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Passionate Canadians leave disappointed

What they left us with more than anything is their passion. We'll never completely understand Canada's obsession with hockey because the United States doesn't have one sport that captures our attention to quite the same degree. They don't simply love the game in Canada. They live for the game in Canada.

If there was anything unique about the 2011 IIHF World Junior Championship, it's that never before had so many fans from another country taken over an arena for so many days, made so much noise, been so happy and left so sad. It had to be a first because finding anything that compares is impossible.

Canada's 5-3 loss to Russia in the gold medal game will go down as one of the lowest moments in the proud and loud nation's sports history. Their gold medals might as well have been distributed in the dressing room after the second period. Their sixth title in seven years was all but locked up until Russia found the key.

In less than a half hour, the same crowd that was singing and dancing and waving their maple leaf flags Wednesday, as they had been all week, watched in stunned silence in HSBC Arena as their boys coughed up a 3-0 lead and allowed five goals on 10 shots. It's a wonder how it happened so quickly and without warning.

"There is no explanation," Team Canada goalie Mark Visentin said.

Oh, but there are plenty, indeed.

No matter where it was played or who was favored, this tournament was about either Canada or the United States winning it all and nothing more. Canada won the semifinals matchup between the two powers Monday with more people watching the game across Canada than watched the Winter Classic in the United States. One in five Canadians was expected to be watching the game Wednesday.

Folks, that's pressure.

And as much as they're viewed as superstars in Canada, the team's players remained a bunch of kids who lacked the experience and maturity to avoid getting caught up in the moment. They thought the game was over with a three-goal lead and one period remaining, and they found out the hard way victory was a long way away, indeed.

"We just learned a lesson to never stop playing," Canada captain Ryan Ellis said afterward. "I guess that's what we did. We stopped playing after 40 [minutes] and got too high on our horse. They took the game over."

Canada was expected to win without much problem. It had bigger, more aggressive players, more talent and prettier girlfriends. All it took was two goals 13 seconds apart to make it interesting, a breakdown to tie the game, Russia forward Artemi Panarin burying a shot from outside the crease to take the lead and one more to put it away.

Team Canada will spend years looking for answers. It was the second time in two years in which they chased a goalie and lost the gold-medal game. For now, there are going to be millions of bummed out Canadians trying to figure out what it all means over the next several days.

"It's tough," Ellis said. "You let your fans down. You let your country down. But life goes on. You have to get over it."

It was a heartbreaker for Canadians, certainly, but they weren't the only people in town over the past 11 days. The United States wanted to show people its title last year wasn't a fluke, but the start of a trend. The Yanks were disappointed after losing in the semifinals to Canada and settling for the bronze with a victory over Sweden.

Overall, the tournament was a success from almost every angle.

There were more than 330,000 tickets sold for the 31 games, an American record for the World Juniors. Looking back, it meant many things to many people along the way. Russia pulled off the most shocking upset in World Juniors history and reaffirmed it's still among the amateur superpowers.

For Buffalo, it was an opportunity to show the world it's not just a snowy place but a terrific hockey town that covers its flaws with its warm personality. Local hockey fans celebrated amateur hockey at the highest level. Sabres fans caught enough of Marcus Foligno and Zack Kassian to be excited about the future.

The word "amateur" comes with an asterisk, of course. The tournament was a cash cow for the Sabres, who reportedly milked $10 million in profits. Fans must be nauseated seeing that much dough pouring into the franchise and not enough being spent on the product over the summer.

Owner Tom Golisano was looking for one more moneymaker before selling the team to billionaire Terry Pegula. For him, it was about the score. No problem here with Golisano taking the money and running, so long as he keeps running. It's just a shame he never had the passion for hockey found in the fans filling the building.

He can thank the Canadians.

In victory and defeat, they were priceless.

e-mail: bgleason@buffnews.com

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