The Danes had been darlings in Toronto, adopted children, beloved. In the absence of a home team, the Canadian crowds had encouraged them. They had cheered them on. Denmark responded by reaching the quarter-finals of the world junior championship for the first time in their nation’s history. It was the first world junior game to be nationally televised in Denmark, ever. Big day.
“From no TV, to after the Russia game you could buy it on pay-per-view, and now it’s on the two main channels in Denmark, and one will televise it tonight,” said Olaf Eller, Denmark’s coach, his great blonde flop of hair hanging over his great wide Danish face, the morning of the game. “That’s awesome. That means an unbelievable experience, and unbelievable proudness, to break the wall. I mean, Denmark has not survived in the top division, but now we have survived, with pride.”
The notion of a world junior game not being on television is, to Canada, as foreign as the notion of playing on the moon, but Denmark is a long way from here. Still, they were treated like family.
Then came Canada, and the adopted children were thrown to the lions for sport. Denmark was booed when they took the ice. The crowd roared when the Danes were sent flying, when Canada scored or nearly scored, whenever Canada had a chance. Denmark got the first four shots of the game, and then came the accumulation. Curtis Lazar in the slot on a pass from a diving, flying Connor McDavid. Anthony Duclair, from a few feet away. McDavid with a world-class burst of speed, and a fancy finish that he made look as routine as putting jam on bread. Lazar on a breakaway.
And so forth. The Danes survived, until they did not, 8-0. We are a bloodthirsty and merciless nation when it comes to hockey. It’s all we know.
“It’s not about adding pressure,” said Canadian coach Benoit Groulx. “It’s about one more day in this tournament. It’s about every day, to have a good day.”
This should be Canada’s year, or close enough. The tournament is lining up to a gold medal game, and almost feels destined. The Czechs, a tougher semifinal opponent, lost to the Slovaks. The Americans, who Canada beat in a raucous New Year’s Eve matchup, lost to the Russians. (Although really, one can never feel 100 per cent sure it will be OK when one is playing the Russians.)
So Canada gets to play a team it waxed 8-0 in the semifinals, and then would only have to beat either Russia (who were dragged to a shootout by the Danes, who have about 516,000 fewer junior players than we do, and a total of 25 rinks) or Sweden for gold. Hardly seems fair, really.
Of course, we have gone five years without a gold medal, and two straight years without a medal at all. Canada will take it however we can get it. The most-watched hockey game in this country since September — including the relaunch of Hockey Night in Canada, including Leafs-Canadiens, including everything — was Slovakia-Canada on Boxing Day, in which Canada won 8-0 as the crowd roared. That was then superseded by Canada-U.S. on New Year’s Eve, the chippy, lippy game in which the nearly-full Bell Centre chanted “U-S-A sucks!” and “Eichel sucks!” and bayed at the moon when Canada conquered its visiting teenage enemies. Eh, rivalry game.
The Danes? Well, thanks for being here, fellas. Their breakthrough was genuine and remarkable. Ask Mads Eller, Olaf’s son and the brother of Lars, what his earliest memory of this tournament was, and he kind of shrugs.
“Not until my brother (Lars, now a forward with the Montreal Canadiens) participated in it,” he said. “I remember that really close game (in 2008) with Mikkel Boedker and Lars and some other guys, where they only lost 4-1 to Canada, which was huge at that time. That’s what I remember the most.” Olaf Eller said those guys still talk about who they got to play: John Tavares, Drew Doughty, P.K. Subban, Steven Stamkos.
That was a high point, and then came the shootout win over Switzerland that propelled them to this quarter-final, and which still formed a halo around the Danes on the morning of the game.
“It was an unbelievable moment,” said Nikolaj Ehlers, a 2014 Winnipeg Jets first-rounder, before the game. “We’ve known each other for so long now, we’ve got great chemistry on and off the ice, and seeing those guys celebrate after that historical win, it’s amazing, and right now I’m still happy, I’m thinking about it, I’ve been watching the videos of the end of the game. And it’s amazing to see how happy a team can get about a shootout win, that’s for sure.
“You can feel how excited all the guys were when they found out the game was going to be televised on the main station in Denmark, and it just says something about what we’ve accomplished over here. We’re just so excited that for tonight hockey is going to be number one.”
Well, hopefully they enjoyed it. It’s nice that this mattered to Denmark, and they should be proud. But it matters to Canada, too, rather a lot. The road might feel too easy, and it might feel too neat. But you get the feeling people probably won’t mind.