Abbotsford’s Jake Virtanen found gold with Canada’s world junior hockey team Monday night in a dramatic 5-4 victory over Russia before 18,000 screaming fans at a packed Air Canada Centre in Toronto.
After leaping out to a 5-1 advantage in the second period, Russia narrowed the Canadians’ lead to just one heading into the final 20 minutes.
But with the nation’s eyes on them, the Canadians held on for nation’s first world junior gold since 2009. The team also included Aldergrove’s Shea Theodore who, like Virtanen, spent several years at Yale secondary’s hockey academy, and graduated from the local high school.
Virtanen – a first-round draft pick of the Vancouver Canucks – said many of the players – like hockey fans in Abbotsford and beyond – could barely watch the final minutes of the game.
“The guys, I don’t think some guys were even looking at the play on the bench,” Virtanen told Sportsnet after the game. “It was heads down, hope for the best, cross your fingers.
“Singing O Canada at the end of the game was unreal, and a moment I’ll never forget.”
While he didn’t figure on the scoresheet Monday night, Virtanen made the highlights with a spectacular check of a Russian player in the first period.
Virtanen finished the tournament with one goal and four points. Theodore, an Anaheim Ducks draft pick, registered a goal and an assist and was plus-12.
The win drew congratulations from various local hockey fans, including from the Abbotsford Minor Hockey Association and from Mayor Henry Braun, who released a statement congratulating Virtanen and his teammates. “Abbotsford has a proud legacy of sports excellence in our community and we are thrilled to celebrate this inspiring success for Canada,” he said.
— Henry Braun (@HenryBraun2014) January 6, 2015
— Abbotsford Hawks (@AMHA_Hockey) January 6, 2015
Virtanen’s parents, Brigitte and Rainer, watched from the stands. “Pretty unbelievable, pretty exciting,” said Brigitte. “You know in the third period we were sweating a bit.”
After the game, the Virtanens met up with their son and the rest of the Team Canada contingent for a party at the Air Canada Centre.
“It was pretty crazy. The boys were so excited to see their families. [Jake] hugged us and he was so excited. They all had their gold medals.”
Brigitte and Rainer had to schedule vacation time well in advance of Team Canada announcing its final roster for the tournament.
“We just said if he makes it great and if no well, we’re just on holidays. It worked out really well. None of us would have missed it for the world.”
On Tuesday morning the Virtanens were preparing for a flight back to Abbotsford and Jake had already left Toronto to meet up with his WHL team in Moose Jaw, Sask.
He has his gold medal with him. His parents offered to take the medal home with them to Abbotsford, but he declined.
“They wanted to wear them on the plane I think,” said Brigitte.