TORONTO — Members of Canada’s world junior hockey team were greeted by dozens of friends, family and supporters at Pearson International Airport on Monday afternoon after winning gold a day earlier in the Czech Republic.
With gold medals hanging around their necks and smiles on their tired faces after a long day of travel, several players said the 4-3 victory over Russia had yet to really sink in.
Akil Thomas scored the winning goal with 3:58 left in regulation on Sunday after captain Barrett Hayton, who was nursing a shoulder injury, had tied the game earlier in the period.
Thomas, who’s from Toronto, had over 30 supporters on hand to greet him at the airport.
“It’s pretty overwhelming obviously,” Thomas said. “A lot of friends and family are here. The last 24 hours have been pretty crazy. I’m just thankful.”
The win gave Canada its third world junior crown in the last six years.
It was the first time Canada had won U20 gold in a European venue since 2008. Canada was eliminated in the quarterfinals last year when it hosted the tournament.
Joining Thomas and Hayton on the nine-hour flight from Vienna were teammates Nico Daws, Ty Dellandrea, Jamie Drysdale, Aidan Dudas, Liam Foudy and Connor McMichael.
Other players were scheduled to arrive at various destinations around the country over the coming days as they resume play with their respective junior teams.
“I just had a good feeling about the game,” Thomas said. “We were obviously playing well. I grew up watching those type of games. Things happen quick in those types of games. You can win in a blink of an eye.
“I just got an opportunity and I made the most out of it. Luckily I scored.”
Supporters at the airport, many waving flags and sporting Canada hockey jerseys, let out a roar as the players walked through the arrival doors.
Hayton had the tournament trophy in tow and proudly raised it in the air to a cheer from the crowd. The team captain helped guide his club to the podium after an uneven start to the tournament.
“I think there was some adversity early on,” he said. “I think from the start we wanted to get better every day. I thought we did that extremely well.”
Alexis Lafreniere, a favourite to go first overall in the 2020 NHL Entry Draft, was named tournament MVP and top forward. Joel Hofer, who backstopped Canada to five straight victories, was named top goaltender.
Canada looked suspect at times in the opener of the preliminary round, a 6-4 comeback win over the United States. That game was followed by a deflating 6-0 loss to Russia.
However, Canada built some momentum and shone when the games really mattered, outscoring opponents 15-4 in the playoff round. Sweden beat Finland for the bronze medal.
The 2021 event will be held in Edmonton and Red Deer, Alta.
Canada has reached the podium 32 times at the world juniors since 1977. Canada has won 18 gold, nine silver and five bronze.
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Gregory Strong, The Canadian Press