With Canada set to play in the semifinals of the 1997 world junior tournament in Geneva, coach Mike Babcock gave his checking line the assignment of their young careers.
Alyn McCauley, Boyd Devereaux and Brad Larsen were asked to shut down Russia’s prolific top line, led by Alexei Morozov. Meanwhile, all goalie Marc Denis had to do was play the game of his life.
It didn’t start well. Morozov scored on his first shift.
“Babcock walked down to the end of the bench and calmly put his arm around me,” McCauley recalls 20 years later, as Canada prepares to send another team short on stars to the world juniors. “He asked me, ‘Do you want to play tonight?’
“The message was clear. It was a gut-check moment. I had to dig deeper.”
McCauley’s line would not surrender another goal in the tournament. Denis, meanwhile, yielded only one more the rest of the way, despite at least one close call.
Down 2-1 in the second period against the Russians, Denis and the checking line, along with defencemen Chris Phillips and Jesse Wallin, played pivotal roles in killing off a five-minute slashing major to Jason Doig late in the second period.
Devereaux would go on to score two third-period goals to give Canada a dramatic 3-2 win. The game-winner was set up by a determined effort from McCauley.
In the gold-medal final against the United States the next evening, Denis made 35 saves in a 2-0 shutout victory. Devereaux scored the game-winner in the second period. Canada won its fifth world junior championship in a row.
“We didn’t have a lot of stars,” Denis says. “We had Christian Dubé and Daniel Brière and Chris Phillips. Joe Thornton was 17 and our 13th forward. But each player accepted their role.
“For the first time in a long time, Canada wasn’t the favourite. Russia and the U.S. had strong, strong teams. But we had a special group.”
‘Entire team effort’
That special group was assembled by Hockey Canada’s head scout, Barry Trapp, and brought together by a 33-year-old Babcock and his assistants, Mike Pelino and Real Paiement.
Babcock had guided the Lethbridge Pronghorns to the 1993-94 Canadian University Cup title and pushed the Spokane Chiefs to the 1995-96 WHL final in his second year with that team.
But Geneva was the coming-out party on a national level for the man who would go on to win a Stanley Cup with Detroit and lead Canada to two consecutive Olympic gold medals before taking on his current job as Toronto’s head coach. (One of Babcock’s cuts, defenceman D.J. Smith, is now an assistant on his Maple Leafs staff.)
“There was no forgone conclusion that we were going to win,” says McCauley, who along with Denis played on the dominant gold medal-winning 1996 team led by Jarome Iginla.
“We knew we needed an entire team effort. We knew nothing was going to be easy. We found ways to win, whether it was Boyd Devereaux scoring timely goals or Marc Denis making key saves. It just felt so different than the year before.”
The Canadian juniors persevered through some difficult times in the round robin. They needed a late goal from Peter Schaefer to tie the U.S. 4-4 in the second game of the tournament and yielded a late shorthanded goal to settle for a 3-3 draw with the Czech Republic on New Year’s Eve.
“We couldn’t rely on Dube and Briere to score all our goals,” Devereaux says. “That was quite clear in the round robin.”
‘Ready to run through a wall’
Babcock pulled all the right strings to keep his teenagers together during their 5-0-2 run that saw them play seven games in nine nights.
There was a team comedy night to loosen them up in the intense times. There was an emotional team get-together just before the tournament, in which each player was asked to stand up and dedicate the tournament to someone in their lives.
“When we were invited to the selection camp, we were asked to bring a picture of somebody special to us,” Devereaux says. “Then at Christmas, we met in the hotel with the coaches, trainers and all the staff. We formed a circle and nobody held back.”
Wallin’s speech was particularly moving. He dedicated his tournament to his late father, Brian, who suffered from depression and had committed suicide a few years earlier.
“We were just kids, but for Jesse to open up like that was something I’ll never forget,” Devereaux says. “You’re ready to run through a wall after you hear something like that.