Alexis Lafreniere scored twice, including the first-period winner, and had an assist as Canada beat Sweden 6-2 to capture the Hlinka Gretzky Cup on Saturday.
Swedish starting goalie Hugo Alnefelt could only do so much as the U18 tournament host nation outshot Sweden 40-19 before close to 10,000 fans at Edmonton’s Rogers Place. After a shaky start, Canada’s balanced attack outgunned Sweden’s top line featuring Lucas Raymond and Alexander Holtz. And the home-ice party was on as the Hlinka Gretzky Cup completed its maiden voyage (6 to 11 August) in the Alberta capital.
“It was a pretty cool experience just to see all the family and friends I had here,” said Canada’s Kirby Dach, a Saskatoon Blades forward who hails from the Edmonton area. “To be able to win the gold medal on home ice is something I’ll cherish for the rest of my life. It was an awesome feeling. We’ve got a bunch of guys in there that are just happy that we won a gold medal.”
Lafreniere, who is expected to be the top pick in the 2020 NHL Draft, tied Russia’s Vasili Podkolzin for the tournament points lead (11). Last season with the Rimouski Oceanic, the winger became the first 16-year-old QMJHL rookie to hit the 40-goal plateau since Sidney Crosby with the Oceanic in 2003-04. He captained Canada in Edmonton and will likely make his World Junior debut in Vancouver this Christmas.
It is Canada’s second straight Hlinka title and the 22nd time Canada has won this tournament in 28 tries. Sweden, meanwhile, captured its third silver medal of all time. The Swedes also came second in 2011 and 2015.
The Hlinka Gretzky Cup is the rebranded version of the Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament. From 1997 to 2017, the U18 competition was played annually in August in the Czech Republic and Slovakia. It paid tribute to the legendary Czech forward, who won two Olympic medals and three IIHF World Championships as a player, and coached the Czechs to gold at the 1998 Olympics in Nagano, Japan. Hlinka, who scored 123 career NHL points with the Vancouver Canucks, died tragically in a car accident in 2004.
IIHF Vice President Bob Nicholson, who doubles as the chief executive officer of the Oilers Entertainment Group, played an important role in bringing the 1991-founded tournament to Edmonton. Its new name also celebrates Wayne Gretzky, the NHL’s all-time leading scorer with 2,857 points – 1,961 with Edmonton, where he won four Stanley Cups (1984, 1985, 1987, 1988).
Total tournament attendance hovered around 40,000 for 18 games in Edmonton and Red Deer.
In the final, Sweden grabbed a surprising early 2-0 lead. The blue-and-yellow team struck on the power play just 42 seconds in. Raymond’s high wrister was Sweden’s first shot of the game. Canada continued to dominate territorially, but Elmer Soderblom found a streaking Holtz at the Canadian blue line and he beat goalie Nolan Maier high on the short side at 11:33.
Canadian coach Andre Tourigny decided to yank his starter, and it provided the needed wake-up call. Just 41 seconds after Taylor Gauthier took over in net, the Canadians struck back as Sasha Mutala went to the net and tipped in Dylan Holloway’s attempt.
Dach made it 2-2 with a stunning play at 14:35. Lafreniere pivoted inside the Swedish blue line and Dach, down low, tipped it high past Alnefelt. Then Lafreniere gave Canada the 3-2 lead it would never surrender on an unassisted end-to-end rush, beating Raymond’s backchecking and dancing through the Swedish defence to score at 17:54.
“He scored one hell of a goal,” said Tourigny. “That was a key moment. It was 2-2. He has the ability not just to score goals, but to score the big goals.”
In the second period, Alnefelt stoned Dylan Cozens on a 2-on-0 shorthanded break. But Mutala stretched Canada’s lead to 4-2 with his second of the night at 12:12 and the Swedes had no answer.
Alnefelt kept battling, foiling Lafreniere when he channeled Mark Messier on a breakaway and attempted a backhander through the goalie’s legs. But five minutes into the third period, Josh Williams salted away the win, converting on an odd-man break. With 6:06 left, Lafreniere made it 6-2 on the power play when his shot bounced off the end boards and in off the goalie’s right leg.
“Once we started rolling, I think there was no stopping us,” said Dach. “We had a game plan and we followed that through and we were successful.”
It’s the first time this tournament has taken place in North America since 1996. That year, it was called the Pacific Cup, and Nelson and Castlegar, British Columbia co-hosted.
The eight-team Hlinka Gretzky Cup is a can’t-miss event for NHL amateur scouts, and close to 300 attended this year. In the 2018 NHL Draft, 77 tournament alumni were chosen, including 19 in the first round alone.
Although it’s not a sanctioned IIHF event, it is of interest as a precursor to the 2019 IIHF World Junior Championship in Vancouver and Victoria, Canada (26 December to 5 January) and the 2019 IIHF Ice Hockey U18 Championship in Ornskoldsvik and Umea, Sweden (18 April to 28 April).
Naturally, few players are willing to discuss how the Hlinka Gretzky Cup could affect their hopes of playing at IIHF tournaments. “I think that I was focused on these U18s,” said Lafreniere. “I didn’t think too much about the World Juniors. My goal was to win the gold medal, and we did it. That is really nice.”
Earlier on Saturday, Russia outlasted the United States 5-4 in the bronze medal game. Podkolzin, the Russian captain, sparked the attack with a hat trick and an assist. The dazzling 17-year-old sniper led the tournament with eight goals.
Friday’s Canada-U.S. semi-final was marked by controversy. Canada’s Cozens was credited with the tying goal with one second left, even though there were complaints that the puck entered the net after time expired. However, the officials allowed the goal to stand. Since no video review was used at this event, the teams were off to overtime, and Williams scored to give the Canadians a 6-5 victory.
Hockey Canada president Tom Renney explained the ruling afterwards: “Prior to the competition, at the directorate meeting, it was decided there would be no video review because the three venues being used [including the next-door Downtown Community Arena and Red Deer’s Servus Arena] don’t all have that capacity. In the best interest of consistency and fairness throughout all three venues, it was decided by all teams, and signed off on, that the officials on the ice would make that call, as they did tonight.”
The Americans were tight-lipped. Most echoed the words of coach Cory Laylen: “It is what it is. We have to move forward.”
This situation may lead to a reassessment of using video review at future Hlinka Gretzky Cups. Arguably the most memorable video review in international hockey history was in the Canada-Sweden gold medal game at the 2003 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship in Finland. The judges analyzed Anson Carter’s wraparound goal on Mikael Tellqvist for close to 10 minutes from seven different angles before ruling it good.
The U18 Americans finished fourth despite sending a roster devoid of players from USA Hockey’s National Team Development Program, who have driven America’s success at the IIHF Ice Hockey U18 World Championships. Forward Nicholas Robertson made an impression with his hat trick against Canada. The Czechs hammered neighbouring Slovakia 8-3 in the fifth-place game. Finland, which has only medaled four times in tournament history, came seventh, while the Swiss, who were outgunned 28-5, finished last.
Saturday wasn’t the first time a non-IIHF Canada-Sweden final has taken place in Edmonton. The 1984 Canada Cup final concluded at the old Northlands Coliseum on September 18, 1984, as the Wayne Gretzky-led Canadians swept the best-of-three series with a 6-5 win.
The Hlinka Gretzky Cup will return to Edmonton in 2020 and 2022. It aligns with Oilers owner Daryl Katz’s plan to make Rogers Place the centerpiece of a thriving downtown core. A JW Marriott luxury hotel is slated to open in the Ice District in early 2019, and new international restaurants like Baijiu, Bundok, and Rostizado are attracting hockey fans.
Also on the menu at the Hlinka Gretzky Cup was the inaugural Centre Ice Summit. Representatives of the IIHF, Hockey Canada, the NHL, the WHL, and other organizations discussed various international hockey issues.
Safety was on IIHF President René Fasel’s mind after the Hlinka Gretzky Cup experimented with some rule changes: “For us, it’s very difficult to be in the back and to do everything possible to protect the players the best we can, and then bringing up the rules. Not to kill the game – this is a physical sport – but protecting the players, having the entertainment for hockey fans, and the understanding of the rules.”
Both Gretzky and President Fasel discussed the importance of having the world’s best players participate in the Olympics.
“I’ve made no secret that I believe the players should be at the Olympics,” Gretzky said at his press conference. “I think it rallies the country and the players love to play in it. Hopefully they can come to an agreement...and we can get the best players back into the Olympics.”
During a panel discussion President Fasel also expressed his hopes for a best-on-best Olympic men’s ice hockey tournament with NHL participation as between 1998 and 2014.
It just emphasized that the clock is already ticking down toward Beijing. And who knows? We may even see a handful of players there who took part in the first Hlinka Gretzky Cup.