Mitch Love entered the gold medal game riding high at the world juniors.
The assistant coach helped Team Canada to an undefeated record in the round robin, but his team fell in the finals. Canada lost in the gold medal game to the U.S.A 2-0.
“It wasn’t what we were looking for, but so be it, when it’s a one-game playoff,” Love said a few days after the loss.
Despite wishing for a different coloured medal, Love will add a juniors silver to his resume, after helping coach Team Canada to a gold last year.
Love has also been behind the bench for U-17 and U-18 gold medal wins for Canada.
The Quesnel-born coach is behind the bench of the WHL’s Saskatoon Blades during normal times.
“If you watch the game again, there were a lot of bounces that went their way, and didn’t go ours, but that’s what happens,” Love said. “We were on the other side of it last year where we got some fortunate bounces when Russia was up and came back and won. That’s the beauty of the world juniors.”
Heading into the gold medal game, Canada had a perfect record, never trailed and had not given up an even strength goal. While those marks would end when the Americans tipped a point shot home in the second period, it wouldn’t be defense that came up short. Canada directed 34 shots at goaltender Spencer Knight, but couldn’t slip one by, despite numerous chances as the game clock ticked down.
“We knew we were going to be challenged by a good American team,” Love said. “They had two premier lines in the tournament and we were bound to give up a goal or two. At the end of the day we had our opportunities too, and just weren’t able to get the puck past Knight.”
The IIHF World Juniors has become a high-profile event in Canada, with national television and constant commentary and pressure on mostly teen-aged players.
“The event itself for the Canadian hockey team is always heavily critiqued, everyone can say our pool was weaker than the other, and that may or may not be true, but at the end of the day, you’ve still got to be able to play,” he said. “The parity in the tournament compared to what it used to be is quite good. Our players did a great job buying into a system, we got great goaltending from Devon Levi. Not to allow a goal even-strength until the gold medal game is an accomplishment in itself.”
It was an even tougher environment than usual at the event due to COVID-19. Teams were required to enter into a ‘bubble’ in Edmonton. Isolated from the friends, family and fans that normally would pack into arenas. Before the tournament could even begin, Canadian players were at a selection camp, fighting for a spot on the team. That meant Love spent 52 days in a hotel, made worse by a few positive COVID-19 tests at the selection camp.
“I really thought our guys did a good job of adapting to the adversity we were faced with, and put ourselves in a winner-take-all situation at the end of the tournament,” Love said. “It was a great experience regardless of the end result, and there was lots to be learned and taken away from it all.”
What Love can take from the juniors to the WHL season is still up in the air. In a Jan. 8 news release, the WHL committed to having a season in 2021, no matter the different provincial restrictions.
“This commitment ensures WHL players will receive the opportunity to compete at the highest level in the system and continue to pursue their hockey goals in the world’s finest development league for junior hockey players,” league commissioner Ron Robison said in the release.
The WHL season is planned for 24 games, played between neighbouring teams.
Love said he’s trying to turn a negative into a positive this season, change how his team handles player development.
“I think when we get back on the ice as a group, [the restrictions] will allow us to hone in more and more on the individual and their development, and it will make us a better team down the road,” he said
Even as Love tried to focus on the positives of a silver medal and developing players, the sting of defeat was still fresh a few days later.
“I’ve received a lot of kind messages from friends and family, saying congratulations on the silver medal, but I’ll be honest, it would have been a lot better to get a congratulations on a gold medal.”
Saskatchewan will release an updated list of restrictions related to sports and hockey later this week.
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