BRECLAV, Czech Republic – One year after seeing its eight-year reign as champion come to an end, Canada reclaimed the title by defeating the defending champion, the host Czech Republic, 4-1 in the final game of the traditional U18 summer showcase.
“It feels awesome,” Canadian head coach Brent Kisio said in the aftermath of the win, “but give the Czechs a lot of credit. I thought they played a great game and this place was rocking.”
Over 3,000 fans came out to the Ice Bors Arena in Breclav and made a lot of noise, hoping to see the Czechs defend their title. Instead, they saw a Canadian team firing on all cylinders. The Canadians outshot the Czechs 19-4 in the first period, but didn’t manage to beat goaltender Lukas Dostal until Jared McIsaac fired a blast from the high slot under the crossbar with 3:34 to go in the opening frame.
Early in the second period, captain Joe Veleno banged in a loose puck to make it 2-0, and it looked like the Canadians might be away to the races. However, Dominik Arnost gave the Czechs a brief ray of hope a few minutes later when he put in a rebound to cut the deficit in half.
The back-breaker for the Czechs was Kevin Bahl’s 3-1 goal with just 31 seconds left in the second period – a slapper from the point that went untouched through a crowd in front.
“Our team was playing well, and when the coach has a plan and we all execute, we have success,” the Ottawa 67’s rearguard explained. “It was me that got the goal, but it was a great team effort out there.”
McIsaac and Bahl were part of a crew of Canadian defencemen that are projected to be possible first-round picks in the 2018 NHL Entry Draft, including Ty Smith, Jett Woo and Ryan Merkley, drawing comparisons to the class of Canadian defenceman from the 2012 Draft. Calen Addison of the Lethbridge Hurricanes probably also brought himself into that list with a stellar tournament, recording six points in five games.
“We’ve got so many great defencemen here, all stars in their leagues, they’re all going to grow up to be stars, so it was just a pleasure,” said Bahl. “It’s gonna be a journey with all those guys growing up – we’re probably going to play together again in the future.”
Jack McBain rounded out the scoring in the third period, after which the outcome was no longer in doubt. The Canadians still had a couple of penalties to kill in the last half of the third period, but stellar penalty-killing and steady netminding from Olivier Rodrigue.
“He was outstanding,” Kisio said of Rodrigue after the game. “We were lucky that we had two great goalies here and they both did a great job. Rodrigue, the last few games he stood on his head a couple times when we needed him to, and other times he didn’t see a lot of work but he did his job when he had to.”
After Alexis Gravel of the Halifax Mooseheads played Canada’s first game, a 4-3 shootout loss to Russia, Rodrigue played the last four games in five days. The Drummondville Voltigeurs netminder allowed one goal in all four wins.
Solid from top to bottom, it was not a Canadian team that had any offensive stars that stood out, but the leader was Veleno, the only returnee from last year’s squad, who was eager for redemption and determined to use last year’s disappointment as a positive for this year.
“You build and learn from previous experiences, so this year I mentioned to most of the guys that the margin for error is so small. You can’t dwell on a bad moment or bad game, you have to turn the page and move onto the next one because they come so fast,” the Saint John Sea Dogs centre said of the compact tournament. As for the experience of captaining Team Canada, he said when it was over: “Obviously I picked up a bit of a leadership role here, and hopefully I get that chance in Saint John to be part of the leadership group there. That’s one thing for sure I’ll be bringing back.”
As for the Czechs, they now have four medals in the last five Hlinka Memorial Cups, with one gold, two silvers and a bronze. Although they lost their title this year, Czech coach David Bruk was nonetheless proud of his troops. They were dealing with injuries, most notably to team captain Libor Zabransky, who was forced to miss the final.
“Of course we’re happy that we were able to make the final and compete well in it,” Czech coach David Bruk said in the aftermath. “We’re happy that we were able to beat strong teams like the USA and Russia, and we were able to play Canada in the final. Canada was clearly the better team in the game, they were simply the best team we played in the tournament. They were better in all facets. It is true that we played without three defencemen and four players could barely hold a stick, but we still got to the final. I am truly proud of what my players accomplished.”
The Czechs were led offensively in the by Jan Jenik of Bili Tygri Liberec, who started the tournament on the fourth line but ended up with a tournament-leading six goals. As well, Jakub Lauko of Pirati Chomutov scored four goals and wore the captain’s C in the final game with Zabransky out.
The Czechs made it to the final after beating Russia 2-1 in the semi-finals on Friday in Breclav. At the same time, Canada beat previously unbeaten Sweden in Bratislava by a 4-1 score. The two semi-final losers met for the bronze medal in Bratislava, and in a wild game the Swedes came from two goals down to take the lead, lost it in the final minute of regulation time, but then won in overtime on a goal by Jacob Olofsson.
Despite the absence of top 2018 NHL Draft prospect Rasmus Dahlin, the Swedes were loaded with talent, particularly defenceman Adam Boqvist, who led the tournament with seven assists and his eight points ranked him second.
“We had a pretty good tournament, but we didn’t come up to the level we wanted to play in the semi-final against Canada,” said the Brynas Gavle defenceman. “Personally, I think I played well, but I could have come up a little better against Canada.”
Russia was also without its top Draft prospect, Andrei Svechnikov, but they were led offensively by Dmitri Zavgorodny of Avangard Omsk, who had five goals and five assists to lead the tournament with 10 points. Like Boqvist, however, Zavgorodny was held off the scoresheet in the semi-final against the Czechs.
In the game to decide fifth and sixth places, the USA defeated Finland 4-3 on an overtime goal by Ryder Donovan of Duluth East High in Minnesota. Both of these teams had their medal hope doused on the final day of the group stage, when the Americans lost to the Czechs and the Finns lost to Russia. Finland’s Rasmus Kupari opened the tournament with a five-point game against Slovakia and finished with seven.
For the third year in a row, Switzerland and Slovakia met in the game for seventh place. For the second time in that span, the Swiss came out winners, this time by a 2-1 score.
The Slovaks, like the Czechs, were able to count on good home crowd support for most of their games, but that won’t be the case next year. The Ivan Hlinka Memorial Cup is scheduled to be played in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada in the years 2018, 2020 and 2022. The Czechs and Slovaks will again co-host in 2019 and 2021.
“I think it’s a bit unfortunate because this has become like a tradition, going to the Ivan Hlinka Memorial in Slovakia and the Czech Republic,” lamented Swedish coach Torgny Bendelin. “I understand the business side of it, and I’m sure they’ll get lots of fans in Edmonton. It will be back here again, I know, but I just feel this event belongs here every year.”
“I think it’ll be really exciting,” said Kisio, a Calgary native, about next year’s tournament. “We don’t mind travelling, but Canadian teams always love playing at home and being there in front of our fans will be fun.”
DEREK O’BRIEN – with files from hlinkamemorial.com