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Canadian junior hockey team The Canadian Press Team of the Year for 2008

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Canada's junior hockey team won The Canadian Press Team of the Year award like it captured the gold medal at the 2008 world junior championship.

It came right down to the wire.

The Canadians beat Sweden 3-2 in overtime Jan. 5 in Pardubice, Czech Republic, to win a fourth straight gold medal for their country.

In a survey of sports editors and broadcasters across the country, the junior squad trailed the men's Olympic eight rowing crew for Team of the Year honours until a late surge.

Although the gold-medal winning rowers finished with 36 first-place votes and the junior team with 25, the hockey team was bolstered by more second-and third-place votes.

The hockey team finished with 141 points to the rowers' 139 in a tight race. The Grey Cup-champion Calgary Stampeders were third with 102 points a year after the Grey Cup-champion Saskatchewan Roughriders won the award.

"A toss-up for us on a number of fronts - could have easily picked 10 teams for these top three positions," said Al Coates, sports editor of the Waterloo Region Record.

Wheelchair racer Chantal Petitclerc claimed female athlete of the year honours Friday while Minnesota Twins first baseman Justin Morneau captured the male award Sunday.

The junior team was young with an average age of just under 19 for what is considered a showcase of the world's best 19-year-old players.

The Canadians matured by leaps and bounds during the 11 days of the tournament.

By their own admission, they went into the event feeling bulletproof because of their 18-game winning streak in the tournament. The majority of the players had thumped the Russians in an eight-game series just a few weeks prior to the junior championship.

That cockiness crashed in a third-period collapse against Sweden in Canada's third game of the preliminary round. The Canadians couldn't protect a 2-0 lead and lost 4-3.

While Matt Halischuk's overtime goal in the final was the defining moment of the tournament for head coach Craig Hartsburg, the loss to Sweden was the pivotal one.

"You hate to say when you lose it's good, but it was the best thing that happened to the team," said Hartsburg, now head coach of the NHL's Ottawa Senators.

"I think when they finally lost, to me there was an immediate response that 'We've got to be better than this to win the gold medal."'

But Canada still didn't look like a gold-medal team in a nervous 4-2 quarter-final win over Finland.

A subplot to the tournament was Hartsburg's decision to go with Steve Mason in goal for the medal round, even though some hockey pundits felt he should put Jonathan Bernier in net.

Despite the goaltending controversy and finding out the day of the semifinal his junior rights had been traded from London to Kitchener, Mason was outstanding in Canada's 4-1 win over the U.S., to bring on a rematch with the Swedes for gold.

Hartsburg had less than 24 hours to prepare his team for the final and was ill with the flu.

"You just find a way," Hartsburg said. "It's the most important moment of your life right there."

The final was almost a repeat of the preliminary-round game as Canada built a 2-0 lead heading into the third, only for the Swedes to score twice and tie it with 38 seconds remaining in regulation.

Hartsburg had a job to do in the dressing room before overtime to calm his distraught players down.

"The first thing was to get them off thinking 'Well, we just blew the gold medal,"' Hartsburg said. "We had to get them settled down because there were kids who were devastated by it and they were pretty close to tears.

"The biggest thing we had to do was get them refocused right away off of what had just happened and focus on what's going to happen here now. It was one shot. We needed one shot and we talked about that immediately."

And it was just one shot. After Mason's three saves on the Swedes in extra time, Halischuk scored the winner at 3:36.

"In all my hockey life, that right now is the most memorable moment just watching those kids react after Halischuk scored," Hartsburg said. "Their reaction was unbelievable. There had to be 10 kids in tears."

In the six years the world junior tournament format gave the two pool winners a bye to the semifinal, only Russia in 1999 had come through a quarter-final to win gold before the Canadians did it in Pardubice.

Hartsburg had coached the junior team three straight years. He was an assistant to Brent Sutter in 2006 and the 2007 Canadian junior team also won gold under Hartsburg.

The 2008 edition had a distinct personality.

"This was a group that had all kinds of energy," Hartsburg said. "They loved to be on the ice and they loved to be around each other, whether it was in the hotel or at the rink."

Players from that junior team, such as Toronto Maple Leafs defenceman Luke Schenn, Washington Capitals defenceman Karl Alzner and Tampa Bay forward Steve Stamkos, now line up against his Senators.

Hartsburg says when that happens, there's an unspoken acknowledgment of what they accomplished in Pardubice.

"You kind of make eye contact with them if they're playing against you," Hartsburg said. "Some of them will go on to do great things in their lives in the NHL and in the Stanley Cup, but that's something I'm sure they'll remember for a long time."

A look at the 2008 Canadian world junior hockey team, voted the 2008 Canadian Press Team of the Year:

Coach: Craig Hartsburg.

Captain: Karl Alzner.

Average age: Just under 19.

Achievement in 2008: Matt Halischuk scored in overtime in Pardubice, Czech Republic to lift Canada to a 3-2 win over Sweden and a fourth straight gold medal.

Tight race: The Canadian junior team finished with 141 points in Team of the Year voting while the Canadian men's eight rowing crew was close behind with 139 points.

Quote: "In all my hockey life, that right now is the most memorable moment just watching those kids react after Halischuk scored. Their reaction was unbelievable. There had to be 10 kids in tears." - coach Craig Hartsburg.

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