Ending the drought

Finland's 16-year stretch without a World Junior gold medal ended last year in Malmo, Sweden. Photo: Andre Ringuette / HHOF-IIHF Images

Every elite nation has had WJC gold dry spells

When Canada faces Russia for gold on Monday, the host nation will aim to end one of its longest championship droughts ever at six years.

But the Canadians certainly aren’t the only ones who have gone through this before.

Let’s take a look back at the longest intervals between titles – or leading up to titles – that the elite nations in this tournament have faced.

Canada: 8 years (1997-2005)

When the well-coached Canadians racked up five straight gold medals from 1993 to 1997, they seemed virtually invincible, whether featuring talents like Chris Pronger, Jarome Iginla, and Paul Kariya or players who later became NHL journeymen.

Yet in 1998, this perennial powerhouse fell apart, finishing eighth in a run that included a 6-3 loss to underdog Kazakhstan. The years to come would see heart-breaking, one-goal gold medal game losses to Russia (1999, 2002, 2003) and the United States (2004).

But in 2005, arguably the greatest World Junior team in history – starring Sidney Crosby, Patrice Bergeron, Ryan Getzlaf and other future Olympic gold medalists – reclaimed the crown for Canada with a perfect record in Grand Forks, North Dakota. They hammered Russia 6-1 in the final.

Czech Republic: 23 years (1977-2000)

Even with the aid of their skilled Slovak brothers in the Czechoslovakia era, the Czechs never managed to claim top spot at the World Juniors.

In one striking example, Vladimir Ruzicka, a two-time all-star, led the tournament in goals, assists, and points (12-8-20), in 1983, but Czechoslovakia still only claimed the silver medal. All in all, Czechoslovakia earned five silvers and six bronzes, while the independent Czech Republic (1993 onward) never won anything – until 2000, that is.

Centre Milan Kraft (5-7-12) claimed Best Forward honours, but it was a stifling defensive system that defined the 2000 championship team. They defeated Russia 1-0 in the gold medal game in Skelleftea, Sweden on Libor Pivko’s shootout marker. It was the first of back-to-back golds under head coach Jaroslav Holik, the father of 1,314-game NHLer Bobby Holik.

Finland: 16 years (1998 to 2014)

Want to know why some 3,000 ecstatic Finnish fans showed up at a public celebration for their World Junior champions in downtown Helsinki last January? Simply put, Suomi doesn’t win this thing very often.

When the Finns first triumphed in 1987, they benefited from the disqualification of the Canadians and Soviets for brawling in the notorious “Piestany Punch-Up.” It would be another 11 years until their second gold, with Niklas Hagman tallying the overtime winner against Russia in the Helsinki final.

Finland would subsequently amass one silver (2001) and four bronzes (2002-04, 2006). But after Tuukka Rask’s insane goaltending brilliance almost singlehandedly lifted them to that ‘06 medal, they fell out of the gold conversation.

It was widely assumed until 2014 that the World Juniors were a four-team race between Canada, Russia, the United States and Sweden. But goalie Juuse Saros played the greatest game of his young career in the final against the host Swedes, making 35 saves, and defenceman Rasmus Ristolainen scored the 3-2 overtime winner for the underdogs.

Russia: 8 years (2003-2011)

It’s not as if Russia was bad during its eight-year drought. It just underachieved. Between 2003 and 2006, the teams it iced always included one or two future NHL scoring champions and World Championship all-stars (Alexander Ovechkin and Yevgeni Malkin). The Russians won three silver medals (2005-07) and two bronzes (2008-09) in that span.

But of course, this is a country that has always expected to come first in international hockey, ever since the Soviet Union debuted with gold at the 1954 IIHF World Championship.

The Russian team that ended the drought in Buffalo in 2011 – also coached by Valeri Bragin – bore some striking resemblances to the one that’s going to this year’s final.

Both teams stumbled through the preliminary round with just two wins and edged their quarter-final opponents by just one goal. The 2011 Russian team also beat Sweden in the semi-final before facing Canada for gold. Trailing coach Dave Cameron’s hard-hitting squad 3-0 after 40 minutes, the Russians exploded for five third-period goals and celebrated their win with unabashed exuberance.

Sweden: 31 years (1981-2012)

Here’s the weird thing about the Juniorkronorna’s enormous famine: they iced many teams that, man for man, were superior to the 1981 group that won. Goalie Lars Eriksson and defenceman Hakan Nordin, who led the way that year in West Germany, went on to become competent journeymen, while the Sundstrom brothers (Patrik and Peter) and Jan Erixon had good (if not legendary) NHL runs.

From 1992 to 1996, the Swedes boasted a mother lode of U20 talent, including the likes of Peter Forsberg, Markus Naslund, and Kenny Jonsson. But they could never do better than silver under longtime head coach Tommy Tomth. Enslaved by programmatic defensive systems, the Swedes didn’t even medal from 1997 to 2007.

But ever since then, they’ve missed the podium only once. And they got their 2012 gold in the most dramatic fashion conceivable, outshooting Russia 58-17 in the final in Calgary and triumphing on Mika Zibanejad’s 1-0 overtime marker.

United States: 27 years (1977-2004)

It’s hard to explain why the world’s most politically and economically powerful country doesn’t win more hockey tournaments. (Unless you note the fact that its top athletic prospects and citizens in general are frequently distracted by American football, baseball, and basketball, of course.)

The U.S. has only three World Junior gold medals to its credit, and until 2004, it almost never even came close to topping the podium. Even at the 1989 tournament in Alaska – where stars like Jeremy Roenick, Mike Modano, John LeClair, Tony Amonte, and Bill Guerin suited up – the Stars and Stripes wound up fifth.

Apart from two bronzes (1986, 1992), the high-water mark was losing 2-0 to Canada in the gold medal game in 1997, where Marc Denis got the shutout and Boyd Devereaux recorded the winner.

But in ‘04 in Helsinki, the American finally got their storybook ending. They rallied from a 3-1 third-period deficit, with the 4-3 winner coming on Canadian goalie Marc-Andre Fleury’s botched clearing attempt that went into his own net off defenceman Braydon Coburn. The goal was credited to Patrick O’Sullivan, his second of the game.

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