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WJC quarterfinal loss a crippling blow for Canada, a triumph for the international game

Canada's defeat will sting for the nation that cares most about the World Junior Championship, but it's a sign of great growth in the international game that the longtime tournament powerhouse can no longer walk all over the competition.

Art Berglund was born in Fort Frances, Ont., a place that has long winters and, if you remove Tim and Neil Sheehy – who were born there, but grew up in Minnesota – has produced seven players who played in the NHL. That’s pretty darn good for a town that size. After Berglund went off to play at Colorado College, he became an executive with USA Hockey, where he forged a career that earned him induction into the International Ice Hockey Federation’s Hall of Fame. Reflecting on his native country stumbling at an international tournament in the 1980s, Berglund made a keen observation.

“Canada gave the world a wonderful game,” Berglund said. “But other countries can play it, too.’’

Canadian hockey fans and observers who may be looking for some perspective after watching their team fall 2-1 in overtime in the quarterfinal of the World Junior Championship Wednesday night would be well-advised to heed those words in the coming days and months. If you’re looking for someone to blame for this, have a go at former NHL defenseman Carl Brewer, the man who led the charge to get Alan Eagleson kicked out of the Hockey Hall of Fame. During his four-year hiatus from the NHL, Brewer was a player-coach in the 1968-69 season for IFK Helsinki – exactly 50 years ago – and sowed the seeds that have helped Finland become a hockey power. He’s in the Finnish Hockey Hall of Fame and his picture still has a prominent place in IFK Helsinki’s home arena.

This will long be remembered by Canadians as a junior team that was simply not good enough. The defeat may have come as a surprise to Canadian fans who expect their team to be in serious contention for medals every year, but it did not to NHL scouts who have followed this age group of players. There was not enough offense, there were some very questionable coaching decisions and it was a team that relied far too heavily on its goaltender. Including the pre-tournament games, it played eight times. It barely defeated Switzerland twice, demolished Denmark and handily beat Slovakia and the Czech Republic. It lost twice to Finland and once to Russia, which means it did not beat a single top-five hockey power. Not sure that’s ever happened before. Canada will finish sixth in this tournament behind the four semifinalists and Sweden, which is ugly no matter which way you slice it. Perhaps this team should not have won gold, but it still underachieved in spectacular fashion.

Until the quarterfinal, Finland was not much better, which combined with Sweden’s loss in another quarterfinal, gives you a pretty good idea of how meaningless the preliminary round of this tournament is. But Finland was very, very good when it had to be and Canada came up woefully short. Undoubtedly, Hockey Canada, which more than does its part to contribute to the white-hot pressure this team annually faces in this tournament, will spend the next couple of days telling us these are just teenage boys and fans should not place such enormous expectations on them.

Which brings us to Finland, the little country that plays with a lion on its chest and with the heart of a lion. There are some pretty wonderful things happening for the Finns of late. A country that once seemed to be a major producer of goalies has cultivated some dazzling and explosive offensive stars, both in the NHL and the junior ranks. According to the IIHF’s own figures, Canada has almost 10 times as many players as Finland (637,000 to 73,374), more than 10 times the number of indoor rinks (3,300 to 268) and almost seven times as many people (36.7 million to 5.5 million). For this country to even be able to compete with a powerhouse such as Canada is impressive, that it is able to defeat it every once in a while borders on mind-boggling.

It’s a testament to the Finns and the way they’ve approached their development. Teemu Selanne, who was fairly proficient at putting the puck in the back of the net in his day, has a school for elite Finnish teenagers where the sole purpose is to better teach them to be better goalscorers. But more than anything, it’s how this country approaches the game. It does so with a strange brew of humility, tenacity and pride, which makes it a tough out for its opponents at best, an upset-in-the-making at worst.

The 2019 World Junior Championship will be remembered as nothing short of a disaster of biblical proportions for the country that cares most about it. But perhaps once that subsides, they may see it for what it is: a triumph for the sport as a whole. Canada, a country that has twice had runs of five straight gold medals, no longer owns this tournament, even though the event is heavily skewed in its favor by being played there every other year. Other countries have joined the party and that’s a great thing. After all, as Art Berglund said, Canada gave the world a wonderful game, but other countries can play it, too.

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