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Victorious junior hockey team named Canadian team of the year in 2009

Canada's junior hockey team, which kept the country's run of gold alive in the face of long odds, has been named The Canadian Press team of the year for 2009.

Canada's junior hockey team, which kept the country's run of gold alive in the face of long odds, has been named The Canadian Press team of the year for 2009.

Canada won its fifth straight world junior championship on Jan. 5, 2009, in Ottawa with a decisive 5-1 win over Sweden.

But the fifth gold was very much in doubt in the semifinal. Canada trailed Russia 5-4 with five seconds to go when Regina's Jordan Eberle scored. That was the defining moment of Canada's tournament.

The gold in Ottawa tied Canada's record of five straight titles set between 1993 and 1997. The 2010 edition of Canada's junior team is attempting to add to that record at the tournament currently underway in Regina and Saskatoon.

In a survey of sports editors and broadcasters across the country, the junior squad team garnered 213 points, including 51 first-place votes. The Grey Cup champion Montreal Alouettes were runners-up with 158 points, followed by the Windsor Spitfires with 53.

"Extremely proud," says Pat Quinn, who was head coach of the junior team and now stands behind the bench of the NHL's Edmonton Oilers. "It's a great tribute to those young men.

"It's certainly well-deserved. They, like me, will cherish that moment. They, like all Canadians, will cherish what happened and that it happened in Canada in front of great hockey fans."

Canada's junior team has won team of the year three times during its run of five gold and made it back-to-back honours as the 2008 squad was also the choice for team of the year. The juniors also won in 2005.

But the 2009 team was unique in many ways. Benoit Groulx was initially named head coach but, after overseeing summer camp, he took a coaching job in the American Hockey League. Hockey Canada named Quinn as Groulx's replacement.

Quinn, then 65 and a veteran of the NHL coaching ranks, found retirement wasn't for him and had kept his hand in coaching with Canada's under-18 team.

He didn't know all his players names by the end of Canada's selection camp, but that didn't matter. Quinn identified Canada's strengths and let the players do what they did best.

In contrast to the defence-first philosophy of the Canadian team the four previous years, the 2009 team had a riverboat gambler streak. Canada won the tournament averaging 7.5 goals per game to make it the second-highest scoring Canadian team in the tournament's 35-year history.

Canada's power-play ran at a 50 per cent clip through the event and scored two of five goals in the championship game a man up. After outscoring the opposition 28-2 in their opening three games, the Canadians recovered from an early three-goal deficit against the Americans to win 7-4 and finish first in their pool.

That set up one of the most dramatic moments in the Canadian junior team's history. The bid for five straight gold seemed all but over in the semifinal as Russia took a 5-4 lead at 17:40 of the third period.

But Canada got a break when Russia iced the puck while goaltender Dustin Tokarski was pulled for an extra attacker. That gave the hosts a chance to set up a play.

Defenceman Ryan Ellis started the scoring sequence with a smart play at the blue-line boards to keep the puck in the attacking zone after Russia tried to clear it.

John Tavares backhanded the puck from the boards towards the net.

Russian defenceman Dmitri Kulikov dropped to his knees in front of the net in an attempt to freeze the puck, but Eberle stole it and went forehand to backhand to beat Russian goalie Vadim Zhelobynyuk with five seconds left.

Canadian teammate Patrice Cormier said he went numb at that moment, while defenceman Colton Teubert screamed himself hoarse in celebration.

"I think at that moment there wasn't a guy on the bench that doubted that we were going to be the gold medallists," Quinn said.

"We laid out our plan. It's the plan for pulling your goaltender and you hope there's some executions and good breaks, maybe a mistake on the other side that you can force and all of those happened.

"What an exciting place to be, what a pleasure to watch the kids execute like that. It was one of my great thrills in life."

That Eberle and John Tavares scored in a 6-5 shootout win to propel Canada to the final for an incredible eighth straight year was almost a footnote alongside Eberle's dramatic tying goal.

And the championship game was downright anticlimactic after the heart-stopping semifinal. Canada played its best defensive game of the tournament against the Swedes and let its natural offence take over.

Quinn wasn't entirely confident in Tokarski heading into the final, but the Spokane Chief played his best game of the tournament and made 39 saves.

Quinn says the groundwork for that moment was laid during the team's pre-tournament camp at CFB Petawawa, where the players rubbed shoulders with men and women for whom teamwork meant everything on the battlefield.

"It really help set the tone on teamwork for us in my opinion," he says. "Our warriors, our Canadian soldiers, who are so highly regarded around the world, they know team is way more important that the individual and their lives depend on it.

"Well our lives don't depend on it, but certainly success depends on coming together as a team. We learned some very good elements there."

Tavares went on to be the No. 1 pick in the NHL entry draft by the New York Islanders and is currently a regular in their lineup. Eberle, an Oilers draft pick, is back playing for Canada a second straight year. But he admits that goal is a conversation-starter.

"Winning gold - that sums it up right there," Eberle says. "The adversity we went through beating the Americans and the Russians, and capping it off with the gold medal, that was the biggest thing for us."

Canada required the shootout heroics of goaltender Carey Price and forward Jonathan Toews to get by the U.S. 2-1 in the semifinal of the 2007 world junior championship in Leksand, Sweden.

Matt Halischuk scored the overtime winner in the final the following year in Pardubice, Czech Republic, where a 3-2 victory gave Canada a fourth straight gold.

But the drive for five was truly on life support in Ottawa. Canada wrested the gold back from the brink.

"The biggest thing was seeing how the team jelled, that 22 guys came together so quickly and made such an impact," defenceman Alex Pietrangelo said. "We had some close calls, especially against Russia, but at the same time, it's a team I'll never forget."

 
 
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