All apologies to the host nation's team, but Wednesday's gold-medal game at the 2011 World Junior Championship in Buffalo could feature the fiercest rivalry in the history of international hockey.
Canada vs. Russia.
The rivalry has played out over the years at every level, from the famed 1972 Summit Series to the Russian Red Army tours of the NHL to World Championships and even the 2010 Olympics.
"When you play the Russians, it has a little extra to it," said Philadelphia Flyers
center Mike Richards
, a Team Canada veteran at a number of different levels. "Playing them, it was the biggest thing we could have gotten up for. It's probably a big game, lots of meaning, to play against those guys."
"Canada-U.S. is the best present rivalry," added former Team Canada star Brendan Shanahan
, "but historically it's Canada-Russia."
The World Junior Championship has been a huge part of the rivalry, going all the way back to the tournament's origins in 1977, when a Soviet team featuring Vyacheslav Fetisov and Sergei Makarov
beat a Canadian squad featuring Rob Ramage and Ron Duguay
on the final day of the tournament to win the gold medal in Czechoslovakia.
Thirty years later, the teams met in the gold-medal game in Sweden, with Jonathan Toews
scoring a goal and adding an assist and Carey Price
stopping 25 of 27 shots to lead Canada to a 4-2 victory against a Russia team led by Alexei Cherepanov
and Artem Anisimov
In all, the teams have met 31 times in World Junior Championship play, with Canada winning 15 times, Russia 14 times and two ties. One of those wins by Canada came at the infamous 1987 "Punch-up in Piestany," that featured on-ice officials ordering the lights turned off in the arena in Czechoslovakia in an attempt to end a bench-clearing brawl. The IIHF later disqualified both teams.
"I often told people when we played against them in the World Juniors, there was no scouting report," said Shanahan, now the NHL's Vice President of Hockey and Business Development, who played for Team Canada in Piestany. "Now you can put on the Russian team, and you probably played against most of them in junior … you've played them in under-17, you know the scouring report. You know they're probably coming to the NHL." In his day, he said, "You didn't know if you were going into the corner with (Alexander) Mogilny or (Vladimir) Konstantinov. Is this guy going to undress me or take my head off?"
Canada has won four straight in the rivalry, most recently the 2009 semifinals in Ottawa when Jordan Eberle
memorably scored the game-tying goal with 5.4 seconds left in regulation, and then Eberle and John Tavares
scored in the shootout to give Canada a 6-5 victory.
When the teams meet for the gold medal Wednesday (7:30 p.m. ET, NHLN-US, TSN), it will be the seventh time since the current tournament format was adopted in 1996 that they'll face off for the gold. The series stands 3-3, with Canada winning three straight (2005-07) after three straight wins by Russia (1999, 2002, 2003).
While the 2007 game in Sweden is their most recent gold-medal meeting, and the 2009 game in Ottawa is remembered for Eberle's heroics and Russia forward Nikita Filatov
's quote -- "God was on Canada's side tonight." -- the 2005 gold-medal game in Grand Forks, N.D., is one that stands out, as much for who played in the game as the final result -- a dominating 6-1 victory by Canada.
Starring that night for Canada was a roster befitting an All-Star Game -- Richards, Sidney Crosby
, Ryan Getzlaf
, Corey Perry
, Jeff Carter
and Patrice Bergeron
at forward, and Dion Phaneuf
, Braydon Coburn
and Shea Weber
Russia didn't have a bad a team, either -- including a pair of forwards named Alex Ovechkin
and Evgeni Malkin
Going into that game, Canada was smarting from three straight gold-medal game losses, including 2002 and '03 defeats against Russia, with the 2003 tournament loss coming in Halifax, N.S.
"Focusing on Russia, for us, before the game, got us up more than it if it was Sweden or the Czechs," said Richards, who captained the '05 Canada squad. "You focus more for a game against Russia. Losing to the Russians is something you don't want to do. Watching your country lose a couple years before, it means more."
The Canadians also had the home-ice advantage, as thousands of fans streamed across the border from Manitoba.
"It felt like we were at home," Crosby said. "There were a ton of Canadian fans."
Getzlaf started the scoring with a goal just 51 seconds in, and Canada broke it open with four goals in a 10-minute span in the second period.
"Canada-U.S. is the best present rivalry, but historically it's Canada-Russia." -- Brendan Shanahan
Ovechkin and Malkin were non-factors, finishing with one shot each, and Ovechkin was knocked out of the game with a shoulder injury.
"I played twice in the final and lost twice," said Malkin, who also was on the 2006 team that lost to Canada in Vancouver.
The rivalry will be renewed Wednesday, when Canada and Russia go at it again, this time at Buffalo's HSBC Arena. Tensions will be running high, and not just in the teams' locker rooms.
"I hope they win tomorrow," Malkin said. "It would be a great day for Russia."
Shanahan tried to take a more neutral approach, but old habits die hard.
"I'm mostly rooting for hockey and a great game -- with Canada coming out on top."
Contact Adam Kimelman at email@example.com