ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. – There’s a very good reason why we all love hockey so much. That’s because, with all due respect to soccer, it’s a beautiful game. And the best thing about it is that the beauty and brutal artistry of the game so often shine through, often in spite of those who run it.
Exhibit No. Infinity: The World Junior Outdoor Cash Grab of Hockey™, which was staged Friday afternoon on a football field in suburban Buffalo. The players were the stars of this show, playing through impossible conditions and salvaging what could have, should have, been a complete abomination. The American players, in particular, showed the kind of heart that some jingoistic hockey fans think is monopolized by Canadian players, to win the game in a shootout by a 4-3 margin. It certainly wasn’t a classic by any stretch of the imagination, but in the end it was entertaining and compelling and against the backdrop of a snowstorm was memorable.
And for that, the players should be commended. And blamed. Because if there’s anything that fuels this kind of thing it’s the fact that the people who run it always seem to know they can dodge a bullet, so they go to the same well over and over and over again. Because this one worked, you can bet your bottom dollar that outdoor games will become a staple in this event because they generate tons of money for everyone involved with the exception of the players. They will continue to put the players’ safety at risk with bad ice and they will carry on playing these incredibly important games against the backdrop of a sideshow. So it was only fitting that a game played under those conditions would be decided by a hockey novelty.
The notion that the World Junior Championship is not a cash grab on the backs of teenagers with NHL dreams has pretty much already been shattered. And it was officially obliterated with this outdoor game, one that was played by American players who sported an advertisement on the arms of their sweaters for Connors and Ferris LLP, who bill themselves as “Your workers comp attorneys.” (Up next: Boomer’s Bail Bonds. “When you’re in legal doom, call The Boom.”) The American team stepped on the outdoor ice some 16 hours after being placed in the late game Thursday night by its own federation. And instead of sapping the team of energy after a demoralizing 3-2 loss to Slovakia, it gave the young men a chance to quickly redeem themselves.
“It was a great thing,” USA coach Bob Motzko said of the quick turnaround.
More validation for those who organized this circus. “I thought it was great for hockey,” Motzko continued. “You take out the importance of the game for a World Junior tournament…supporting the sport in our country, that had to have played out great and great job by USA Hockey. I was a skeptic at first. I love it now.”
That was generally the sentiment of both teams in the game, who saw it as a unique opportunity to play in front of 44,592, thousands of whom came very late in the game because of an accident that closed the main artery into Buffalo from southern Ontario. With its loss to Slovakia, the Americans needed this one a lot more than the Canadian team, which will still win its group after it beats Denmark in regulation time Saturday night. That feat could have been accomplished if the Canadian team had generated more than 11 shots in the second and third periods after taking a 2-0 lead into the first intermission. The American team, by contrast, kept pressing and did not allow itself to be defeated, despite the fact that it faced accumulating snow and a two-goal deficit when it came out for the third.
“We wanted this badly,” said Kieffer Bellows, who scored a goal in regulation and in the shootout. “Guys were motivated the second that game ended last night. We knew we wanted to bounce back today and get a win. We were ready this morning. You could see it at breakfast. Everyone had that feeling, that look in their eye that this was important to us.”
It helped that 10 players on the ice for the Americans grew up in Minnesota, a place where they actually do play outdoor hockey on ponds in less-than-ideal ice conditions. They certainly didn’t pose much of a problem for Buffalo Sabres prospect and Edina product Casey Mittelstadt, whose wizardry with the puck was reminiscent of Clayton Keller’s mastery over the tournament last year. Mittelstadt had three assists in the game, two of them on eye-popping passes that should have been impossible in that kind of snow. Motzko shuffled his lines and placed 2018 draft prospect Brady Tkachuk with Mittelstadt and the two displayed an enormous amount of chemistry. (Note to the Buffalo Sabres: If Tkachuk is available when you’re picking in the top five, again, you might want to seriously consider taking him.)
For Canada, the defeat wasn’t nearly as stinging as it was a shot in the arm for the Americans. In fact, it almost certainly won’t affect their standing going into the playoff round. Canada’s biggest shortcomings in the game were that it played way too safe in the third period and it was far too undisciplined. In fact, you could argue the complexion of the game changed completely when the Americans closed the gap to 3-2 with a power play goal, which came after Maxime Comtois took a completely avoidable boarding penalty. “We said in the second intermission, ‘If we can get one, we’re going to get two,’ ” Motzko said. And that’s exactly what happened.
Asked if a lack of discipline and keeping its emotions in check is a concern for the Canadian team going forward, Canadian coach Dominque Ducharme said emphatically, “It won’t be. It won't be. I can guarantee you that for sure.”