Russians wrestle title from Canada
by Derek O'Brien|11 AUG 2019
The Russian U18 national team celebrates its first triumph since 1995 at the Hlinka Gretzky Cup.
photo: Werner Krainbucher
Russia defeated Canada 3-2 in the final of the 2019 Hlinka Gretzky Cup, the annual summer U18 tournament, on Saturday in Breclav, Czech Republic. While a Russian victory over Canada isn’t so uncommon what makes this so significant is it’s an event Canada has dominated. Canada entered as the two-time reigning champion with 22 titles in 28 years, while this was Russia’s first victory for at the event since 1995 – seven years before any of this year’s players were born.

The two main reasons for the Russian victory were goaltender Yaroslav Askarov and forward Alexander Pashin. Askarov won all four of his starts in goal, allowing only five goals along the way while making a tournament-high 119 saves. Pashin scored six goals in the tournament, including three in the semi-final victory over Finland and two in the final. He comes from Salavat Yulayev Ufa 

“I’m not really sure what just happened. I’m just full of emotions at the moment,” said a delirious Askarov after his 37-save performance in the final. “Obviously, the Canadians were trying to do everything possible to score a goal but my teammates were helping me a lot and I was helping them. That’s how we won the gold medal.” 

“This was really difficult,” admitted Pashin, who plays in the system of Salavat Yulayev Ufa. “The path to the gold medal was long enough and we are glad that we finally won it. The final was a really tough game – definitely the hardest – but we just focused on playing our hockey and this is the result.”

The final was a clash of two unbeaten teams who had little trouble getting through their groups. In Piestany, the Russians started by overcoming an early 2-0 deficit to the Americans in their first game to win 6-2 and never trailed the rest of the way. They then shut out Sweden and beat a feisty Slovakia team in overtime. Their semi-final game against Finland was tied 1-1 midway through the third period before Russia pulled away.

“Maybe it looks like a dream but I have to thank my teammates. They are the only reason that it was possible for me to score a hat trick,” said Pashin after the semi-final. “I think our strongest side is that we are always playing as a team. That’s the most important thing. If you play as a team, listen to your coach and the things he says about your game, you can win. You can’t give up.”

The Canadians simply ran roughshod over their opposition in Breclav. They outscored Finland, Switzerland and the Czech Republic 21-1, not surrendering a goal until the third period of their third game. 

It wasn’t until the semi-finals that the Canadians faced any adversity, running into a hot Swedish netminder, Jesper Wallstedt of Lulea HF, who won’t be eligible for the draft until 2021. That game became known quite simply as the Cole Perfetti game. Perfetti scored two breakaway goals in the second period and then three more times in the shootout, and was the only Canadian to score on Wallstedt all game. 

“Five breakaway goals... he had lots of confidence and he’s obviously a clutch performer for us,” Canadian head coach Michael Dyck marvelled afterward. “I was going to keep sending him out there as long as the shootout lasted.”

“I was hoping it was just gonna be the one time and hopefully we would win,” the projected top-10 pick from the Saginaw Spirit laughed after the game. “But it was a pretty cool experience and something I’ll never forget.”

However, the Russians did a great job of shutting down Perfetti and Canada’s other snipers in the final. One of the keys to the final was the groin injury to Canadian starting goalie Tristan Lennox of Saginaw in the shootout against Sweden, which forced backup Dylan Garand of the Kamloops Blazers into action. 

Despite being outshot 37-13, the Russians led 1-0 after one period on a beautiful top-corner wrister from Pashin and 2-1 after two. In the third period, Pashin gave Russia a two-goal lead and Jean-Luc Foudy got one back for Canada with 4:59 to go, setting up a wild final few minutes in which the Canadians threw everything they had at Askarov, but just couldn’t beat him again.

“I guess when you win such a great tournament as the Hlinka Gretzky Cup, everyone pays attention to you,” said Askarov, the SKA St. Petersburg prospect who may have raised his draft status into top-10 territory after this past week. “I think that everybody on our team improved their positions in the reports.” 

In addition to Askarov and Pashin, other key performers for Russia were forward Vasili Ponomaryov of Krylia Sovietov Moscow, who had a goal and an assist in the final and five points overall, and defenceman Danil Chayka of the Guelph Storm, who was key in shutting down some of Canada’s big offensive players and named Russia’s best player of the final.

“Obviously we have some very good players,” said Russian head coach Sergei Golubovich. “I’m not the type of coach who likes to pick MVPs every game. We have many players who don’t get the attention from the media but played a very important role in the victory.”

At the notion that Canada was the pre-game favourite, Golubovich scoffed: “I’m not someone who is crowning Canada before every tournament. There was a core group of Canadian players who, at times, dominated the game, but without the hard road trip from Piestany to Breclav, I think we would have played better tonight.”   

“I think we definitely could have executed better,” said Canadian forward Quinton Byfield from the Sudbury Wolves, a projected top-five pick who scored Canada’s first goal on the power play. “We have to give props to their goalie, he played really well, but I think we could have done a better job of getting in his face.”

“That’s something I don’t ever want to feel again. It’s the worst feeling ever,” said a dejected Perfetti.

Despite being held without a point in the final, Perfetti tied a tournament record with eight goals and set a new record with 12 points. He had just one point more than linemate Hendrix Lapierre of the Chicoutimi Sagueneens, as the two showed incredible chemistry throughout the tournament.
Meanwhile in Piestany, Sweden won the latest chapter of the Nordic derby by defeating Finland 5-1. Daniel Ljungman of Linkoping HC scored a goal in the game and five in the tournament. After his stellar performance in the semi-final, Wallstedt backed up Calle Clang of Rogle Angelholm in the bronze-medal game.

“Jesper Wallstadt and Calle Clang are both very good goalies. That is a key factor if you want to be successful and go for a medal,” said Swedish head coach Magnus Havelid. “I am very happy. It was a tough game to play when you lose in the semi-finals but I told my players this game is for the future. We wanted to leave Piestany with the win.”

The Finns were led offensively by Rony Hirvonen of Assat Pori, whose six points ranked fourth in the tournament. Their player who received the most attention, however, was 15-year-old Brad Lambert of IFK Helsinki, who recorded a hat trick in the team’s 6-0 group-stage win over Switzerland.

In the game for fifth place, the Czech Republic defeated the USA 4-3 in overtime. The top American scorer was defenceman Noah Ellis of the NAHL’s Janesville Jets and is committed to play college hockey at UMass Amherst. The Czechs got four points in the tournament from captain Michal Gut of Pirati Chomutov, who will head overseas to play for the WHL’s Everett Silvertips this season. 

“I’m so glad to be playing here, but I’m not happy because I wanted to win it. I’m not happy with fifth place,” top Czech prospect Jan Mysak of HC Litvinov, who is projected to be a late first-round or early second-round pick. said after the game. 

“Our last three games ended in overtime or shootout, so this team competed well but we didn’t have a lot of natural goal scorers,” said American coach Pat Ferschweiler. On the sixth-place finish, he said: “You always hope for better, but we were a team for just two weeks and we just wanted to improve each game and I think we did that.”

As is often the case, the game for seventh place matched up Slovakia and Switzerland, which was won 7-5 by Slovakia. Although they went through the group stage winless, the Slovaks were competitive in their group, losing all three games by one goal and taking the USA and Russia to overtime. That’s an encouraging sign for a Slovak team that will complete in Division I Group A at the new season’s IIHF Ice Hockey U18 World Championship.

“In five days we played four very good games in which we played well as a team, showed good character, and we can certainly build on all of this,” said Slovak head coach Ivan Fenes. “Against the favourites, we had nothing to lose we played fast and exciting hockey, and we held our own. This team has a great future.”

– with files from