Ahhh, the World Juniors.
The red and white jerseys, star players from teams across the country – Baie-Comeau Drakkar, Rimouski Océanic, Chicoutimi Saguenéens, Gatineau Olympiques, Ottawa 67s, Kitchener Rangers, Kamloops Blazers, Vancouver Giants – and yet the Canadian crowd cheering every single move the opposition makes.
There was, however, another red-and-white team on the Rexall Place ice Wednesday evening, and it was the one with the stylized Maple Leaf on the crest that the crowds cheered. The visitors were from the Czech Republic, a team composed by nearly half with players skating in the Canadian Hockey League.
Fully 10 Czech players went into Wednesday's match with a CHL connection: goaltender Petr Mrazek (Ottawa 67s), Tomas Filippi (Baie-Comeau), Jakub Culek and Petr Straka (Rimouski), Lukas Sedlak (Chicoutimi), Tomas Hyka (Gatineau), Radek Faksa (Kitchener), Marek Hrbas (Kamloops), Dominik Uher (Spokane Chiefs) and, as the cross-cultural coup de grace, defenceman David Musil from Vancouver – who just happens to be a top draft pick of the local Edmonton Oilers, for whom his father, Frantisek, once played and now scouts.
These 10 Czechs and another dozen came up against a solid Team Canada coming off an 8-1 Boxing Day thrashing of Finland, though it is folly to make too much of the early goings in this unpredictable tournament. The Finns came back earlier Wednesday to defeat the much heralded, and much larger, Team USA 4-1.
As Willie Desjardins, coach of the silver medal-winning Canadian entry in the 2010 World Juniors, said back in Saskatoon, the true beauty of this tournament of teenagers is that there is always "a little bit of the unknown and a little bit of the unexpected."
For this reason, Canadian coach Don Hay decided to go with a new goaltender against the Czechs, replacing Mark Visentin, exceptional against the Finns, with Scott Wedgewood.
"I want to see both goalies in a real competitive game," Hay explained, "then I'll make my decision on who moves on as we go."
It took half a minute for Hay to find out if the Plymouth Whalers goaltender had the right stuff. Wedgewood made a fine stop off of Jiri Sekac, who split the Canadian defence and fired off a hard backhand shot. It was a sign of things to come in the game.
The one certainty for Canada, already, is that forward Mark Stone will be a force. The Ottawa Senators prospect from the Brandon Wheat Kings proved against the Finns that he can score (three times) from the slot, and against the Czechs showed he can be a danger even behind the net, slipping out to knock in a rebound less than six minutes into the opening period.
Stone had a chance for a second goal before the period was over when Canada was awarded a penalty shot after a Czech defender placed his hand on the puck in the crease. Mrazek, however, was not to be beaten one-on-one and burst from his net in an exaggerated celebration, earning him an avalanche of boos from the boisterous crowd of 16,417.
Mrazek was stellar in net. He could not, however, prevent his teammates from taking penalties and, on one second-period power play, allowing Canada's Freddie Hamilton to slip in alone. Hamilton was unable to beat Mrazek but he hooked the puck back to Ryan Strome, who had an empty net. The play also marked an assist from Wedgewood, the playmaking Canadian goaltender.
With the period running out Canada scored again when Mrazek's defence allowed Brett Connolly ("on loan" from the NHL's Tampa Bay Lightning) three chops at the puck, the third one finding the back of the Czech net to make it 3-0 and, essentially, put the game out of reach for the scrambling Czechs. Mark Scheifele made it 4-0 in the third period and then, with the Czechs filling the penalty box, Canada went up 5-0 on a second goal by Scheifele, the young Winnipeg Jets prospect who plays for the Barrie Colts.
The Czechs showed they could skate with the Canadians but they could not restrain themselves and they could not finish – most remarkably on two five-on-three opportunities. Their power play was, simply, inept.
As for the Canadians, they showed what they are expected to show each time they pull that red-and-white jersey on: that they will be, at the very least, contenders.
"You're expected to win gold," Jordan Eberle, now an Edmonton Oilers star, said back in Saskatoon when he was a star with Team Canada.
"That's just how it is."