LEWISTON – The gold medal at the end of the blue and yellow ribbon around Marc-Andre Cliche’s neck weighed more than all of the hockey equipment still strapped to his body.
“In pride, it weighs a lot,” Cliche said.
At the other end of a sea of red and white, Clement Jodoin’s proud grin encapsulated the thoughts of an entire nation watching on television and on the Internet.
This medal, he said, weighed more than the one he won a year earlier.
Cliche, the Lewiston Maineiacs’ 19-year-old captain, and Jodoin, the team’s coach and general manager, though elated, were speechless.
“You bend over, they put that medal around your neck, stand up and look at the crowd. It’s crazy,” Cliche said. “All the time we had over there, if there is one word, it’s ‘unbelievable.'”
Team Canada captured its third consecutive gold medal at the World Junior Championships this month.
First time’s a charm
When Cliche got the call to go to Calgary, his selection to Team Canada’s training camp seemed little more than a thank you from Jodoin, an assistant with Team Canada for the second straight year.
But when he got there, he felt a sense of familiarity he hadn’t expected.
“In practice, a lot of the drills were exactly the same as here in Lewiston,” Cliche said. “That helped me through the camp in Calgary. I knew I had to go there and give everything I had. I knew I was going to get a defensive role at first, so I went there and tried not to get scored on.”
Cliche survived the first wave of cuts at the final camp, where other, better-known stars from the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League did not.
On the morning of the final cut, Cliche awoke early, and waited for the phone to ring.
It never did.
“I think the last game I played, I played really well,” Cliche said. “I waited until the morning and I didn’t get a phone call, so that was a good sign. It’s pride for me. They’re good players, they’re all good players, and the fact that I made the team means that I play well both ways, which I think is a good quality.”
But making the team was only the beginning for Cliche.
“(Cliche) started out as the 13th forward,” Jodoin said.
At every practice, Cliche battled harder, trying to earn more playing time.
“When you play on the fourth line, every practice, you have to practice harder,” Cliche said. “One game I was playing on the third line, and then the morning after I was back to practicing on the fourth line. It was mentally hard, but I just had to give everything I had.”
Jodoin, head coach Craig Hartsburg and the rest of the Team Canada staff did notice.
He left there as No. 7 or 8,” Jodoin said. “We knew what to expect from him all the time. The other players, it was like a box of Cracker Jacks. You never knew what was coming.
“(Goalie Carey) Price was steady, and the defense, five of six of them were steady, but the forwards, you never knew what was going to happen. With Marc-Andre, we did.”
And the familiarity factor? Cliche wasn’t dreaming.
“The drills that I do here (with the Maineiacs), I brought with me,” Jodoin said. “I was responsible for the overall game plan and the power play, and I brought the same thing to the team that I use here, the same thing.”
Better the 2nd time around
Last year, with the World Championships in Vancouver, Jodoin had helped Brent Sutter coach Team Canada to the gold medal on its home ice.
But this year, it was different.
“I’ve never seen so many kids in one place all focused on what we had to do,” Jodoin said. “It’s a business, but when it’s done well, it’s also fun.”
According to Jodoin, the team bucked tradition. Instead of holing up in a hotel, the Canadian team rented its own Inn. All Team Canada, all the time.
“The kitchen, the living rooms, the bed rooms, it was all only for us, so it was like living together as a family at home instead of in a hotel,” Jodoin said. “We saw each other all day long.”
If one player wanted to see a movie on an off-day, all of the players had to agree to go. Shopping? Ask your teammates.
“We were there on a mission as a team,” Jodoin said. “Nobody was bigger than the team.”
Even the veterans from the previous year’s team agreed that their experience in Sweden was different – in a good way.
“As a team, we needed to work together a lot more this year than last year,” Jodoin said. “Our adversity we faced was bigger this year than last year. I’m not saying it wasn’t special, winning in Canada last year, but this year, we had to be tighter, much more of a family.”
The spoils of victory
Cliche couldn’t understand it.
If the picture in front of him could speak so many words to so many millions of people, why couldn’t he form a sentence?
‘O Canada’ blared from the speakers high above the ice in Leksand, Sweden. Cliche and his teammates started singing a deliciously off-key rendition of the country’s anthem, some in French, some in English.
“Oh, they can sing,” Jodoin said with a laugh.
“It wasn’t perfect,” Cliche said, pausing a moment. “But it was.”
The road to that moment wasn’t as smooth as a freshly-Zambonied slab of ice.
Against the United States, in the semifinals, Team Canada used a late goal from Cape Breton defenseman Luc Bourdon to tie the score, and then a Jonathan Toews shootout marker in the seventh round to oust the Americans.
“It was the greatest feeling of my life in hockey,” Cliche said. “Even after a month, I have no way to explain the feeling of that game. We were up four times, and they scored again. It was back and forth. In the shootout (Toews) just took the pressure and he put the puck in the net three times. That’s crazy. He has a great future.”
Against Russia in the final, Canada bolted out to a lead and held on, thanks in large part to Cliche’s defensive play.
“Every shift, you come back to the bench, and you’re not even tired,” Cliche said. “You have 25-second shifts, you come back to the bench and your heart is racing every shift. It’s not even tired, it’s a crazy feeling and you just go back out there and back again.”
Sometimes, moving on is part of the memory.
Cliche returned home to Rouyn-Noranda following his gold medal win. Nearly 500 local youth hockey players and their families turned out to honor their native son for his victory.
Cliche will be too old to play next year. But he brought the lessons he learned back Lewiston, hoping he can help spark his Maineiacs to a solid postseason run.
Jodoin, meanwhile, has coached his last game for Team Canada.
“I’m not going back next year,” Jodoin said. “It’s too demanding. It’s not just the month and a half in the winter, but it’s three more weeks in the summertime, it’s conference calls all year. It’s time away from my job here, and next year I want to focus everything on the Maineiacs.”