HELSINKI — Mackenzie Blackwood’s face was red as the maple leaf on his jersey as he walked into the mixed zone and faced a crush of reporters.
He looked equal parts pissed off and embarrassed, fighting both tears and an urge to say something he might regret. Moments earlier, the Canadian goaltender had allowed six goals en route to a 6-5 quarter-final loss to Finland, which sent the team to its worst finish at the world junior championship in nearly 20 years.
When a reporter asked him how he felt, Blackwood snorted. And then he blurted out the F-word.
“Terrible,” he added. “It’s the worst thing ever, losing. I hate it. Just got to learn from it and move on.”
For many of these players, Canada’s sixth-place finish — ahead of only Denmark, Slovakia, Switzerland and Belarus — will stay for them for a while. It might never leave.
“Don’t feel really good,” said forward Dylan Strome, who had four goals in the tournament and was named one of Canada’s top players. “A little frustrating. We’ll come back. We have to keep our heads held high. We battled for our country. For our families and for everyone supporting us. I know we had the country supporting us. It sucks, but we have a potential returning team that could be pretty good next year.”
Some will get a chance at redemption next year when Toronto and Montreal host the 2017 world junior championship. Nine players, including Strome and Mitch Marner, are eligible to play in that tournament, although some will likely be playing in the NHL. And after this disappointing result, some might not be invited back.
“This is a learning experience … for a lot of these guys,” head coach Dave Lowry said. “For the guys that have the opportunity to play in this tournament next year, remember this feeling. Remember how hard this competition is. And remember how important every night is.
“We talked about this tournament and experience and how critical it is. Next year, there’s a lot of potential returning players. If you can take this experience, turn it into a positive, and get the outcome you want, then moving forward, it will be a benefit.”
There is always next year. But right now, captain Brayden Point said, “It sucks.”
Jake Virtanen, who was one of four returning players from last year’s gold-medal team — Point, Joe Hicketts and Lawson Crouse were the others — added that he was “pretty devastated.” The Vancouver Canucks had loaned Virtanen to the world junior team in hopes that it would benefit his development as a young player.
Instead, he is heading back home with the extra baggage of letting his teammates and country down.
“We wanted to come here and win gold,” Virtanen said. “We really talked as a team. We kind of let the round-robin games go. We wanted to win games starting tonight. Go all the way. It’s tough to lose tonight.”
Though Canada won last year’s tournament and has dominated the world juniors in the past, heartbreaking losses are becoming more common.
Canada failed to medal in 2013 and 2014, losing in the bronze-medal game to Russia both times. There have been five different champions in the last five years, so this is a difficult tournament to win. As Strome had said, there are no “slouches.”
Canada had one easy game in the entire tournament, a 6-1 win against Denmark; the same Denmark team that took a top-seeded Russia team to overtime in their quarter-final on Saturday.
And yet, the loss on Saturday combined with how Canada struggled in the tournament will definitely send shockwaves back home.
“It’s disappointing for a team like Canada,” defenceman Thomas Chabot said. “It hurts even more because of that, but like we said in the dressing room, I’ve always been proud to be Canadian and it’s not a bad performance in this tournament that’s going to change that.
“What stands out the most is that it’s really difficult to win this tournament. It was my first time in an event of this kind, I never played in the Memorial Cup, which people say is pretty hard too. But here, the more games we played the more difficult it was.”