OTTAWA – He faced nationwide media criticism in Canada, a legendary coach doubting him, and opponents who sensed weakness so they fired pucks at him from all over the ice.
But when it counted most, Spokane goalie Dustin Tokarski found his “A game.” He backstopped Team Canada to its fifth consecutive gold medal at the World Junior Hockey Championship on Monday night, stopping 39 shots in a 5-1 victory over Sweden, and was named most outstanding player of the championship game.
It was a dramatic, exhausting 10-day tournament for the 19-year-old from Watson, Saskatchewan. It started with Canada’s head coach Pat Quinn not committing to either Tokarski or Tri-City’s Chet Pickard as his starter. He eventually chose Tokarski.
But in the preliminary round, Tokarski let in a soft goal against the Czech Republic and three goals in the first 10 minutes of the game against the U.S. Most importantly, he was out of position on a late goal against Russia in a sudden-death semifinal Saturday that gave Canada’s traditional hockey rival a 5-4 advantage that would have cost the Canadians a berth in the final had Jordan Eberle of the Regina Pats not scored a game-tying goal with five seconds remaining. Canada went on to win that game in a sudden-death shootout, with Tokarski making the final save in standup-style.
In the end, Quinn decided to stick with Tokarski for the final, and finally got a strong performance from the Spokane Chiefs star.
“I thought Tokarski was very good tonight,” Quinn said. “I’m happy to see that because there was some question in the other games, but tonight he was picked as player of the game and that was probably well deserved because he made some really key saves when we had to have them.”
For Tokarski, it was sweet vindication.
“It feels great. I knew I had to be better tonight to give us a chance to win,” said the Tampa Bay Lightning prospect. “The guys battled all tournament long and I had to do my part tonight and put a solid effort out there.”
While Tokarski has a shiny gold medal to show off when he returns to Spokane, his Chiefs teammates who played on the American team – Drayson Bowman, Tyler Johnson and Mitch Wahl – will be coming home empty handed, after the U.S. suffered a stunning 5-3 loss to Slovakia in the quarterfinals Friday. The Americans outshot Slovakia 47-18, but Erie Otters goalie Jarsolav Janus had the game of the tournament to notch the upset.
The Americans finished fifth, after defeating Ondrej Roman, who is expected to be a Chief again shortly, and his Czech Republic teammates 3-2 in overtime on Sunday.
Despite the disappointment of his team performing well below expectations, Johnson said it was a thrill just to be able to play in the tournament.
“This was a great opportunity for me,” said the Spokane native, who played a key penalty-killing role for the U.S. team. “It’s some of the best hockey I’ve ever played. Playing against all these great players out there is unbelievable. And playing on a great team like this is also a dream come true.”
Those thoughts were echoed by Bowman, who ended the tournament with three goals and one assist.
“I feel like I’m a better player just by being here, in this whole experience,” the dejected forward said after the Slovakia game, explaining how that was about the only silver lining he could find. “I just want to do everything I can to make sure it (losing) doesn’t happen again. In Spokane, we were a bad team there my first couple of years and it took a while to get that kind of losing mentality out of our dressing room, I would say. And now that we’re used to winning there, this (experience here) is just tough. I mean, it brings back bad memories and I certainly don’t want to be in that position again.”
Tokarski said he looks forward to sharing his new gold medal with teammates, but has no intention of rubbing salt in anyone’s wounds.
“They’re (the other Spokane players in the tournament) good friends of mine and we have a great family there in Spokane and I’m sure they’re just as happy for me as I am. They supported me the whole way,” he said, adding that after the Americans lost, he sent a text message to Wahl, telling his roommate to be proud that “you played your heart out.”
When asked what it was like to have both a World Junior crown and a Memorial Cup title under his belt, Tokarski said, “it’s what you dream of as a little kid – playing in these championships and being put in the spotlight.
“It’s an honor and I’m living a dream right now. … It’s hard to explain. Obviously, you have to get some luck in there to be where I am and I have to thank everyone for believing in me. The Memorial Cup was something special. It was an unbelievable group of guys who came together as one and here’s another group of unbelievable guys.”