While the NHL season continues to move along, this time of year is special to hockey fans for another reason: the World Junior Championships. Whether you want a glimpse at the next wave of NHL stars, love the chance to root for your country, or just like the high intensity and fast-paced hockey that the WJC provide, the tournament has become a must-watch for hockey fans all over the world.
This year has been no different as fans have been treated to incredible games and scintillating individual performances. The Washington Capitals don't have as many prospects playing in the WJC this year as they have in years past, but what they lack in quantity they've sure made up for in quality. Going into the gold medal game on January 5, the Caps boast the front-runner for tournament MVP, Evgeny Kuznetsov. Leading the tournament in points, and serving as the Captain for defending Gold medalist Team Russia, Kuznetsov has shown off his impressive skill-set all tournament. Kuznetsov came up with his best game in Russia's biggest challenge: the tournament semifinals against host Team Canada. With three goals and an assist, Kuznetsov helped lead Russia on to a second consecutive Gold Medal game.
Unfortunately for Kuznetsov (not really), Calgary Sun columnist Eric Francis is not impressed. After the jump, let's take a look at what exactly got under Francis' skin (Spoiler alert: it's the outcome).
Before even getting to anything relevant to the Canada v. Russia game, Francis has to make sure everyone knows that Canada is still better. With a gratuitous shot at Alex Ovechkin, Canadian readers can assuage the pain from the recent loss to the Russians.
The Washington Capitals forward, who is only starting to recover from the legendary 7-3 beatdown Canada laid on Russia in the quarterfinals of the 2010 Olympics, had to have been watching his Russian juniors semifinal win with a glee.
Remember, Canada beat Russia in the Olympics two years ago! That's totally relevant now.
Anybody who has paid passing attention to the WJC knows how much Canadian fans care about the event, but now, after consecutive defeats to the hated Russians, Francis goes back to the "we won in the Olympics" well. And what's even better, Canada's victory over the Russians singlehandedly ruined Alex Ovechkin (and here I thought it was because he stopped taking those steroids...). Don't worry, Canadian fans, two straight defeats (with only a late push saving them from two straight embarrassing defeats) at the hands of the Russians in an under-20 tourney is meaningless compared to taking the teeth from the once-fearsome Alex Ovechkin. (Francis takes one more gratuitous shot at Ovechkin - and includes fellow countryman Alexander Semin for good measure - at the end, but the article has already moved beyond absurdity by that point).
Eventually, Francis does get on to actually discussing the game, with no shortage of narrative-driven stereotypes.
Not only did the kid drafted 26th overall in 2010 [Kuznetsov] score three times and add an assist in a game that was 5-1 Russia by the end of the second (only to end as a one-goal game, thanks to Canada's heart), he also factored in on some of the shenanigans that made both teams look bad for a time.
First let's address the narrative: the famous Canadian heart. If it weren't for that Canadian heart this game would have ended an embarrassing loss. It was heart that led Canada back to within a goal of tying the game. Not a fortunate bounce off a Russian defender's skate. Not a display of talent that everybody knew the team had. "Heart" is narrative, it's post-hoc rationalization that can make Eric Francis and his Canadian readers feel better about laying an egg for 40 minutes.
Where was the Canadian heart last year when Russia came back from a three-goal third period deficit, led by... you guessed it, Kuznetsov? Was that just Russian heart? Was it not Russian heart that was able to fend off the charging Canadians for the final 5 minutes of the seminfinal game Tuesday night? Did the Canadians not feel like showing any heart during the first 40 minutes? And really, if we're talking about heart in this tournament... well, we needn't go there.
As for Kuznetsov's part in making both teams look bad, it boils down to this: Kuznetsov had the gall to talk to an injured Canadian player.
As the groggy Canadian slowly got up Kuznetsov went over to say something to him.
The contents of the discussion will clearly never be related accurately but whether he was rubbing salt in the wound of an injured player or offering sincere condolences, he should have known better.
He had no business being around the fallen player.
Whatever the words, Boone Jenner responded by spearing Kuznetsov in the gut, earning a game misconduct and a suspension from the Bronze Medal game. Clearly, this is Kuznetsov's fault. How dare he skate near or discuss anything with an injured opposing player? That just does not happen in sports. NFL players never check on each other when an opposing player is hurt, NHL players never go to check on injured opponents. So Jenner speared (not "attempted to spear," Mr. Francis) Kuznetsov and somehow Kuznetsov is to blame for this ugliness. Are there any words that Kuznetsov could have said that warrant the physical retaliation he got?
After scoring his second goal of the game, Kuznetsov refused to embrace any of his four teammates, instead soaking up the limelight himself while showboating and then making his way over to the Russian bench for high-fives.
He's a heck of a player, but not much of a teammate.
Yeah, good teammates never celebrate exuberantly. Certainly not in big games. That's probably why Teemu Selanne is so reviled by his teammates. And Theo Fleury. And Tiger Williams. It's an emotional game and Kuznetsov showed some emotion after scoring a big goal. Something tells me he'd be forgiven if he had been wearing the proper jersey (just look at him skate away from his teammates...). And despite Francis' claim, Kuznetsov did celebrate with his teammates (shocking, right?). In fact, the caption for the photo on Francis' own column says "Kuznetsov celebrates a goal with his teammates during the [WJC match against Canada]." Then again, Kuznetsov did score three goals, so maybe the caption is talking about a different one...
As for his bona fides as a teammate, Kuznetsov was named captain of Team Russia and is currently tied for fourth in the tourney in assists. Something tells me his teammates are happy with him.
[Kuznetsov] was the one who selfishly tried to score on the empty net in the final minute by icing the puck and giving Canada another shot at tying the game.
Smart, team players don't do that.
Players trying to pad stats do.
It's always a bit of a gamble when you shoot for an empty net, but it's a high-reward gamble: a chance to ice the game. Russia was under duress and had shown no ability to clear their zone under control. Kuznetsov took a shot and missed under pressure from a torrid forecheck. And, to be honest, in that situation most coaches would take an icing. Just get the puck out and get a chance for a breather. But Kuznetsov is just a stat padder. The kind of stat padder that passes the puck to everyone on his way to a 6 assist performance against Latvia, a game in which he likely could have scored at will. But Francis does have a point, what kind of guy scores so many goals against weaker competition?A stat padder, clearly.
And, finally, Francis ends with a bit of cognitive dissonance that'll be hard to top.
[Kuznetsov] was also the one who showed little humility while accepting his player-of-the-game award by putting his hands up to his ears to encourage the booing that rained down on him.
Some call it being a character.
Others call it being classless -- the kind of thing a kid who scores nine points on midget players would do.
So for those keeping score at home, adults booing a 19-year-old kid for being recognized after an exceptional amateur hockey game is acceptable, but when that 19-year-old plays up to the crowd, the kid is classless. Presumably Francis would prefer to see Kuznetsov burst into tears and run for the locker room. Of course that wasn't going to happen. If Kuznetsov was so fragile that he can't take some Canadian booing then he wouldn't have lit up Team Canada on the biggest amateur stage. Again.
No, the problem is not with Evgeny Kuznetsov. The problem is that Canada lost. Despite the fact that too many players to name have done exactly what Kuznetsov did (including many a good ol' Canadian boy), now it's too much. Petr Mrazek fist pumping in a loss to the Russians is OK. The hundreds of goal celebrations the Canadian players have engaged in over the last few WJC tournaments alone, many of them in blowouts, are totally fine. But when the Captain, and only returning player, tries to take over a big game, succeeds, and shows some emotion, that's classless and selfish. No, despite Eric Francis' assertions to the contrary, biggest mistake was lighting up Team Canada. Again.