MALMÖ – For teenagers, everything is a matter of life and death. And we’re not talking about The Hunger Games.
It’s why confidence is so vital at the IIHF World Junior Championship. Coaches do their best to keep their young charges under control emotionally, but there are always going to be games at this tournament with more twists and turns than a Henning Mankell crime novel.
Just look at Canada’s last two games against the Czech Republic and Slovakia. Who could have predicted that the perennially vaunted Canadians would lose in a shootout after being forced to tie the game four times in a row? Or that Canada would have to rally from a 3-1 deficit to beat a nation that only has one World Junior medal (1999’s bronze)?
That’s just a taste of the type of hockey we’re likely to see in the elimination games. And that’s where one team’s confidence will have to unmistakably outshine that of its competitors.
Every year, there’s at least one wild and unpredictable game in the Playoff Round. Think of Switzerland’s 4-3 overtime ouster of Russia in the 2010 quarter-finals, Russia’s amazing five-goal third period rally against Canada in the 2011 gold medal game for a 5-3 win, or Canada’s valiant but doomed attempt to come back from a 6-1 deficit against Russia in the 2012 semi-finals. You could go on for days, talking about names like Jordan Eberle, Mika Zibanejad, and Tuukka Rask.
Rarely do you witness such drastic swings of fortune in the Olympics or the NHL. At the World Juniors, when things go wrong, teenagers sometimes freak out. Sure, U20 players may seem mature and poised, and some of them are already earning a living competing against men. But they’re not invulnerable machines. They can easily go from total belief to total despair.
In the closing stages of the Preliminary Round, the coaches must imbue the confidence that will carry their players through the biggest spotlight most of these kids have ever experienced.
After beating Norway 3-2, Switzerland’s Jason Fuchs put in context what his team has accomplished so far in Malmö: “The first loss was a bit disappointing because we played very well against the Swedes. The second game was really bad. We didn’t play as a team [against Russia]. We had to bring something today, and we did it. Now we’re a bit more relaxed about the tournament.”
Learning how to relax is a big part of being confident.
Swedish defenceman Gustav Olofsson talked about a different kind of confidence after defeating the Norwegians 10-0: “Confidence is a big thing, along with a little bit more creativity. A big part of our success today was everyone wanting to be involved and everyone getting open for each other. It wasn’t necessarily an individual thing or a bad thing. We stuck together as a team and won 10-0 together.”
When your team is working as a single unit, that’s a great confidence-builder heading into the must-win games against top-flight opposition.
When Russia defeated Switzerland 7-1, defenceman Nikita Zadorov told reporters: “I think we need to work to play a full game. After the second period, our coach [Mikhail Varnakov] said, ‘Don’t be lazy, guys, play hard the whole game. Do your job and win this game. You can relax after the game.’”
Hockey players of all ages need to be reminded of the importance of “playing a full 60 minutes”, but teenagers have a greater propensity to get cocky and slack off when things are going well. Confidence increases when it’s built upon a consistent work ethic.
No matter what happens to the medal contenders, good or bad, the coaches have to find a way to convince their players that they’re on the right track.
Nobody’s going to win a Nobel Prize in Literature at this tournament. But one team is going to write its name permanently in the history books, and it’ll be the team that surmounts its youthful tendency toward brain cramps and heartaches the best. With confidence.