Ultimate Fantasy World Juniors couldn’t have scripted a better finish to the inaugural UFWJ tournament.
When Mason McTavish saved the day for Canada, he inadvertently cost his UFWJ country, Valtakunia, the gold in this World Juniors dynasty league on the UFFS platform. McTavish, the unanimous MVP of both tournaments, will go down as both hero and goat for Valtakunia, who were celebrating alongside Topi Niemela and the rest of Finland until McTavish made the save of the century to prevent Niemela’s overtime winner. A minute later, it was Kent Johnson scoring the golden goal for Canada as well as his UFWJ country, East End.
Had Finland won during that wild sequence of events, Valtakunia would have been golden from the win bonus for their unsung hero Juha Jatkola, even with East End’s Eetu Liukas looking like he was getting a second assist until McTavish miraculously knocked the puck out of mid-air and cleared it off the goal line.
That’s how close Valtakunia came to being crowned the inaugural UFWJ champions and likely still would have won had anybody but Johnson or East End teammate Olen Zellweger been the hero for Canada. But it was Johnson, who lifted his own rebound over a sprawled Jatkola to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat with a swing of 5.25 fantasy points, as East End prevailed by 3.81 points after sleeping on potential stat corrections. Suspenseful, to say the least!
“Winning gold in UFWJ is so special for many reasons, one being our country’s name has such a personal connection to me and so does the WJC,” said Dean Millard, who grew up playing at the East End Community Centre in Brandon, Manitoba, under the watchful eye of his father Jim Millard — now the honorary captain of their country East End, as appointed by Craig Button, who joined the ownership group along with Ian Constable ahead of the UFWJ Franchise Auction last November for the originally scheduled 2022 tournament.
“We laid out a strategy in December and had to scramble like most countries also did in August, but we were really happy with our redraft,” Millard said of this summer’s Supplementary Draft to replace players that weren’t returning from December, including their first-round pick Cole Perfetti, who turned into Aatu Raty as the second overall selection. “Each of Ian, Craig and I make passionate cases for certain players and, at the end of the day, East End was a championship country because of that teamwork. Sticking with our roster and not making a deal or two was a big gamble that paid off big time, but just barely.”
Indeed, East End stood pat at the trade deadline prior to the medal round — opting to go with the guys who got them there, topping the overall standings through the group stage — while Valtakunia was aggressively upgrading their roster throughout the tournament with the acquisitions of Kaidan Mbereko, Matt Coronato, William Dufour, Donovan Sebrango and Aleksi Heimosalmi from three separate trades that wound up being the only deals to go down during the inaugural UFWJ tournament.
The whole final day of the World Juniors was a rollercoaster of emotions for East End and Valtakunia, with their players factoring into the scoring on eight of the nine goals from the medal games.
It was a back-and-forth battle, starting in the bronze-medal game where Valtakunia got an assist from Ake Stakkestad on Sweden’s opening goal before East End’s Michal Gut tallied the equalizer for Czechia on a power play, only to see Valtakunia’s Isak Rosen score what stood up as the winner less than two minutes later. They had two skaters aside there, with Valtakunia’s two Swedes outproducing East End’s two Czechs — Stanislav Svozil being the other — to cut into a 7.19-point deficit following the semifinals.
That set the stage for the gold-medal game, with the UFWJ score nearly tied and the manpower being even again, as Valtakunia boasted six Canadians and two Finns to East End’s six Finns and two Canadians.
McTavish got Valtakunia on the board early, assisting on Joshua Roy’s opening goal midway through the first period. Then, less than a minute into the second period, Valtakunia struck again with Dufour making it 2-0 for Canada as a trade ringer paying dividends. The primary assist went to East End’s Zellweger but the secondary assist went to McTavish again, so advantage Valtakunia at that point and through two periods.
Valtakunia majority owner Jope, who hails from Finland (Valtakunia means Kingdom in Finnish), had more reason to cheer in the third period when their lone Finnish skater Heimosalmi changed the momentum with a long-range floater that eluded Canadian netminder Dylan Garand. Finland kept pressing from there and leading scorer Joakim Kemell finished off a perfect feed from Niemela to force overtime, with East End’s Liukas getting the all-important secondary assist to keep pace with Valtakunia through regulation.
The fact that UFWJ gold was hanging in the balance heading into overtime of the gold-medal game in a tournament-long total points format was simply stunning. With impact players and difference-makers on both sides, there was a good chance the golden goal was also going to determine UFWJ gold.
In addition to McTavish and Dufour, Valtakunia was icing Connor Bedard, Will Cuylle, Sebrango and Ethan Del Mastro from Canada, with only Heimosalmi and Jatkola from Finland. East End was loaded with Finns, including their entire top line of Raty, captain Roni Hirvonen and Kasper Simontaival, along with the aforementioned Liukas up front, plus pleasant surprise Kasper Puutio and Ruben Rafkin on the back end.
East End featured four members of Finland’s top power play unit and they combined for four members of Canada’s top power play as well, with Johnson and Zellweger from East End offset by McTavish and Bedard from Valtakunia. But Canada’s power play was misfiring all game long and Finland only got one opportunity that lasted just eight seconds before Puutio took a penalty. So special teams weren’t a deciding factor in this epic finale.
It all came down to overtime, with everyone on the edge of their seat — for Canada and Finland but even more so for East End and Valtakunia. Nobody could have imagined McTavish’s save that ultimately led to Johnson’s goal. And nobody could have fathomed the implications for UFWJ gold!
“Congrats to Dean, Ian and Craig on their victory. They are fully deserving. I am also super disappointed for our country, fans and the management crew, since I made some critical errors in the lineup which I take full responsibility for. The loss is on me and the slim margins between gold and silver don’t allow for those kinds of errors,” said Valtakunia GM George Bachul, referencing a decision to bench newly acquired No. 1 netminder Mbereko in favour of Jatkola for his tournament debut on Aug. 14 — proving costly with Mbereko earning 4.25 more fantasy points than Jatkola that day, which would have covered the 3.81 margin — but Jaktola earned redemption in the medal round by contributing 15.75 fantasy points after Mbereko was eliminated in a quarterfinal upset that opened the door for East End.
“We will take it as a learning experience and try to improve going forward,” continued Bachul. “I have never been so enveloped in a sporting event ever, with every pass, shot, save meaning everything in the moment. When we capture this type of fantasy play for the masses, it will be incredible.”
The thrill of victory and the agony of defeat. Just like that, a UFWJ rivalry is born — albeit with mutual respect between East End and Valtakunia.
“Congrats to George and Kevin Bachul as well as Jope on one heck of a run at gold and making this experience even more realistic,” said Millard. “Terrific work by the organizers, and we can’t wait for December already.”
East End emerged victorious in dramatic fashion with two members of their ownership group in attendance at Rogers Place in Edmonton — Millard and Button were there covering the tournament, trying to contain their angst as well as their excitement for East End — while Valtakunia settled for silver and Scorway claimed the bronze.
To the victor go the spoils. Their UFWJ medals will be in the mail thanks to UFFS partner TrophySmack, and they will also be receiving prize pool payouts in the form of SCORE Coin (SCO) as the official currency of the UFFS platform.
Not that Valtakunia was blaming McTavish — they wouldn’t have been in a position to win gold without him — but despite the silver lining, he delivered additional revenue by capturing a couple UFWJ Player Awards:
Alas, that is all she wrote for the first chapter of UFWJ, which saw East End embracing the Notre Dame mantra of Luctor et Emergo, which means struggle and emerge! Now it’s on to the second chapter come December, with the annual draft in reverse order of standings for every round to fill open roster spots from graduating and non-returning players. Some UFWJ countries will get reinforcements through promotions from their protected lists, ensuring all 250 players at the World Juniors will have value in UFWJ — especially with time on ice among the scoring categories. This innovative dynasty league promises to have everyone on pins and needles again, but the inaugural tournament will be a tough act to follow!
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