Canada not comforted by silver lining
GRAND FORKS, N.D. -- The more Team Canada players insist they aren't thinking about the disastrous fashion in which their gold medal hopes went down the tubes at last year's World Junior Championship, the bigger the giant pink elephant that's taken up residence in the Canadian dressing room gets. You know the kind in the corner that no one will talk about.
Or, a guy named William Shakespeare once pointed out, "the puck boys from the north doth protest too much, methinks."
Or something like that.
In fact there's something a little creepy about the Canadians' determined, if polite, refusal to discuss blowing a 3-1 third-period lead against the Americans and losing the 2004 championship game 4-3, their only loss of the tournament.
"It's totally past right now. Nobody's dwelling on it at all. Everybody's put it out of their mind and is really focusing on this year," said captain Mike Richards after the Canadians enjoyed their last practice prior to Tuesday night's gold medal game against Russia. "It's a totally different year right now. Different circumstances, different team we're playing, different really everything. Different guys on the team, different coaching staff, we're going to look for a different result I guess."
Sure, the names and teams and dates have changed, but it's still the same situation until Canada bests Russia and gives the heave-ho to the aforementioned pachyderm.
Even if the entire Canadian roster appears to have been stricken with selective amnesia, an entire nation north of the 49th parallel recalls that it wasn't so much the loss but the excruciating manner in which it unfolded.
Leading 3-1, Canada watched as the Americans tied the game midway through the third period. Then, with 5:12 left in regulation, netminder Marc-Andre Fleury, the No. 1 draft pick the previous summer on loan from the Pittsburgh Penguins, sent a clearing pass that caromed off defenseman and teammate Braydon Coburn and trickled over the goal line for the winner.
Even now it's not clear whether the puck hit Coburn's shoulder or elbow or butt. Coburn, the eighth pick overall by the Atlanta Thrashers in last summer's draft, doesn't shed much light on the subject.
"Well. It's really not in my mind right now," he said. "I'm really concentrating and focused on the task at hand and the game tomorrow."
Continued discussion of the subject brings a look to Coburn's face that resembles someone suffering from kidney stones. Spies captured on foreign soil regularly give up information more freely than Coburn on whether it was difficult to recover from the goal and the loss.
"I tried to conduct myself as a professional. You just move on and you're ready for the next game and that's how I deal with it," Coburn said.
Well, did he remember the play? Did he realize what had happened at the time?
"Ah. I don't know," he said. "Like I said again, we're concentrating on tomorrow. That's pretty much all that's in our mind right now."
Canada, which consistently ices among the best teams in this tournament, failed to win gold since 1997. And with three straight silver medals, second place is starting to get old.
This year's team has lived up to its pre-tournament billing one of Canada's best ever. It is undefeated at 5-0 and has outscored opponents 35-6. In Sunday's semifinal it held the Czech Republic to 11 shots.
The Russians, led by offensive sensations Alexander Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin, should provide the sternest test yet for Canada. But most observers, including U.S. head coach Scott Sandelin, whose team Russia waxed 7-2 in semifinal play Sunday, are picking Canada to win. Such predictions have a familiar ring to the Canadian players and only serve to reinforce their Stepford Wives-like refusal to dwell on past failures. Even the guys who weren't part of last year's team are in lock step with the memory-cleansing program.
"I didn't have a chance to watch it. I heard about it but it was last year. I don't even want to talk about it," said the perpetually upbeat Patrice Bergeron, who was playing with the NHL's Boston Bruins when the fateful goal was scored. "People in that room, I don't think they live in the past, they live in this tournament right now. We're where we wanted to be; we're in the gold-medal game. It's in our hands now."
Colin Fraser, a third-round pick of the Philadelphia Flyers in 2003, reacted as though he was being questioned about a stolen car or international espionage: "Ah, I wasn't there. I wasn't part of it. I don't know what was going on there. Tomorrow's game is what's important. We don't talk about it. It's obviously unfortunate and for those guys that were there they get a second chance."
Head coach Brent Sutter, who wasn't part of the coaching staff last year, only vaguely referred to last year's outcome.
"To be honest, I'm not concerned about that [distractions] because we do have a lot of returning guys. To me that's motivation from what might have happened in the past," Sutter said.
As for Coburn, we apologize for dragging up such painful memories. It was, after all, a rather unfortunate set of circumstances.
"Yeah," he said, grimacing, "it was."
Scott Burnside is a freelance writer based in Atlanta and is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.