As the NHL lockout dragged on Thursday, junior hockey players lifted the spirits of some — but not all — Vancouver Canucks’ players.
Canadian-born Canucks were disappointed following Canada’s 5-1 loss to the Americans at the World Junior Hockey Championship earlier in the day. But Vancouver’s American and Swedish players appeared much more chipper following an informal skate at the University of British Columbia.
Forward Manny Malhotra, who grew up in the Toronto area and played in two world junior tournaments, said it’s time for Canada to lose its gold-or-bust mentality at the annual international affair.
“We’ve looked at the world juniors as gold or bust for Canada for so many years,” said Malhotra, who captained Canada to a bronze medal in 2000. “It puts a lot of undue stress on the guys going over there. It’s a global game. Everybody’s catching up (to Canada.)
“Everybody’s adapting to a different style of play out there. Obviously, we have such a large group of talent to choose from that we’re always going to be a perennial favourite and expected to do well in the tournament.
“(But) to say gold or bust these days can be, in a way, insulting to the other countries out there that brought their (ability) level to that stage.”
He said Thursday’s score did not reflect the true ability of a Canadian team bolstered by one NHL star — Edmonton Oilers centre Ryan Nugent-Hopkins — and other top prospects who might not have been available if the pro circuit was in regular session.
“Obviously, (it’s) disappointing not to be playing for gold,” said Malhotra. “But as a nation, we should be proud of those kids and what they’ve accomplished and how well they represented us.”
Despite the loss amidst high expectations, the Canadian players will benefit from playing in the world junior tourney, said Vancouver defenceman Dan Hamhuis, who played in the event twice, winning gold and silver. It never hurts to play in a tournament of such magnitude, he added.
“Just playing internationally on a different ice in a different game and to pull that Canadian jersey over your head — there’s a lot of pride and a lot of pressure to be in that situation,” he said.
He suggested the Canadian loss was far from an upset.
“Other countries have certainly picked up their junior programs,” said Hamhuis. “You see so many competitive countries out there. Canada probably has the most depth of them all, but a lot of the players from the other countries are very good and very competitive.”
Meanwhile, Canucks winger Chris Higgins was feeling a sense of salvation after he was on the losing end against Canada when he played in the tournament.
“My second year of playing world juniors, we lost against Canada in the semifinals,” recalled the 29-year-old American. “So it’s nice to see the U.S. take one.”
The Americans will battle Sweden for the gold medal in Saturday’s final, while Canada meets host Russia to decide bronze. Sweden has a chance to retain the title that it won last year when the tournament was played in Calgary and Edmonton.
The Canucks’ Swedish captain Henrik Sedin, notorious for betting teammates on the world junior tournament annually, said his homeland has succeeded in recent years by “copying” Canadian methods.
Although mild-mannered, Sedin is known for trumpeting Sweden’s success in the Canucks’ regular dressing room at Rogers Arena. But he did not gloat in the temporary digs at UBC, according to one teammate.
“He didn’t say very much. He had a smug look,” said Malhotra with a chuckle.