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Look back at 2004 WJC final between U.S., Canada

by Tim Wharnsby

The IIHF World Junior Hockey Championship returns to Helsinki this month, a dozen years after one of the most compelling 11 days in tournament history played out in the Finnish capital.

Junior hockey always has held an anything-can-happen characteristic, and that trait was ever present during the 2004 WJC. There was drama at every turn, it seemed.

Most remember the tournament as the coming-out party for 16-year-old Sidney Crosby, already possessing a burgeoning scrapbook filled with odes to his outlandish skills and comparisons to the hockey icons who preceded him. Everyone wanted to see what the wunderkind would do against his stiffest competition to date, playing against elite players two and three years older.

Crosby's roommate for the tournament was Jeff Tambellini, whose father, Steve Tambellini, was Wayne Gretzky's roommate at the 1978 tournament in Montreal. Crosby would be the No. 1 pick in the 2005 NHL Draft and become the undisputed star of the Pittsburgh Penguins, returning them to relevance and helping it win the 2009 Stanley Cup.

Russia forward Alex Ovechkin, who would become the No. 1 pick in the 2004 NHL Draft by the Washington Capitals, was participating in his second WJC. He did his best to keep Russia on track to defend the gold medal it won in Halifax, Nova Scotia, with a victory against host Canada in the championship game a year before.

This time, Russia was defeated by Finland in the quarterfinals. It upset the two-time defending champion when a long, floating shot by forward Valtteri Filppula was misjudged by goalie Konstantin Barulin with 13 seconds remaining.

Ovechkin, who scored in the third period to give Russia the lead, returned to his hotel room after the game to find out his close friend and family adviser, Anna Goruven, died unexpectedly on New Year's morning at a Helsinki hospital. Goruven, 49, was diagnosed with stomach cancer in February 2003 but appeared to be on the road to recovery.

Ovechkin's parents -- mother, Tatiana, and father, Mikhail -- decided to keep the news from their son until the next day, after the game against Finland.

But all of the twists and turns of the first 10 days of the tournament merely served as a prelude to one of the most unforgettable games in the history of the tournament, which was first contested in 1977.

The gold-medal game, on Jan. 5, 2004 at Hartwall Arena, pitted Canada against the United States. As added spice to a rivalry that rarely needed additional heat, there was the Brady Murray storyline.

Murray, the son of Andy Murray, the former Los Angeles Kings and St. Louis Blues coach, was born in Brandon, Manitoba, but had dual citizenship because his mother Ruth was American. He could have played for either Canada or the United States.

His father was coach of the Canadian national team in the past, but Brady turned down an invitation to the Canada junior team selection camp because there were no guarantees of a roster spot. Instead, he took the sure thing and chose the United States.

He reasoned he could play alongside his University of North Dakota teammate and best friend Zach Parise, and Patrick Eaves, a high school teammate.

The American team had future NHL players Parise, Ryan Suter and Ryan Kesler. Parise, a first-round pick by the Devils in the 2003 NHL Draft, led the Americans with 11 points in six games.

Canada, coached by Mario Durocher, had Crosby, Brent Burns, Jeff Carter, Braydon Coburn, Marc-Andre Fleury, Ryan Getzlaf, Josh Gorges, Kevin Klein, Dion Phaneuf, Mike Richards, Brent Seabrook and Max Talbot on its roster. Nigel Dawes and Anthony Stewart led them in scoring with 11 points each.

The Americans were the pre-tournament favorite, but Canada and the United States were each 5-0 entering the final.

Canada skated through the tournament with ease, outscoring the opposition 32-5. The Canadians were outscored in one of their 15 periods entering the final and had no difficulty defeating the Czech Republic 7-1 in the semifinals.

The United States outscored its opponents 23-5. The Americans had a nervous semifinal but managed to defeat Finland 2-1.

Canada sought its first WJC gold medal since 1997, and the Americans hoped to celebrate their first after winning silver in 1997 and bronze in 1992.

Those who shaped the drama that played out across two-plus hours, discussed with their memories of a wild 4-3 victory by the Americans that was decided on one of the flukiest goals, scored by forward Patrick O'Sullivan with less than six minutes left in the contest.

Patrick O'Sullivan, United States forward: "There were about 15 guys on our team who won the IIHF World Under-18 [Championship] the April before and more than 10 who won an Under-17 title before that. We knew had a good team and we were well-coached. Mike Eaves was the best coach I've ever had, and that includes my time in the NHL.

"We had a team that prepared like a pro team. We played as a team. Outside Zach Parise and Ryan Suter, we didn't have a lot of superstars. We just had a lot of solid players.

"Up until then, the U.S. program hadn't had much success. When we won, I think we helped turn that program around and started to attract better players. Now, 12 years down the road, you can see how many good, young American players enter the NHL every year.

"We were confident, but we certainly were nervous. The Canadians had a different kind of pressure because they were expected to win it every year. They were no strangers to be in those types of games."

Mike Eaves, United States coach: "This was a good group of young men. A lot of the boys were with us in Ann Arbor (with the National Team Development Program) and won gold at the Under-18 level. There was a lot of familiarity with this group."

Mark Stuart, United States defenseman: "We felt we had chemistry on our side. A lot of us played together, so there was that comfortable feeling we had with each other. [Eaves] was one of the best coaches I've ever had. He was intense, but he knew the game so well. You wanted to play hard for him. He helped my career big-time."

Canada continued its outstanding play in the gold-medal game and took a 3-1 lead in the second period. Dawes, who would play for five NHL teams in a six-year career, had two goals, and Stewart, who played for four NHL teams in a six-year career, scored the other goal for Canada.

Eaves: "Before the game, the message was to continue to play the way we had been. But when we got behind 3-1, I remember talking with our coaching staff to determine what the message should be, and it was, 'You know what guys, they haven't seen our best hockey yet.'"

Zach Parise, United States forward: "I remember Mike Eaves singled some of us out [in the second intermission]. I was one of them. He challenged some of us to be better."

O'Sullivan: "We weren't ready to play that game. We were watching too much. In that second intermission, we knew we hadn't played our best and yet we were only down 3-1 and Fleury had to make a couple big saves. We were calm. We just wanted to have a strong period. We were able to flip the table on them and made them nervous.

"We felt we belonged in that game. We ran over the Russians earlier in the tournament and they had Ovechkin and [Evgeni] Malkin. We felt we couldn't get any respect. We wanted to show them we could play in the third period."

Canada looked to take over the game in the third period, but U.S. goalie Al Montoya, who plays for the Florida Panthers, made a pair of incredible saves on Crosby and Getzlaf, now captain of the Anaheim Ducks. Montoya foiled Crosby with a glove save on a 2-on-1 and Getzlaf with a pad stop from the slot on the next shift.

Sidney Crosby, Canada forward: "I don't remember it that well. We had a number of chances in the third, but mine specifically, you'd have to refresh my memory on exactly what it was. I probably chose to forget it. It's probably better that way."

Al Montoya, United States goalie: "The coach came in and said a couple of words in the third period. I told myself to just go out here and finish this tournament strong, leave it all out on the ice and give your team a chance. I made a couple of saves and it ended up building us a little momentum and we went down the other way and scored a few goals."

Eaves: "I remember the first three minutes Al Montoya made some unbelievable saves, but then we got that second goal from Patrick O'Sullivan and then Ryan Kesler and then it was anybody's game."

Shortly after Montoya's save on Getzlaf, forward Patrick Eaves, son of the American coach, fed a pinpoint cross-ice pass to O'Sullivan.

O'Sullivan: "The 3-2 goal was one of the nicest goals I've scored. It was kind of a 3-on-2 and I think knocked the water bottle off the net. I couldn't have put that shot in a better place."

The Americans took control with their transition game. Kesler tied the game a few shifts after O'Sullivan's goal. It was the first time the Canada line of Richards, Dawes and Stewart was on for an even-strength goal against in the tournament.

Drew Stafford, United States forward: "We weren't worrying about stats or who would be the hero. We wanted to go out and do our jobs. I'm not going to say we dominated or anything, but even though that was a lucky goal, we did play well in the third period and deserved the win."

The play that led to the winning goal began when Dawes slid his shot of a rebound wide of the U.S. net. The puck caromed hard off the corner to Stafford, who plays for the Winnipeg Jets. Stafford swiftly put a stretch pass along the boards to O'Sullivan.

O'Sullivan was hooked by Seabrook and the puck slid to Fleury, who tried to clear it back up the ice. The attempt hit Coburn and the puck bounced into the net for the game-winning goal with 5:12 remaining.

O'Sullivan: "I had kind of a half-breakaway on the pass from Stafford. In today's game, I might have gotten a penalty shot with the way I was hooked. But I got turned around, and by the time I looked at Fleury I saw the puck in the net. I didn't know if it hit me. It was a crazy way to end the tournament."

Montoya: "[We] just believed in the team, we had a phenomenal tournament leading up into that championship game and all of a sudden we got one goal, two goals, three goals. Then there's five minutes left in the game and we end up pulling it off. I think it was the first Team USA to win it, it was pretty exciting moment. I'm still enjoying it to this day."

The goal, in part, came from a piece of strategy stressed by coach Eaves. He wanted the Americans to use their speed and look for two-line breakout passes, which were possible with the absence of the center red line under the IIHF rules that governed the tournament.

Eaves: "When you take the red line out, you can play long and fast. We told our forwards that if our defense was not under duress, well then that was the time to take off and stretch it. If not, just like in football, when a receiver comes back to the ball, our forwards were urged to come back and take a pass."

Parise: "I was on the bench. It was a play that was on the far side. It looked like [O'Sullivan] was going to get a breakaway, so we were standing. We saw [Fleury] come out and play it and then all of a sudden Sully was celebrating. We looked at each other and said, 'What just happened?'"

Stafford: "I saw him up there and fired the puck at him. Then, I was going to the bench for a change and then I saw Sully celebrating. I didn't know what happened. When Fleury shot it off Coburn, that's stuff you can't make up."

Crosby: "It was tough. It was really tough. We were up 3-1. We thought we had complete control of the game. We had some really good chances. It easily could've been a bigger lead than 3-1 and they just kind of hung around and got a couple bounces, and before we knew it, we were down 4-3.

"I don't think anything went wrong. I don't think we sat back. I don't think we did anything necessarily wrong. We just were on the wrong side of some tough bounces. When you look at, I think two of the three third-period goals were pucks that ended up in the air, bouncing off of guys. So, sometimes there's no great explanation for it. That's just the game."

"I was on the bench [for O'Sullivan's winner] and it was just a routine play where the goalie throws the puck up and I don't know if [Coburn] was trying to get out of [Fleury's] way or trying to maybe open up for the puck, but it just went off of him and just ended up bouncing in. You can do that 100 times and it doesn't happen. It's just a fluke thing. Nobody's fault. It's just the game sometimes."

It is not a memory that has often been revisited by either Fleury or Crosby, who have been teammates on the Penguins since Crosby arrived for the 2005-06 season. Fleury was the No. 1 pick in the 2003 draft.

Crosby: "We don't at all. A couple of guys jab [Fleury] once in a while about it. And being on that [Canada] team and feeling what we felt after the game, we choose not to really think of that one a whole lot, but I'm sure that's stuff for both of us that we've learned from and has probably made us better in the long run; so just something we don't like to bring up too often."

It is a different story for the Americans, many of whom revel in the bond they forged a dozen years ago in Helsinki.

Stuart: "To beat Canada in a gold-medal final was special."

Eaves: "You can have good players, good coaching and a good system. But sometimes there is an element that is out of your control. We had that element in that game.

"We got a bounce and we hung on. But after that last goal we didn't give it much."

At the time of his goal, O'Sullivan was having problems off the ice. He suffered physical and verbal abuse from his father, John, throughout his childhood. It was a storyline when he was selected No. 56 by the Minnesota Wild in the 2003 draft. O'Sullivan recently documented the history of abuse in his autobiography, "Breaking Away: A Harrowing True Story of Resilience, Courage and Triumph."

But O'Sullivan put those issues behind him for this tournament, scoring three goals, the last two among the most important in the history of the U.S. national team. He played 334 NHL games, the last on Jan. 7, 2012 for the Phoenix Coyotes.

Eaves: "I remember earlier in the tournament [O'Sullivan's] line didn't have a good game against [Sweden]. So we sat down with them, showed them some film and they really responded."

O'Sullivan was in tears after his second goal.

O'Sullivan: "For me, I hadn't produced that much. So to get the two goals was nice. It was pure happiness."

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