When Kitchener Rangers Head Coach Steve Spott took the reins of Canada’s National Junior Team last spring, he had a feeling that he would be running into some of his players at the IIHF World Junior Championship in Ufa, Russia and that most would be playing from the opposing bench.
“That’s what makes these things fun, it’s part of what makes these events great,” Spott explained, shortly after he was announced as Team Canada’s new Head Coach.
“But ultimately, when we all put on our country’s sweaters, I think we all understand that the gloves are off at that point.”
The long-time Rangers bench boss did bring along his captain, Ryan Murphy, to play defence for Canada. But, as Spott anticipated, the blueliner was not the only Kitchener player to make the trip overseas. This year goaltender John Gibson (USA) and forwards Radek Faksa (CZE) and Tobias Rieder (GER) rejoined their national teams, and headed to Russia ready to take on Canada and the rest of the world.
It wasn’t long before Spott, Murphy and Team Canada faced their first friendly foe. They opened the tournament on Boxing Day with a game against Team Germany, and while the Red and White came away with a 9-3 win, Rieder did record an opening period power play goal, reminding his coach and teammate of his scoring touch.
Canada also faced Gibson and the Americans in the preliminary round, maintaining their unblemished record with a 2-1 victory. For Murphy, the experience of playing against his fellow Rangers was an unusual one.
“The guys that went over, they’re my good friends here in Kitchener, so I didn’t know how I would keep a straight face, seeing them on the opposing team. We’re enemies, and that’s really weird to think about ,” shared the 19-year-old defencemen.
“But at the same time, we’re all trying to achieve the same goal of bringing home a gold medal.”
Canada’s path to gold will go through Team USA again on Thursday morning. A perfect 4-0 record in the round-robin guaranteed the squad a bye to the semi-final round where they will meet the Americans, after Gibson’s 31-save shutout helped to lift them over Faksa and the Czechs in the quarter-finals. Spott knew before the tournament started that his Kitchener netminder would be one of the best in Ufa, but he was also confident that Team Canada could match and exceed his efforts.
“John’s a world-class goalie. I think he’s the best in the OHL, maybe even in the Canadian Hockey League. It’s going to be tough, but I think [Team Canada’s] Malcolm Subban has shown that he’s a special goaltender as well. All I ask is that we get one more – no more than that – and I know that John, as great as he is, will throw everything he’s got to try and beat us, but I know that we’re going to be doing the same.”
Four teams remain in contention for the top spot on the podium: Canada, the United States, Russia and defending champions Sweden. And while Spott, Murphy and the rest of the National Team swept aside the competition in Pool B’s preliminary round, Coach knows from experience how elusive the gold medal can be. As an Assistant Coach in 2010, he stood behind the bench and watched as Canada came up short in the Final and says he thinks back to Saskatoon every day.
“It’s not our divine right to win gold medals. Those days are done. When you look at the best players in the NHL, they’re not all born in Canada. Look at our [Rangers] team, with Faksa and Rieder! It truly is a global sport,” argues Spott. But as the next round looms, the squad remains singularly focused on capturing the title of World Junior Champions.
“We fully appreciate the mandate, and it is not to get on the podium. It’s to win a gold medal. That’s what we want and that’s why you sign up to do this job,” Spott says, with his trademark look of determination.
“I wouldn’t want to be in a situation where the expectation is to just win a medal. I want to win a gold medal. And I can speak for all 23 guys on our team – they want the same thing.“
Canada’s semi-final game against the United States will air live on TSN and TSN Radio at 4:00am EST. For live updates, follow Hockey Canada Live at @HC_TeamCanada, or the Kitchener Rangers at @OHL_Rangers.