Ask any professional athlete about their career highlights and they’ll invariably tell you that representing their country on the world stage ranks near the top. Coaches tend to have a similar response, and it’s a sentiment that’s shared by Golden Rockets head coach Jason Stephens, who is fresh off leading Canada to its second gold medal in four years at the IIHF Inline Hockey World Championships.
Playing in the gold medal game on July 11 against the hosts from Finland, Canada got off to a slow start and they trailed 1-0 just 77 seconds into the contest in front of a lively, hostile crowd.
If there was a sense of deja-vu on the Canadian bench – Canada having fallen to the Finns in the gold medal game the year before – they didn’t show it. Stephens’ squad regrouped quickly and tied the game at a goal apiece just two and a half minutes later.
“We had a really good group of players this year, we had lots of professional experience on our team so the motivation and focus was pretty easy these past couple weeks with this group,” Stephens said. “Being down one or two in that sport isn’t anything to panic about, so we just stuck to what we were doing and the way we were playing.”
Canada took its first lead of the game halfway through the second period and didn’t look back from there, holding Finland at bay and winning by a 4-2 count.
The crowd of 6,678 in the Finnish city of Tampere was firmly behind the home team, but Stephens says that, in a way, his group used that to their advantage.
“We did a good job of blocking it out for the most part…A crowd like that not only fires up the home team but it also fires you up as well,” Stephens said.
While Stephens relishes his role in the 2012 gold medal, Canada’s previous championship win, he says the triumph this summer ranks even higher.
“In 2012 there were a couple of asterisks that were put on the team…there was a lot of talk that if the U.S. or the Swedes hadn’t got beat out in the quarterfinals, that we wouldn’t have won in 2012,” Stephens recalled. “This year, to go 6-0 through the tournament and to beat the top seed in the final. That to me was a stamp on it…there’s no question marks, no asterisks on this year.”
The inline game is far from being at the forefront of Canadian sport despite its growing popularity overseas. Stephens, who sits on the National Inline Hockey Association board says the organization is currently looking at ways to grow this entertaining sport on this side of the pond.
“It’s kind of gotten a little bit stale in Canada for some reason…it’s definitely something that we’re looking at, on how to expand the numbers. Over the last few years we haven’t seen a lot of growth but (we haven’t seen) a real decline by any means either,” Stephens said. “I think it’s about getting the sport into more communities and getting more awareness and recognition about what the sport really is.”
A few rule changes differentiate the inline game from hockey, making it an especially fast paced, and a typically high scoring, sport. For example, teams line up 4 on 4 and players aren’t allowed to pass the puck over the red line, but are allowed to carry it over. Stephens also says players can shoot the inline puck “like a rocket”, reaching speeds of up to 100 miles per hour with regularity.
Meanwhile, Stephens has earned his position as Canada’s inline bench boss through his international success. It’s a job that he’s been told he can have until he doesn’t want it anymore.
“To have the ability to represent your country, in a foreign country, and have the boys put the jersey on in front of you…it’s an incredible feeling whether you win or lose.”