World Juniors: How a hunch and a helping of determination led to Akil Thomas' gold medal moment

He was a fourth-liner for the majority of the tournament, but coach Dale Hunter's gut feeling led to Akil Thomas' late shift in the gold medal game. The rest is history.
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OSTRAVA, Czech Republic – How do you stop a Big Red Machine? A nice helping of grit always helps.

Team Canada won gold at the 2020 World Junior Championship thanks to an instant-classic score by Los Angeles Kings prospect Akil Thomas, but it took the whole roster to dispatch an incredibly strong Russian team in the 4-3 nail-biter.

Hockey teams love to talk about the adversity they face, but in this case it was warranted. A parade to the penalty box in the first period had Canada in dangerous territory and the Canucks were fortunate to come out of the frame with the game tied 0-0. Big efforts by goalie Joel Hofer (STL) and forwards such as Joe Veleno (DET) and Liam Foudy (CBJ) kept the puck out of the net, while excellent detail plays from the likes of Ty Dellandrea (DAL) and Aidan Dudas (LA) were noticeable throughout the early going.

“Our penalty-kill was huge for us,” said Buffalo pick Dylan Cozens. “We gained momentum off that and we just rolled with it.”

Dudas in particular was interesting because he was recovering from a hand injury just before the tournament. Team Canada gave him as much time as he needed to get healthy and it became very apparent in the gold-medal game why they wanted him so fiercely.

“Any team that wins something – a Stanley Cup, a world juniors – they all have a guy like Aidan Dudas: a guy who can do anything,” Thomas said. “Competes hard, wins battles, he’s fast, he’s relentless and he’s just a winner. We’re a whole team of winners. No one was selfish, everyone bought in and that’s why I’m not surprised we have the gold medal around our necks.”

And keeping Russia at bay was no easy feat. I believe we’ll look back at this silver-medal squad in 10 years and marvel at all the NHL talent that was stuffed onto the roster, which meant Canada had to play its best game of the tournament, by far.

“They were really good,” Cozens said. “The way they moved the puck up the ice, their systems, their structure, was really good. We knew we had to get pucks behind them, work their ‘D,’ tire them out and manage the puck in the offensive zone.”

But Russia couldn’t distance itself enough. Canada quickly scored after Russia made it 3-1 in the third period and captain Barrett Hayton, target of Russia’s ire for the round-robin helmet debacle, fired a rocket minutes later to tie the game. The fact the Arizona Coyotes rookie could even wield a stick was pretty amazing, considering how rough his shoulder looked after he was dumped into the boards by Finland’s Lassi Thomson the day before in the semifinal.

“He was the captain for a reason,” said Columbus pick Liam Foudy. “A lot of guys wouldn’t even have played today. He powered through and scored an amazing goal for us and helped us a lot.”

So...did Hayton even think he would make it to the gold-medal game?

“Obviously I didn’t want to miss this game for anything,” he said. “That being said, I didn’t really know. The medical staff did an unbelievable job and I owe it to them for giving me this opportunity to play.”

It was certainly an eventful world juniors for the talented center. On top of the helmet controversy and the injury, Hayton also took an ill-advised holding-the-stick penalty in the first period against Russia. But that’s all history now that the tourney is over.

“It’s pretty crazy that it’s only been 11 days,” Hayton said. “It felt so long, it’s been so unbelievable. There were ups and downs, some adversity in there, but at the end of the day that helps you in a high-emotion game like this. It’s unreal to finish like this.”

And of course, there wouldn’t have been a happy ending without Thomas, who picked a great time to score his first goal of the tournament. Chasing down a puck that was getting perilously close to Russian netminder Amir Miftakhov, Thomas made a jaw-dropping move to corral it, then roof it over the prone goaltender.

“When I don’t have space – for me, when in doubt, I go backhand,” he said. “I think that was the right play for that moment and it worked.”

Coach Dale Hunter said he had a hunch about getting Thomas out there late in a tie game and sure enough, it paid off.

“He was skating well,” Hunter said. “He was playing very well the past few games. We could see him improving; he was killing penalties for us, he was doing the little things – he blocked a big shot – and when you do that, you’re rewarded back.”

And that’s the funny thing about the fairytale ending: Thomas had basically been a fourth-liner the whole tournament, often taking shifts late in blowouts with the likes of Quinton Byfield and Dawson Mercer, two 2020 draft prospects with minimal roles on the team. Luckily, he kept at it.

“The guys who didn’t play that much for our team are first-liners on their CHL team or wherever they play,” Thomas said. “No one had a bad attitude. A guy like Olivier Rodrigue, the third-string goalie, came in every day with a smile on his face and inspired me to be patient and believe in the process. It turned out good for me and I got to help my team as much as I could.”

While Thomas was still processing the implications of his goal after the game, it’s fair to say that Jordan Eberle has a new friend in the pantheon of Canadian world junior legends. And he had a whole team helping him get to that moment.

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