EDMONTON – There’s no getting around one colossal fact as we live out the last day of 2011. The “Rumble in the Jungle” is now the “Tussle in the Grass.” That is, the great Canada-U.S. showdown tonight, which was supposed to decide which team got a bye and which team had to play in the quarter-finals, is now meaningless in that regard.
But let’s not get carried away. Tonight’s game is still a major confrontation between two hockey powers for many reasons. Let’s parse the meaning.
Canada and the United States share the world’s longest unprotected border. They are the world’s most successful trading partners and are as close as any two nations on the planet. But this closeness also creates a bitter rivalry in sports, and neither side wants to lose to the other in a game of tiddlywinks, let alone a U20 game played on a world stage. In street clothes, the game means little, but in full equipment, when the puck drops, it means plenty. TSN has the call in Canada and the NHL Network is covering the game in the United States. Millions of fans will be watching. Losing is not a palatable option.
The U20 is attended by scouts from every one of the 30 NHL clubs. Reputations are made or lost at the U20, and a game like this can define a player’s character. Someone who is considered a leader or a “fierce competitor” will suffer a huge blow to his report card if he mails in a weak performance tonight just because it’s a “nothing game.”
Team USA’s Brandon Saad is a forward with the Saginaw Spirit in junior hockey. One of his teammates is 6’6” Canadian defenceman Jamie Oleksiak. Do you think for a moment Olesksiak would let Saad beat him one-on-one because the game “doesn’t matter”? Or that Saad wouldn’t just love to score with Oleksiak on the ice? Scott Harrington (Canada) and Jared Tinordi (U.S.) are teammates with the London Knights, as are Canadian goalie Scott Wedgewood and American J.T. Miller in Plymouth with the OHL Whalers. These guys are friends off ice and teammates on it, but at the U20, it’s a game for bragging rights.
This game is, like all others, one for the history books. Canada has dominated the rivalry, but the U.S. has won key games to smack down Canadian pride. Think 2010, when the Americans beat Canada in overtime to win gold and prevent Canada from doing something no U20 country had ever done – win six straight gold. The game matters.
The Rest of the Tournament
Make no mistake – this game can have a profound effect on the upcoming games. A Canadian victory would be a huge confidence builder heading to the semi-finals, giving the team a solid sense of invincibility. A loss could call into question the goalie situation, the upbeat mood heading towards the toughest games of the event, the very psychological edge the team currently enjoys. A U.S. loss could mire the team further into a funk at a time when it needs to step up and show its fans the relegation round is a one-time problem.
Canada has seven players on its roster who are eligible to play in 2013, and there are three Americans eligible. Both teams will be substantially different next year, but if these ten hope to be there, a good performance the rest of the way here will go a long way to helping their cause.
Fans in Edmonton are among the most passionate hockey fans in the world, and their support of the U20 this year has been nothing short of sensational. This game has been sold out for nearly a full calendar year, and when 17,000 fans squish into the Rexall to cheer Canada wildly and boo the Americans lustily, the emotions on both benches will be unsurpassed. Canada will try to use the cheering to get pumped, and the U.S. will use its reception to try to quiet the crowd with an early goal, a big hit, or a big save. Nothing could give the Stars ‘n’ Stripes greater satisfaction than to leave the building tonight with a win and silence the celebratory feeling in the city.