North America. Now in his second season with the AHL’s San Antonio Rampage, he has many Canadian teammates, including Jordan Kyrou, who helped Canada win gold last year in Buffalo. But once that national jersey gets pulled on, the rivalry fire takes over.
“Outside the rink, we’re friends,” Kostin said. “Inside the rink, the Canada guys and me are not friends. It’s a fight on the ice.”