Connor Bedard Canada USA World Junior semifinal

HALIFAX — Brandt Clarke was a month away from his sixth birthday.

The moment, however, remains etched in his memory.

John Tavares scored a spectacular hat trick for Canada against the United States in a wild 7-4 win on New Year’s Eve at the 2009 World Junior Hockey Championship in Ottawa.

Clarke and his family were in the building – hanging from every shot, save and strike from the bleachers.

“Electricity in the building,” he said of what still resonates 14 years later. “Red jerseys all the way to the top… 20,000 people, winning the game against the Americans.

“It’s second to none.”

With another tantalizing episode of the bitter rivalry set for Wednesday thanks to Connor Bedard’s overtime heroism for Canada in the quarter-finals, Clarke is confident that his teammate and the best player in the country – much like Tavares on that chilly night in the nation’s capital – will rise for the occasion.

“I don’t expect him to back down,” the Los Angeles Kings defenseman said after Tuesday’s brief practice. “All I’ve seen so far is him taking steps forward. While it’s hard to imagine him still being able to take steps forward, he did.

“I don’t think that’s going to change.”

Bedard didn’t just change a few lines in the men’s under-20 tournament record books.

He tore it to shreds.

The presumed first pick in the 2023 NHL Draft set five national or tournament records early in Monday’s triumph over Slovakia before a stunning solo effort in overtime nearly blew the roof off a seething Scotiabank Centre.

Bedard had the most goals (16) and points (34) all-time by a Canadian at the tournament. He also set the national record for points (21) and assists (13) in a single event, and has the most points ever recorded by a player under the age of 18 from any country.

But despite all the accolades, the 17-year-old North Vancouver, B.C. native has made a habit of moving quickly.

His headline-grabbing performance in the quarter-finals was no different.

“It’s really amazing for him to be able to exclude or ignore all the media and all the attention he gets,” said Canadian goaltender Thomas Milic. “He’s a team guy. A quote I like is, ‘A rising tide lifts all boats.’ The fact that we are successful as a team helps him and everyone else.”

“He’s not just sitting there dwelling on the biggest goal of the tournament,” Canadian head coach Dennis Williams added of Bedard, who did not speak to reporters on Tuesday. “You wouldn’t have known after the game – he was already focused on the next challenge.”

It comes on Wednesday in the final clash of the North American powerhouses in the sport.

“A kid’s dream,” said American forward and Winnipeg Jets prospect Rutger McGroarty. “Playing in a barn like this against your rival will be fun.

“It just motivates us to see that atmosphere, to see how crazy it’s going to be.”

Whether it’s the Olympics, Junior World Championships, World Championships or any other level, extra motivation is not needed when countries step onto the ice.

“Don’t think we have to come in as coaches and run the room,” Williams said. “If anything, we need to calm them down.”

Tavares, Sidney Crosby, Joe Sakic, Haley Wickenheiser, Marie-Philip Poulin and many more have risen to the occasion in similar moments.

This Canadian iteration hopes for the same.

“We all dreamed of it when we were kids,” winger Brennan Othmann said. “This is the game, this is the time.”

“The biggest rivalry,” added Ottawa Senators forward and prospect Zach Ostapchuk. “And for us, personally, that’s huge. It’s going to be really exciting.”

Despite all of Bedard’s points, the Americans are also dangerous, especially the top line of Logan Cooley, Jimmy Snuggerud and Cutter Gauthier, who sit second, third and fifth in tournament scoring.

“Talented guys,” said Canadian center Logan Stankoven, who plays alongside Bedard and is fourth in the points race. “They strike fast and fast.”

Taking the body will be a big part of Canada’s mindset against the Americans, especially trying to make life difficult for their undersized body defense.

“They don’t like physical play,” Clarke said.

Despite all the drama on Monday, one area where the Canadiens will be looking to improve is face-offs after a success rate of just 45%.

“We’re looking for the game too much there,” Williams said. “We were going to position ourselves before possession.”

Canada lost to the United States in the 2021 tournament final in the COVID-19 bubble in Edmonton when the countries last met at the world junior championships.

“Super special,” Milic said. “These are games I loved to watch growing up. We’re pretty lucky to be able to be in this position to play one and really have a great battle for our country.”

Canada got there thanks to another spectacular performance from Bedard, who took a knee for his own version of the “heartbreaker” celebration made famous by American great Patrick Kane after scoring the winner against the Slovaks.

“It was pretty cool,” Clarke said. “Especially in a big setting like that. The whole building is going crazy, the whole building is chanting ‘MVP’ to him.

“That’s what he’s been doing the whole tournament – just breaking hearts.”

Bedard and Canada will seek to do the same against the Americans.

This report from The Canadian Press was first published on January 3, 2023.

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