HELSINKI – There were two seconds on the clock. France led Russia 2-1. It was the last faceoff of the game, everybody in the arena, on both benches, in the stands, knew it. France was about to pull the biggest upset of the tournament, and yet, there were those two seconds.
Dave Henderson, France coach, knew that there was little time left, but he wasn’t sure if it was two or three seconds because he couldn’t see the time on the scoreboard. He asked about it and was told that the clock would return to the scoreboard as soon as the puck was dropped.
He had already shortened his bench in the third period, rotating three lines for the latter half of the period. Defenceman Nicolas Besch had been on the ice for 8:36, forward Pierre-Edouard Bellemare 5:50, third highest of all forwards, but they’d have to find the energy to battle two more seconds.
Henderson called a timeout.
“I wanted to give the guys some rest, I had gone down to three lines about nine minutes into the third period, and wanted to go down to two with about four minutes to go, but didn’t get a whistle. Bellmare had been out for a while so I took a timeout to make sure we knew what we were doing out there,” Henderson told IIHF.com.
And what were they supposed to do?
“I just told them to shoot the puck into corner... and fall on it or something,” Henderson said, with a smile.
Bellemare won the faceoff, France dumped the puck into the corner - nobody fell on the puck - and Les Bleus won the game. And then, with zero seconds on the clock, Henderson believed they’d beat Russia.
They beat Russia with Cristobal Huet on the bench, team captain Laurent Meunier back home with a new-born baby on his arms, and Baptiste Amar - “a really good player,” says Henderson - in Grenoble recovering from a hand operation.
Instead, France had Florian Hardy, making his first World Championship start, in goal.
“[Five years ago] Hardy was a backup in Angers in the French league, and not really in the national team but at one camp he asked what he needed to do to to get better. I told him he needed to play, and get ice time. He went to Dijon, then to Chamonix, and then back to Angers.
“He’s put in the work, he’s learned his lessons, and today was his day to shine,” Henderson said.
For Hardy, 28, it was a fairytale game. It was the first World Championship start - he played 12 minutes in the game against Finland, faced three shots and made two saves - and his seventh national team game.
“I had never played against players like [Ilya] Kovalchuk or [Alexander] Radulov. I felt no pressure, I just wanted to play a good game,” he said.
Vincent Bachet got the “C” on his sweater, and the rest of the team rose to the occasion.
“As long as Pierre Pousse and I have been coaching the French team, our motto has been to play hard to the very end of every game. If they beat us 8-0, we might use more players in the game, but we'll always give our best. If we do our best, no problem. If not, then the coaching staff is not happy,” says Henderson who took over the French national team in 2004.
“We have several leaders in the dressing room, players who have played in several World Championships. Meunier wasn’t here for this game, and others took over, but he’ll be back and we’ll push forward,” said Bellemare.
One win is worth just three points in the standings, even when you beat the reigning World Champions. But for France, those three points were much more than that.
“This will help French hockey, it's going to help the federation. Luc Tardiff, our president, is working hard. Our clubs need a goal to aspire to, and this will help get some media attention, too,” Henderson said.
The timing of the win couldn’t have been better, as all eyes are now of France, who’s bidding to get to co-host the 2017 World Championship with Germany. They will compete against another co-hosting bid, Denmark/Latvia.
“Getting that would be huge for hockey in France because more young kids would see hockey and maybe we'd get more players and a bigger fan base for the sport as well,” Henderson said.
The three points will be important for France in this tournament as well. Last year, the team’s quarter-final spot came down to the wire, but a loss against Slovakia crushed their dreams that time. France is currently fifth in the Group H standings, tied with Slovakia, who beat France in the first game of the tournament, 6-2.
“We have three games to go so we’ll savour this one, and then get ready to play the next game. We still need more points,” said Henderson.
Those last three games are against USA, Latvia, and Germany.
“Personally, this is huge. I knew that to win, we’d have to play a perfect game, and this game was, by our standards, pretty close to perfect. I'm ecstatic,” said Henderson.
“I told my players to never give up, and one day David would beat Goliath. They told me the odds for our win were 1-to-22. I guess today was that day then,” he concluded.