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U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A!

International tensions, goofy cheerleaders, and a shot for an American gold medal — a visit to the World Junior Hockey Championships in Russia

NO MORE MIRACLES FOR YOU,” screamed the mocked-up cover of the Stockholm-based tabloid Expressen, just above an image of a United States junior hockey player laid out flat on his ass. A few Swedish reporters had just used the copy machines upstairs in the press center at the Ufa Arena to print out a handful of copies of the paper’s front page, and now they were downstairs in the interview area beckoning some of the boys on their country’s under-20 national team to pose for a photo op with their work.

The Swedish teens dressed in gym shorts and their gorgeous yellow-and-blue Tre Kronor jerseys not only obliged, they hammed it up. They whooped, they yyyyeeeahhhhed, and at one point they even kind of good-naturedly snarled like lions, holding up the fightin’ words all the while. They had just beaten host nation Russia 3-2 in an overtime shootout in the semifinals of the World Junior Hockey Championships to advance to Saturday’s gold-medal game against the United States, and they were all kinds of fired up. (So was whoever created the half-boastful-half-blissed-out Expressen page. Pages plural, actually: A couple of guys were given a Svensk-language version to hold that said: “NU KNÄCKER VI JÄNKARNA” — or, roughly, “NOW WE CRACK THE YANKS.”)

It was the kind of karma-tempting “bulletin-board material” that most superstitious hockey players go to great lengths to avoid, but in this case it was nothing malicious — genuinely just a bunch of affable Swedes blowing off steam with their native press. Watching it all unfold, it occurred to me that there was actually a pretty good chance they didn’t even understand the “no more miracles” reference they held in their hands. Most of these kids are 1993 babies, born 13 years after the famous 1980 USA-Russia hockey game. A couple of them weren’t born until 1995.

The World Junior Hockey Championships began in 1977 as an international tournament showcasing the best under-20 hockey players on the planet. Legendary players ranging from Peter Forsberg to Eric Lindros, from Slava Fetisov to Dominik Hasek, have represented their countries in the WJC over the years. The event has become something of a national pastime in Canada, where it is hosted the majority of the time. This year, though, the tournament’s being held in a location a little more far-flung than even Alberta:1 in an oil-rich Russian city named Ufa two hours (by plane) east of Moscow.

Ten teams’ worth of players and coaches and team officials give up their Christmas and New Year’s to compete in the tournament, and Saturday is the culmination of all that time spent. First Russia will play Canada in what ought to be a particularly heated bronze-medal game, and then defending gold medalist Sweden will try to, er, CRACK THE YANKS. (Both games will be televised live on the NHL Network and online at NHL.com; the bronze-medal game at 4 a.m. ET and the gold at 8 a.m.)

Last year, a great-on-paper USA team finished a dismal seventh place overall, and this year it was hard to know how the Americans, who returned only three players from last year’s squad (most of the rest of them aged out), would fare. They lost close games to Canada and Russia during the round-robin play, but kept themselves in contention with a decisive 9-3 victory over Slovakia to advance to the medal rounds. They dispatched the Czech Republic 7-0 on Wednesday in the quarterfinals, and yesterday stunned Canada in a rematch, winning 5-1. It was a surprising game, both because the Americans looked so very together and because the Canadian team — a presumptive favorite going into the tournament — looked so very not.

Jake McCabe, a sophomore at the University of Wisconsin and the Team USA captain, scored twice in the first period yesterday off assists not just from his teammates but from his oddly disheveled opponents, too. On McCabe’s first goal, five white maple leaf jerseys (including goaltender Malcolm Subban) jumbled around in the crease like it was a Canadian clown car, leaving the defenseman all alone in the slot. On McCabe’s second, Subban had to deal with the unfortunate cosmic alignment of being fully eclipsed by three of his own men. He threw up his arms in frustration after the puck went into the net.

The third goal was no better: Boston College sophomore Johnny Gaudreau pulled off a saucy toe-drag that looked all the richer thanks to maligned Canadian defenseman Ryan Murphy forgetting the old maxim to “play the body, not the puck.” Only the fourth goal, off Jimmy Vesey’s forehand, was one that Subban really ought to have saved. Still, the 4-0 gulf was enough to get him pulled from the game.

“Nothing to do with Malcolm,” said Canada head coach Steve Spott afterward. “We left him out to dry. The goals they scored were quality goals.”

Canada got on the board early in the third period off a bizarre sequence in which the whistle blew but play continued, but the 5-foot-8-on-tiptoes Gaudreau scored again, his tournament-leading seventh goal.

It was a bitter defeat for Team Canada, whose squad seemed particularly stacked this year thanks to the NHL lockout, and whose fans were all the hungrier for a victory because of it. (The last NHL labor stoppage yielded a “dream team” of Canadian talent that won the gold medal.) From 2005 to 2009, Canada won five straight golds, but they haven’t taken the top prize since.

“We’ve looked at the World Juniors as gold or bust for Canada for so many years,” Vancouver Canuck veteran Manny Malhotra, who played in two WJCs back in his day, told the Canadian Press. “It puts a lot of undue stress on the guys going over there. It’s a global game. Everyone’s catching up.”

Everyone from hockey pundits to hockey dads had a theory for what had gone wrong with their boys: It was the coach, some said; no, it was the goalie; no — the problem is way more systemic! Hockey Canada is in crisis! Some debated whether the selection committee was biased toward players from certain cities or teams; others shook their heads at the reports that the squad had brought along its own chefs to Russia. (One night “we did braised pork ribs,” one cook told the Toronto Star‘s Kevin McGran. “Fall off the bone. The guys polished off 72 racks.”) How can you battle in the corners, critics cried, when you’re being coddled back at the hotel?

Dozens of the team’s biggest admirers had traveled to Russia for the tournament, nearly all of them in proud red Hockey Canada jerseys and most of them part of an organized tour that I heard through the grapevine cost some people as much as five figures. Many of them had anticipated seeing the team battle Russia in the gold-medal game. Instead, the two teams will fight for a bronze; if the Russians were to win on Saturday, it would be the first time since 1998 that the Canadian team failed to medal at all.

Other than the proud swath of Canadian diehards (and the small smudges of Swedish or American fans), practically none of the people inside the bright new Ufa Arena were foreigners. The stands were half-full or less (though still spirited) during any non-Russia matchups, but crowds swelled to capacity when the Russian team took the ice.

Fans sported a mix of national team jerseys, Россия scarves, KHL gear (the 2011 league champion team, Salavat Yulaev, plays in Ufa), and the more everyday uniform of fur coats for the ladies, fur hats for everyone, and bib overall snow pants for all kids under the age of, oh, 10. Some people wore clown wigs in the Russian flag’s colors, others draped themselves in the actual stripes, and I’m pretty sure I saw more than one woman in Minnie Mouse ears.

Cheerleaders in outfits of varying ridiculousness — a security-tape neon-yellow-green flapper dress with white knee-high boots for one game, a highly unflattering purple-and-silver pantsuit with a white fur bolero for another, a blue-and-green V-necked leotard-dress that would look great on a figure skater for most of the Russian games — did pretty much nonstop routines behind one net, but in a much swishier and noodlier fashion than their Western counterparts. (This might be the only sphere in which the United States seems militaristic by comparison.) A guy merrily played an organ; it didn’t take long for him to earn a parody Twitter account, nor did it take much longer for hockey writers to complain that it used to be much funnier.

Everyone chanted “RUS! SI! A!” again and again in a manner that initially, to my untrained ears, had the same cadence as that old hockey-rink standby “CROS! BY! SUCKS!” (Wow, they must be really devoted to Alex Ovechkin, I thought for those confusing first few minutes.) When the Russians went on a power play, they yelled out “Shaybu” — “We want a goal.” (It sort of reminded me of the Russian version of the guy behind you at NHL games who hollers SHOOOOOT! every time someone touches the puck.) When they were displeased, even for a moment, they whistled. When they witnessed a Russian goal, they reacted so deliriously that I found myself secretly hoping they’d win the whole tournament, if only to witness the undoubtedly vodka-soaked celebration.

WJHC

In their Wednesday-night quarterfinal against up-and-comer Switzerland, Russia trailed 3-2 with less than two minutes remaining. But a Swiss slashing penalty gave Russia a power play that they almost immediately converted to tie the game with 1:39 remaining; they would ultimately win in a shootout after a scoreless 10 minutes of sudden death.

It was a heartbreaking finish for the poor Swiss, who had lost only one game in regulation throughout the tournament — but had also dropped four straight in overtime or in a shootout. As the two teams lined up at center ice for the customary postgame ceremony, which involves a kick-marching flag procession and smiling ladies in traditional Bashkortostan garb handing out player-of-the-game plates to one winner and one loser, a sobbing 19-year-old Alessio Bertaggia (he had scored one shootout goal but then missed another to end the game) was consoled by teammate Sven Andrighetto, who pulled Bertaggia to his chest and kissed the side of his helmet. It was devastating to see.

“It hurts, it really hurts,” said red-eyed 18-year-old goalie Melvin Nyffeler, who had very nearly stolen the game for the Swiss. “Four times we battled hard and went to penalty shots or overtime.”

He paused to gather himself. “It’s really hard to find words right now. I’m sorry.”

Sweden came out to play its semifinal game against Russia on Thursday in much the same way that the USA had done hours earlier against Canada. Their passes were crisp, their systems well executed, their lead 2-0 after the first. As they had against Switzerland, Russia battled back to tie the game in the third period in front of an exhilarated (if, up till that point, frequently whistling) home crowd. But this time it was Sweden who won in a shootout, a reminder of sorts about last year’s WJC gold-medal game in which the Swedes defeated the Russians in overtime. (The call by the Swedish announcers was truly remarkable.)

Last year’s gold-medal goal was scored by Mika Zibanejad, who was drafted by the Ottawa Senators in 2011 and not allowed by them to participate in the WJC this season. (They insisted he remain with their minor league affiliate Binghamton Senators.) In addition to being without Zibanejad, Sweden came into the tournament having lost three of their top four defensemen — all first-round NHL draft picks — to injury. The depleted roster led them to call up 17-year-old Robert Hagg at the last minute; on Thursday, he was one of the best-looking players on the ice, and he’s projected to go early in the draft.

Had they been lucky to win on Thursday? a Russian reporter asked Hagg after the victory. “Lucky? No,” he said, his smile mischievous. “We were better.”

Filip Forsberg, the team’s captain and a first-round draft pick this past summer by the Washington Capitals, was asked about the USA-Canada game.

“Canada has a super team of NHL stars, so I’m sure it’s disappointing for them,” he said.

One thing’s for certain: There is no love lost between Canada and Russia. Bitter hockey rivals for decades, the two countries had a few tense moments earlier in the tournament. It began when Nail Yakupov, this year’s first overall draft pick by the Edmonton Oilers, was quoted as saying, of the Canadians, “Those guys play dirty.” A week went by before he “clarified” his remarks in a testy press conference that illuminated little. (As it turned out, it’s likely that the word “dirty” was a somewhat imprecise translation of a word that means something more like “chippy” or “rough.”)

And speaking of illumination, Canada coach Steve Spott sparked the ire of the host country when he explained that his team had brought special UV lamps along with them to combat what he called the “24 hours of darkness” in Ufa. He was exaggerating; still, it’s true that the sun doesn’t rise until nearly 11 a.m. here this time of year. It became easy fodder for Russian players and fans to ridicule.

Canada defeated Russia in the round-robin game on New Year’s Eve (many fans brought lamps and flashlights to mock the Canadians) and it’s clear that the host nation would like nothing more than to knock Canada off the podium in turn on Saturday. Tensions have also been mounting between the North American media and Yakupov, who has been made extra scarce these two weeks. It’s been a disappointing WJC for the 19-year-old team captain, who has scored just one goal in six games and has played like a man trying to do a dozen big things at once, and instead accomplishing very little.

He didn’t talk to the press after the team’s win over Switzerland, nor after its loss to Sweden, which has earned him sharp rebukes from Edmonton beat writers in particular — though I’d bet that Russian team officials have been plenty involved in keeping the normally loquacious player under wraps, whether to cut down on drama or, honestly, just to be difficult. (There’s also a bit of a cultural disconnect, I think: Several Russian reporters here to cover the tournament told me that, unlike in Canada and the U.S., team captains aren’t really expected to moonlight as press liaisons.)

“He’s a leader in spirit and a leader in the dressing room,” the Russian head coach insisted when pressed about it on Thursday evening. He added that two years ago in the men’s World Championships, Alex Ovechkin hadn’t scored any points.

But Canada-Russia will just be the prelude to the gold-medal game between the U.S. and Sweden. To win, the Swedes will need to continue the crisp breakout that helped them maintain the puck so often against Russia, and try to stymie a corps of American defensemen, from McCabe to Seth Jones to hard-hitting Jacob Trouba, that enjoys moving up and getting involved in the play. If they can, they can take home back-to-back gold medals after going through a 30-year drought.

The Americans, for their part, will most crucially need their goaltender John Gibson, who has arguably been the most valuable player in the tournament, to maintain his outstanding and consistent play. (His save on Ryan Strome in the semifinals was one of the most pivotal moments of an otherwise one-sided game.) “It’s my personality,” he said Friday. “I never get too high or too low.”

His team can learn from that: After being the most highly penalized squad in the tournament, they played a far cleaner and less retaliatory game against Canada. (As for Sweden’s provocative photo session on Thursday night, a few players coyly but calmly confirmed they had indeed seen the pictures.) Facing a pared-down Swedish defense, they’d do best to sustain continued offensive pressure from guys like Alex Galchenyuk and Gaudreau, who had a funny moment during an interview earlier in the tournament.

Asked about the origin of his last name — his father, Guy, is French Canadian — Gaudreau explained that he had never learned his dad’s language. “My father only wanted to teach me one language at a time,” he said, “so he just taught me American.”


This article originally misstated the name of Ottawa’s minor league affiliate. It is the Binghamton Senators, not the Birmingham Senators.

Filed Under: Hockey

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Katie Baker is a staff writer at Grantland.

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