After six days of some of the best U17 and female hockey players in the world competing at the Capital City Challenge, the medal rounds have come to a close with a pair of great games, none better than Team Canada Red and Team Canada Black’s gold medal game. It was a closely contested match the entire way through and ended in such a way that calling it “dramatic fashion” would be disrespectful to how crazy the ending really was. In the end, it was Team Black who did just enough in overtime to come away with a 5-4 win and a gold medal at the tournament.
Calum Ritchie and Zach Benson Were Unstoppable
If you’ve been following this tournament at all, you know what an unstoppable combination Calum Ritchie (Oshawa Generals) and Zach Benson (Winnipeg ICE) were for the entire duration of the Capital City Challenge. They never seemed to slow down and they finished No. 1 and No. 2 in both points and goals, and also finished inside the top three in assists. In just six games, Benson scored seven goals and 12 total points, while Ritchie was just behind him scoring five goals with 11 total points.
For the majority of the tournament, it was Ty Halaburda (Vancouver Giants) playing on their line, but with Nick Lardis (Peterborough Petes) back in the lineup, Stéphane Julien, the head coach of Team Black decided to put the line in a little bit of a blender and play Lardis on his big line.
It was a bold move considering how effective Halaburda had been on that top line, but with the change made, Lardis seemed to fit in quite nicely. The line was still the powerhouse that fans had grown accustomed to throughout the tournament and Halaburda was still very effective playing with some new faces.
“Our line has been moving the puck well. We have a lot of speed and have been using that to our advantage,” said Benson. “Playing with Calum [Ritchie] is great, he is a great guy off the ice and a very skilled player with a lot of hockey IQ on the ice, so he is fun to play with.”
Both Benson and Ritchie are showing themselves to be top-end prospects for the 2023 NHL Entry Draft with their club teams in the Canadian Hockey League (CHL), but seeing them play together wearing the maple leaf gives you a glimpse into the future when they will compete at the World Juniors. If nothing else, it should make Canadian hockey fans giddy just thinking about seeing these two continue to play together at U18 tournaments and at the World Juniors. We could perhaps even be looking at the next generation of Olympic athletes that bring a gold medal to Canada. Ritchie and Benson were an unstoppable force at this tournament, and maybe, just maybe, could be something big in the future.
The Final Minute of Regulation at the Capital City Challenge
How many times have you heard “last minute of play in the third period” and people start putting on the coats and hats as they prepare to leave the arena? In the gold medal game of the Capital City Challenge, that announcement over the PA signified the start of the action rather than the end of it.
With the game tied at three with just over 30 seconds to play, Riley Heidt (Prince George Cougars) jumped on a rebound after Mason Vaccari (Cobourg Cougars) kicked a shot back out in front of his net. Heidt would make no mistake about his chance and buried it in the goal, giving Team Red a one-goal lead — one that looked insurmountable with just 28 seconds to play.
With just 28 seconds remaining on the clock, Team Black was in a position they had not been in all tournament long; down on the scoreboard needing a goal late in the game to tie. They had been to overtime against the Canadian National Women’s Team already, but they weren’t the ones searching for that tying goal. It was a different situation, but not one that they weren’t prepared for.
“Our team has really talked about adversity and facing adversity and being able to push back after setbacks,” said Ritchie. “Our mindset was really positive and we felt like we were [going to score].”
“Even the guys on the bench, we never really gave up,” said Denver Barkey (London Knights). “We all just bared down, trusted the systems, and trusted that we would all do our part.”
“I didn’t feel any panic,” said Julien. “We had something set up for a faceoff in the neutral zone or the offensive zone, so we were prepared.”
They won the faceoff after calling a timeout and brought the puck into the attacking zone. They had their chances, but Jackson Unger (Edge School) made some big saves and covered the puck with 13 seconds to play. It seemed like they had one more chance to tie the game, and when Unger again froze the puck, things started to look really bleak for Team Black.
With just 2.9 seconds on the clock, they had to somehow find a way to score. With Ritchie taking the faceoff, he won it back to Benson who was standing at the top of the circle. Benson got a shot off clean, and after it clanged off the post, it bounced in with just 0.4 seconds on the clock to tie the game.
The game was tied and overtime was next and, by now, we all know what happened there. Ritchie got another chance to win the game and he took full advantage. From the jaws of defeat, Team Black snatched a victory. The stage was certainly different, but everyone remembers that goal that Jordan Eberle scored against Russia in the 2009 World Juniors. For this Team Black, they have their own memory of something very similar.
“I had no doubt in my mind that we were going to win that game,” said Ritchie. “Even with two seconds left on that last faceoff, I have so much confidence and trust in our teammates and we’ve done a lot of team bonding. I just felt like it was destiny for us to win that game.”
It Meant Something to the Players
In a tournament that is as out of the ordinary as this one was, it was fair to wonder how important winning gold would be for these players. All of that could be put to rest when you saw the players and their families celebrating the win, and it could even be seen on the other side with the players who took home silver and how disappointed they were.
“It was an awesome experience,” said Owen Outwater (North Bay Battalion) on winning a medal in his hometown. “Getting to see my family here and getting to watch me play. Really exciting to play in front of them and get to see them after every game. It’s an unbelievable experience to have that so close to home.”
When you put roughly 20 competitive young hockey players in a dressing room and tell them there is something to be won, you know they are going to be desperate to win it. That’s just the nature of competitive sports, but in this tournament, there was so much more on the line than just the gold, silver, or bronze at the end. It was about the experience and the development that came with it just as much as it was about the results.
“Our slogan was ‘the first dance’,” said Julien. “I think the concept was perfect for them to come back from COVID. This group was great and just for those kids to win the gold medal at the U17, even if it’s not like the tournament were used to having, it’s something they are going to remember all of their life. To go through U18 and U20, when you win the gold medal, it gives you the opportunity to be a better player and that’s what they did.”
For the players, the past six days have allowed them to bond with each other and make friends with players from all across the country. They have gone to war with each other now, and as the chemistry has developed, so have they as people. When Ritchie scored the goal in overtime to win his team gold, he really only had one thing to say to them.
“There’s a lot of things, but just I love you,” said Ritchie. “We’re a really close group of guys and we were all screaming, but it’s just an unreal feeling.”
This was more than just a one-off tournament for these players. Every day when they were asked about it in interviews, they were talking about how close the teams had gotten over the days they were together. Anyone who has ever played minor hockey can talk about how much fun they had at away tournaments, and there was a sense of that at the Capital City Challenge for the players and even for the families who were celebrating the win at the end.
For many of these players, this was the first chance they have ever had to represent their country. For some, this will also be the last time, but no one will ever be able to take these memories from them. They will always have the time where they beat the National Women’s Team to win bronze, playing a close overtime game and winning silver, or tying the game with 0.4 seconds left and winning gold in overtime. This tournament was fantastic and everyone who had a chance to attend got to witness something special. As all of these players head back to their club teams, they take with them many memories that they will never forget.
Currently a journalism student at Algonquin College in Ottawa, I have always had a passion for the OHL and the Ottawa 67’s in particular. I have been attending games since I was young, and being involved with sports has always been a dream of mine. Sports writing fits perfectly into that. You can also find me talking and writing other sports (primarily Canadian football) on my website 13thmansports.ca!