By Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press on January 1, 2024.
GOTHENBURG, Sweden – Alan Letang was on the edge of his seat as an assistant coach in the press box.
The final of last year’s world junior hockey championship saw Canada lead underdog Czechia 2-0 midway through the third period in Halifax before a pair of goals stunned the hosts.
The Canadians reset, kept their nerve and scored in overtime to secure a second straight gold medal.
Now in the top job, Letang knows just how close that team came to settling for silver.
“We remember the good side,” Canada’s head coach said Monday afternoon at Scandinavium arena. “They remember the disappointment.”
The stakes won’t be as high when the nations meet in Tuesday’s quarterfinal at the under-20 tournament, but the same principles that got Canada over the line some 12 months ago still apply.
“The small details, the small mistakes magnified,” said Letang, who has one returnee in forward Owen Beck. “Minuscule things that make a difference.
“I’m sure (the Czechs) remember.”
Canada finished second in Group A at this year’s event.
The hockey powerhouse – minus seven players in the pros or unavailable due to injury/illness – finished the preliminary round with Sunday’s unconvincing 6-3 victory over Germany that was tied 3-3 with 12 minutes left in regulation.
“Sticking with it,” Canada captain Fraser Minten said of the mindset through two frustrating periods. “We were gonna come out on top if we kept the momentum.”
“Grew up,” added defenceman Maveric Lamoureux. “We know the kind of team we are.”
Letang also knows what the Czechs, who have six players back from last year and pushed the top-seeded United States to a shootout in the round robin, will bring Tuesday.
“It feels hard,” he said. “But it hasn’t even started yet.”
Czechia head coach Patrik Augusta, who wasn’t part of last year’s staff, will lean on his veterans.
“They could smell it,” he said of the 2023 gold-medal game. “I’m sure it hurt.”
The other quarterfinals are U.S.-Latvia, Sweden-Switzerland and Slovakia-Finland.
Canada should know by the time the players get off the bus Tuesday whether or not Matt Savoie will dress.
The winger skated Monday for the first time since suffering a lower-body injury Friday.
Savoie was on the ice with Conor Geekie, ejected 11 seconds into Sunday for an illegal check to the head, and Jagger Firkus, a forward summoned from the Western Hockey League’s Moose Jaw Warriors as a potential replacement.
“Looked fine, moved around real well,” Letang said of Savoie. “We’ll see.”
Canada got some good news when the International Ice Hockey Federation’s disciplinary panel announced Geekie wouldn’t be suspended after the big forward was assessed a major penalty and game misconduct for an illegal check to the head on the first shift against the Germans.
Macklin Celebrini, the 17-year-old centre projected to go No. 1 at June’s NHL draft, rescued Canada in that one by scoring twice and drawing penalty that set up the game-winning goal.
“Really competitive,” Minten said. “He’s got the skill, but every shift he’s really driven to make something happen.
“His hands move just as fast as his feet and his brain.”
Augusta has been impressed by Celebrini, who’s in a four-way tie for second in tournament scoring.
“Smooth,” he said. “Can beat you one-on-one in a flash, but we have to be ready for every player.”
One of those players on the Canadian squad is defenceman Oliver Bonk, the son of Czech-born former NHLer Radek Bonk. The younger Bonk was born in Ottawa, but spent a chunk of his childhood in dad’s homeland.
“Always fun watching,” Oliver Bonk said of Canada-Czechia games. “Division in the family, but right now it’s just full Canada.”
Radek Bonk was at a Hockey Canada function New Year’s Day where players introduced their parents to the team.
“He was getting excited,” Minten said with a smile. “He was saying, ‘You better win or we’re never gonna be able to go home.'”
Canada expects a tough, hard-working opponent Tuesday with a quarter of Czechia’s roster having felt last year’s bitter disappointment.
“They’ll be hungry,” Letang said. “That’s why you push. If you get to come back, you remember how hard it is and everything that it takes.
“We’re trying to convey that to our guys.”
The 19-year-old woke up Saturday to a call from Hockey Canada.
He packed his bags, drove to Regina, hopped a flight to Toronto, grabbed a connection to Copenhagen, Denmark, and got a lift from a staff member up the Swedish coast.
“Adventurous,” Firkus said of his trek to Gothenburg.
The winger was cut from selection camp and has no guarantee he’ll play unless Savoie or another teammate is ruled out.
“I’m a Canadian,” Firkus said when asked if he had any second thoughts. “I’m probably the biggest fan of the team right now.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 1, 2024.
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