The just-turned 18-year-old defenceman made it official Sunday when he helped his native Finland to a 3-2 overtime win over Sweden to claim the 2014 World Junior Hockey Championship.
Honka – also barely halfway through his first Western Hockey League season – had just stepped off the ice Sunday when teammate Rasmus Ristolainen backhanded a puck through the legs of Swedish goalie Oscar Dansk to claim gold.
Honka also wore enemy colours and even had an assist on Finland’s first goal in a convincing semifinal win over Canada, but is likely to receive a hero’s welcome anyway when he returns to Swift Current this weekend.
He is after all the first Bronco since Jakub Cutta in 2001 and sixth ever to return to Swift with a gold medal from the world juniors. (Joe Sakic and Sheldon Kennedy also did it in 1988, followed by Rick Girard in 1994 and Brad Larsen in 1996 and ’97.)
Finland’s win will be huge for Honka and, by extension, the Broncos, who will assuredly have him back for a second and final season in 2014-15.
As one of the younger players in the tournament, Honka registered 10 shots, an assist and a plus-2 rating in seven games against the stiffest competition he’s ever faced. He also learned how to win.
He singlehandedly created every scoring chance on Finland’s first power play of the gold medal game with a trio of familiar one-timers, and even playing on Finland’s third defence pairing was responsible enough to earn regular ice time from Finland coach (and shocked face model for cartoon characters everywhere) Karri Kivi on critical shifts throughout the third period and overtime.
How much that experience benefits Honka’s skill development and confidence against lesser competition for the rest of this year remains to be seen, but it certainly doesn’t represent a step back for a guy who was already making the WHL look like a plaything.
Finland’s win is obviously good for a country that hadn’t medaled since 2006, played for gold since 2001 or won gold since 1998.
It’s good too for international hockey and those who love it.
No longer are the world juniors the farce of a tournament they were from 1988-97 when Canada won eight of 10 gold medals and three countries combined to win 23 of the 30 medals available in all.
Sure I would love to have seen the pre-tournament Vegas odds on Russia, Canada and the United States all missing the gold medal game this year, but the rest of the world has caught up.
Case in point: Over the last five years of the world men’s hockey championship, under-17, under-18 and under-20 world championships, and the Spengler Cup, Canadian teams have combined for three of a possible 25 gold medals.
(Even more damning is that the U17 tournament includes five Canadian teams every year, diluting the talent of each team but vastly increasing the country’s overall odds of winning.)
If international hockey as a whole is less predictable, each individual game takes on more importance.
If each game is more important, more people will watch.
If more people are watching, the game of hockey will continue to grow around the world.
And if hockey continues growing around the world, Hockey Canada will finally be forced to change its thinking in order to keep up.
Maybe they could take a page from Finland’s book.
After all, until someone proves otherwise, Suomi No. 1!
Just ask Julius Honka.