Canadian cockiness?

PAUL FRIESEN

, Last Updated: 9:09 AM ET

PARDUBICE, Czech Republic -- A funny thing happened to Team Canada on the way to a fourth consecutive gold medal at the world junior hockey championship.

It ran straight into something it didn't see coming. I'm not talking about Team Sweden, either.

This obstacle is far more dangerous than a bunch of gritty Swedes. This can bring the most talented team in the world to its knees.

And since the Canadians probably aren't even the most talented team at these worlds, they were particularly vulnerable.

If we didn't see the signs in two earlier games -- and they were probably there, if we would have looked more closely -- they were on display in Saturday's 4-3 loss to Sweden.

Signs of a team becoming bloated on its own press clippings.

"We might have had a little bit of an arrogance about us," goaltender Steve Mason volunteered yesterday.

Canadian arrogance -- who would have guessed?

And Mason, who will draw Canada's final assignment of the preliminary round, today against Denmark, wasn't alone in his assessment.

"It was a real eye-opener, losing that game to Sweden," forward Steve Stamkos said, after a short but determined practice at the CEZ Arena. "We were getting a little too comfortable."

Think about it. For three years we've heard how Canadian juniors are the best in the world. It's our game, we're repeatedly told.

And this group of 17, 18 and 19-year-olds came of age in this milieu. Pull a Team Canada jersey over your head and you're destined for a gold medal.

The past three world juniors, Canada hadn't so much as lost a single game, the streak at 18, and counting.

Then you take on the Russians, the world's other hockey power, in a summer Super Series and win seven of eight, tying the other. A cakewalk. You're invincible.

Along comes Pardubice, and you not only extend the win streak to a record 20, you shut out both the Czechs and Slovaks.

Suddenly the question isn't, "Will you win gold?" but, "How long will the streak go, and will you even give up a goal?" Never mind that you didn't play that well against either. It's hard to blame them, really.

It's like putting a room full of sportswriters in an all-night, all-you-can-eat-and-drink buffet and being surprised when they don't feel so good the next morning.

Players were talking not just about being ready for the next game, or getting to the gold- medal final, but about going undefeated.

And then along comes Sweden. All those checks the Canadians dished out? Like love taps, compared to the reality check the Swedes delivered.

After the game, at a somber team meeting, a humbled group tried to figure it all out. A few players spoke, the rest just listened.

"We were shocked at what had just happened," forward Claude Giroux acknowledged. "We thought we couldn't get scored against, and we got four goals against."

Yesterday, Mason said the team was "still a little down from it."

"It took a lot out of us, emotionally," Stamkos conceded.

Before hitting the practice ice, head coach Craig Hartsburg called the boys in for a movie. Entertainment wasn't the purpose.

Call it a Canadian short: How not to play the third period against a good team at the world juniors. Miss a check here, overskate a puck there, and you've got the ultimate trailer.

Coming out of this theatre, a new resolve to prove that wasn't the real Team Canada.

"Maybe it'll refocus us," defenceman Luke Schenn said. "And get us on the same page the rest of the tournament."

Time will tell where this year's team lands. Right now, it's still trying to recover from a staggering punch to the jaw.


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