It was predawn in Reykjavik, Iceland: 4,000-plus kilometres from Toronto and another 2,000-plus from Helsinki, Finland, and the Canadians were there in hordes. The world junior hockey championship was still a few days from beginning but you'd think there was an exhibition game in the departures terminal at Keflavik International Airport with all the red and white around.
As the dozens of fans boarded a flight headed for Helsinki, I was struck by the Deadhead-like following that a team full of teenagers could inspire. One might have assumed that this was a group of Canadians connected to the team: parents, friends, agents, etc. And though they weren't, there was still a connection between those teenagers and these Canadians, none of whom showed any signs of early-morning fatigue.
"This is the best hockey tournament in the world," one fan told me.
"I wouldn't rather be anywhere else for Christmas," said another.
Ever since TSN decided to turn this tournament into a premier and signature event, the world juniors have become a holiday tradition in Canada. So perhaps it should come as no surprise that there were that many Canadians eagerly awaiting their connecting flight to Helsinki, the tournament host.
The surprises came early and often for those fans, as the Canadian team failed to launch and sputtered out of the tournament in a quarter-final loss to Finland, the eventual champions. It was the first time since 1998 that the Canadian team didn't reach at least the semifinals.
At the Helsinki Ice Hall, where Canada played all of its preliminary round games, which included losses to the USA and Sweden, there was a general feeling of confusion and frustration at the team's poor performance. Coaching and goaltending could easily be blamed, but at the root was an alarming truth that became clear at this tournament, if it wasn't already: the world juniors isn't a tournament Canadians can lay singular claim to any longer.
It is an electric, sometimes erratic tournament that falls victim to the swaying whims that immature teenage athletes are prone to. As such, Canada's continued inability to stay out of the penalty box was part of what sunk the team in the quarterfinals against Finland.
The best teams at the world juniors trade aggressively in high-end skill: Alex Nylander with Sweden; Vladislav Kamenev with Russia; and the Finnish duo of 17-year-olds Patrik Laine and tournament MVP Jesse Puljujarvi, who wowed throughout the event and likely cemented their place in the top five of this summer's NHL draft. They had two points each in the gold medal-winning game, stepping up when Finland needed them most.
Sure, Canadian Mitch Marner showed flashes of brilliance during the quarterfinals, which should have Leafs fans drooling at the prospect of him in blue and white next season, but it was Laine and Puljujarvi who stood out. They matched their skill with composure that the Canadians lacked, and in a sense were a microcosm of the future of Finnish hockey as a whole. Hockey is just as engrained in Finnish culture as it is in Canadian culture. The only difference being that the Finns do not claim ownership of the sport and are not prone to wild, dramatic mood swings that enthrall Canadians while watching the world juniors.
In the taxis, the endless stream of bars and cafes and the homes of Helsinki and beyond, Finnish fans watched their junior team with a quiet reverence (though they were anything but quiet in the Hartwall Arena, of course). Over one fifth of the nation tuned in on TV for the team's semi-final matchup against Sweden. The tiny nation effectively ditched the "Pesky Finns" tag of old and emerged as a skill-laden team that showed more composure than its counterparts, especially in the tense-as-all-hell overtime in the 4-3 final.
The hockey world doesn't exactly evolve with lightning speed, and while Hockey Canada preached the importance of skill, it still felt like the red and white were playing catch-up with other teams in the tournament. The Finns, Swedes and Americans all showed the ability to dominate against the Canadians for long stretches at a time and had multiple offensive weapons in their toolbox.
There has been five different winners in the last six tournaments. If a nation wants to be the best at a tournament, it's important to study other teams more precisely. Perhaps that's the best way for countries to stay ahead of the trends here.
Is it time for a hockey summit in Canada? Hardly. There is no need to pout over the lack of success in this year's tournament. Hockey is a global game and if Canada is going to solidify its spot at the top of the food chain, more studying of how other countries achieve success and less navel-gazing is needed.
How is it that Russia has medalled in every tournament but one since 2005? How did the Finns, a country with a fraction of the population of Canada, put together the lineup it did? Finland has now won two of the last three tournaments and deserves boatloads of credit and vodka. The concern over the state of Canada's junior players will likely only be compounded in June when it's likely that not a single Canadian will be a top-five draft pick.
And so what? If that means less Canadian braggadocio at tournaments and going on at length about playing the "Canadian way" then it's a good thing. I heard resounding approval from Canadian fans on the ugly, head-hunting hit on Swedish forward William Nylander that ended his tournament.
Canadians cannot lay ownership to the game of hockey forever. No country can, in fact. But for now, the conversation about Finland has changed. Its a bona fide hockey superpower and will be for years to come. And the hockey world is better for it.