EDMONTON—It should not be a surprise that it was Connor Bedard who got things going for Canada at the world junior hockey championship. That’s what he does as a burgeoning 17-year-old hockey phenom.
But Latvia keeping things close — Canada won just 5-2 on Wednesday night — added a welcomed layer of intrigue at a beleaguered tournament that hopes to get people talking about hockey rather than the lack of fans or the dour feelings of a country toward scandal-plagued Hockey Canada.
“Give (the Latvians) credit,” Bedard said. “They have a lot of skill. They had a lot of good players over there. It was fun to be in that battle. Definitely a fun game. There’s no easy games and we know that.”
The outcome was probably never really in doubt, nor is the fact that Bedard is going to be one of Canada’s offensive stars. Bedard, who finished with a goal and an assist, is a lock to be the first pick in the 2023 draft. He exploded into national consciousness with a four-goal game Dec. 28 in the winter version of this event.
“That was a cool moment for sure, but that was a long time ago,” he said. “I’m just focused on now.”
That tournament was cancelled the day after Bedard’s four-goal game due to a COVID outbreak. So Bedard, now on Canada’s top line with Mason McTavish and Josh Roy, picked up where he left off by getting Canada’s first goal with a shot through traffic to beat Latvian goalie Patriks Berzins.
“It always feels good to score,” Bedard said. “Especially that first one in the tournament. It’s always exciting, no matter who gets it. So it definitely felt good and it was cool to kind of be going to the corner and see the fans there.”
Ah, yes, the fans.
Attendance was sparse, announced at 2,779 Rogers Place, and somewhat subdued. It’s a far cry from what this tournament is used to seeing on Canadian ice, with average attendance at more than 17,000 for Canada games at the last pre-pandemic tournament (2019) in Vancouver and Victoria.
Players were happy to talk about the fans that were here. Not the folks who stayed away.
“The people that were here, they were loud and they were energetic,” Bedard said. “I’m sure it’s like that every game. I remember in Vancouver when I was there (as a fan) every game seemed to get more and more people in and louder and stuff like that. It was really good that we had some fans here and it definitely helps us playing a game.”
Organizers knew lower numbers were coming, draping off the upper section of the rink, which has a capacity of 18,500 for Edmonton Oilers games.
There’s a certain lethargy that comes with this being held in the summer. Around town, locals have been saying the summers in northern Alberta are short enough, and few want to give up what is ideal weather to go into a cold hockey rink.
Plus there is a backlash against Hockey Canada for its mishandling of an alleged sexual assault by members of the 2018 world junior team, making it hard for some to want to cheer for the jersey until the organization cleans up its act. Even the Edmonton’s tourism department is not promoting the event.
That’s all added up to a distinct lack of buzz for one of the biggest hockey tournaments in what is normally a hockey-mad country.
“People have a choice,” said Canadian coach Dave Cameron. “That’s what life’s about. You have a choice whether you want to attend this tournament. And I know we’re enthusiastic. I know the guys in that room are enthusiastic. We’re excited. We’re going to enjoy it the same, whether it was in December or whether it’s in the summer or whether it’s here, whether it’s in the U.S., wherever. We’re just really excited.”
Rainers Darzins tied the game for Latvia, which stayed with Canada for the first half of the game. The Latvians feature three players drafted into the NHL. Canada’s entire lineup — save for Bedard, who isn’t old enough — have been drafted, eight of them in the first round.
“Hats off to Latvia,” said Cameron. “They know how they have to play. I thought they played a real solid team game. They’re committed to defence. Their goalie made some big saves.
“I don’t think a coach is ever happy with a game but, considering the time of year and considering where we’re at with this tournament, I’ll take (the win.)”
The game was predictably choppy, with most of the Canadians not having played a meaningful game in months. Players overskated the puck, fanned on shots, and didn’t quite make those crisp passing plays athletes of their skill level expect. At one point, with the game tied 1-1 in the second, the Canadians treated the puck a bit like a hot potato during a power play, almost scoring on themselves twice.
“That’s what this tournament in August is going to be about,” said Cameron. “Whatever team can figure it out first, get back to the mid-season form and just manage the puck the right way is going to be the team that comes home with the gold medal.”
There were still moments of unpredictability and excitement that go hand-in with junior hockey.
Canadian defencemen Lukas Cormier and Olen Zellweger connected on consecutive power plays while forward Ridly Greig finished off a singular rush up the ice to establish a comfortable three-goal margin heading into the third.
Greig had a goal and an assist. McTavish had two assists.
Bogdans Hodass scored on one of three consecutive Latvian power plays to make things a bit tight in the third, until Canada’s William Dufour put the game away with 5:16 to go.
It was Canada’s first game of the tournament, Latvia’s second. The Latvians lost the tournament opener Tuesday, 6-1 to the Finns.
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