Wearing the gold medal around his neck, Kelowna Rockets captain Nolan Foote was greeted by the entire team when he arrived at the Kelowna International Airport late Monday night.
On Jan. 5, Foote captured a gold medal with Canada at the World Junior Hockey Championships in Ostrava, Czech Republic, defeating Russia in an epic nail-biter 4-3 final.
“It’s incredible. It feels really good,” Foote said upon his arrival at YLW.
“You grow up watching the World Juniors as a kid and you dream of it, so it’s definitely an amazing feeling,”
The win came a week after Canada was embarrassed 6-0 by Russia in the preliminary round.
In that game, 18-year-old star Canadian Alexis Lafreniere left with what appeared to be a serious injury, Team Canada captain Barrett Hayton nearly caused an international incident at centre ice when he failed to remove his helmet during the post-game playing of the Russian anthem and Joe Veleno earned a one-game suspension for headbutting.
It seemed as though Canada’s goal of winning gold was falling apart at the seams.
But over the following week of the tournament, the Canadians rallied for what would eventually be one of the best comebacks in Team Canada history, scoring three goals in the third period to overcome a 3-1 deficit.
Foote said he could hardly wait to celebrate as the clock ticked down and he finally realized his childhood dream.
“I was just feeling jitters and shaking,” Foote said referring to the final few seconds of the game.
“It was surreal. I was jumping up and down with the guys and it was even more amazing with that comeback.
“It felt really good.”
The Canadians played much of the first two periods shorthanded and found themselves down 2-1.
The Russians would score another goal at 8:46 into the third, but Canada responded quickly by finding the back of the net on a goal by Connor McMichael.
Hayton added another on a power play with a wicked wrist shot from the slot at 11:21.
That goal is now part of Team Canada junior team folklore in the wake of Hayton overcoming a shoulder injury to play the game when it appeared to many he would be a scratch from the lineup after the warmup because he was clearly favouring the injury.
Then, with four minutes remaining in the third, Canada’s Akil Thomas scored the winner on a hardworking play where he poked the puck by a Russian defenseman for a partial breakaway and beat Russia’s goaltender blocker side.
Canada held off the Russians in a penalty-mired final three minutes of the third period to hold on for the win.
Foote said while Canada was soundly beaten by Russia in the preliminary round, the team believed in its abilities and went into the gold medal game feeling confident.
“It was definitely challenging and we knew we had a good opponent we had to face, but since the 6-0 (loss against Russia) we outscored our opponents 24 to seven. We were feeling confident,” he said.
“Our power play and penalty kill were clicking well. We were playing really good as a team.”
Foote had a strong tournament finishing with three goals and two assists in seven games.
While productive offensively, he was ejected for a hit to the head of Slovakia’s Kristian Kovacik in the first period of its quarterfinal matchup, another example of the adversity Team Canada had to overcome which Foote believes helped unite the team in their quest to win gold.
“You’re always going to face adversity and what you need to do is come back from that.
“We’re lucky Lafreniere’s injury wasn’t serious, as well as Hayton’s shoulder.
“Obviously the ejection for me sucked because I didn’t think it was that bad of a hit, but all around, we came away with the gold.”
Foote will return to the Rockets lineup after he is evaluated by medical staff in the coming days.
Bruce Hamilton, the Rockets owner and general manager, said he was extremely proud of his star forward.
“It’s always great when you see these young guys go over there and have success,” said Hamilton. “Only 22 players make it every year and any time you’re one of the best 22 players in Canada under 20 it’s a great honor and something they’ll never forget. It’s a special club to belong to and especially when you win a gold medal.”
The Rockets next game is tonight (Jan. 8) when they play host to the Victoria Royals at Prospera Place.
A special presentation before the game will be held to recognize Foote’s achievement. He is the third Foote to win gold, as his brother Cal did it at the World Junior Championship in 2018 and his father Adam won gold with Canada at the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City.