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Bedard, Canada set for world junior semifinal against U.S.: ‘The biggest rivalry’

Brandt Clarke was a month short of his sixth birthday.
Team Canada celebrates their win over Slovakia during overtime of IIHF World Junior Hockey Championship quarterfinal action in Halifax, Monday, Jan. 2, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darren Calabrese

Brandt Clarke was a month short of his sixth birthday.

The moment, however, remains etched in his memory.

John Tavares scored a dramatic hat trick for Canada against the United States in a wild 7-4 victory on New Year’s Eve at the 2009 world junior hockey championship in Ottawa.

Clarke and his family were in the building — hanging off every shot, save and hit from the stands.

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

“It’s unmatchable.”

With another mouth-watering instalment of the bitter rivalry set for Wednesday thanks to Connor Bedard’s overtime heroics for Canada in the quarterfinals, Clarke is confident his teammate and the country’s best player — just like Tavares that frigid night in the nation’s capital — will rise to the occasion.

“I don’t expect him to take any steps back,” the Los Angeles Kings defenceman said following Tuesday’s brief practice. “All I’ve seen so far is him take steps forward. Even when it’s hard to imagine him still being able to take steps forward, he’s done it.

“I don’t think that’ll change.”

Bedard has not only changed a couple lines in record books at the men’s under-20 tournament.

He’s torn it to shreds.

The presumptive first pick at the 2023 NHL draft set five national or tournament marks early in Monday’s triumph against Slovakia before a breathtaking solo effort in OT nearly blew the roof off a frothing Scotiabank Centre.

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

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

His headline-grabbing performance in the quarterfinals was no different.

“That’s really incredible for him to be able shut out or ignore all the media and how much attention he’s getting,” Canadian goaltender Thomas Milic said. “He’s a team-first guy. A quote I like is, ‘A rising tide lifts all boats.’ Us having team success is contributing to him and everyone else.”

“He doesn’t sit there and dwell on the biggest goal of the tournament,” Canadian head coach Dennis Williams added of Bedard, who didn’t speak to reporters Tuesday. “You wouldn’t have known that after the game — his focus was already on to the next challenge.”

That comes Wednesday in the latest clash of the sport’s North American powers.

“Every kid’s dream,” said U.S. forward and Winnipeg Jets prospect Rutger McGroarty. “Playing in a barn like this against your rival, it’ll be a fun one.

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

Whether it’s the Olympics, world juniors, world championships or any other level, extra motivation isn’t necessary when the countries hit the ice.

“Don’t think we need to go in as coaches and get the room going,” Williams said. “If anything, we’ve got to calm them down.”

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

This Canadian iteration is hoping for the same.

“All of us dreamed of this as kids,” said winger Brennan Othmann. “This is the game, this is the moment.”

“The biggest rivalry,” added forward and Ottawa Senators prospect Zach Ostapchuk. “And for us, personally, it’s, big. It’ll be really exciting.”

For all the points Bedard has put up, 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.

“Skilled guys,” said Canadian centre Logan Stankoven, who plays alongside Bedard and is No. 4 in the points race. “They strike fast and quick.”

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

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

For all the drama Monday, one area where the Canadians will look to improve is faceoffs after a success rate of just 45 per cent.

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

Canada lost to the U.S. in the final of the 2021 tournament in the COVID-19 bubble in Edmonton in the countries’ last meeting at the world juniors.

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

Canada got to this point thanks to another spectacular performance from Bedard, who dropped to one knee for his own version of the “heartbreaker” celebration made famous by U.S. great Patrick Kane after scoring the winner against the Slovaks.

“That was pretty cool,” Clarke said. “Especially in a big setting like that. The whole building’s going crazy, the whole building’s chanting ‘M-V-P’ for him.

“That’s what he’s been doing all tournament — just breaking hearts.”

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