A big goal, a key save, a punishing hit ... it takes a little bit of everything to win a World Junior Hockey Championship.
The team behind the team — off the ice — is also critical. And as Team Canada faced some major injury scares as they chased a gold medal, Orillia native Ed Berdusco was there to aid the wounds and get Canada’s best players back on the ice.
Berdusco has been the team doctor for the Edmonton Oil Kings of the Western Hockey League (WHL) since 2015, and is also one of three emergency physicians for the NHL's Edmonton Oilers.
The Orillia District Collegiate and Vocational Institute (ODCVI) graduate of 1983 first got involved with Hockey Canada in 2015 and has been a part of the last two world junior teams as the team’s physician.
At this years’ tournament in Ostrava, Czech Republic, Berdusco faced a tough task as two of Team Canada’s top contributors were, briefly, felled by injuries.
The first was the projected No. 1 pick in this year's NHL Draft, Alexis Lafreniere, who fell awkwardly and twisted his left knee during their round-robin tilt with Russia.
“First of all, I wanted to find out what was going on and what was injured,” Berdusco explained.
“My big concern was finding out where I fit in to help the athlete at that point," Berdusco added. "Alexis was able to get up and over to the bench and we got him back to the room and then we talked to him to find out a little more, where exactly he’s hurt and then we found the best way to help him.”
When any injury occurs, the pressure is on for Berdusco, but, in this setting, with a player with such tremendous potential, it was no ordinary routine for the veteran doctor.
“Certainty, (Lafreniere) brings an extra element being a high projected draft pick and all the eyes that were on him, but that being said, this is a high-pressure tournament for everyone,” Berdusco said.
Luckily for Team Canada, Berdusco and the medical staff were able to get Lafreniere back on the ice just five days later. In his return, he helped Canada down Slovakia 6-1 in the quarterfinals.
Although Berdusco felt comfortable clearing the star forward to return to the lineup, he explains that the decision doesn’t fall entirely on his shoulders.
“It’s a shared decision between the athlete, the physician, the agent, the parents and if there is a team involved or another physician as well, so at the end of the day, it’s a very much shared decision between all of those people,' he said.
Berdusco says one of his roles in that situation is to educate everyone involved in the decision about what’s going on from a medical perspective.
Another major injury scare came in the semi-final round against Finland, when Team Canada captain and Arizona Coyotes prospect Barrett Hayton was hit into the boards. He was seen clutching his left arm and screaming in pain.
Remarkably, just one day later, Hayton suited up for the pivotal gold medal game.
“I must admit Barrett was able to get back in there and play and he did a great job. He certainty improved significantly over the next day, so we felt comfortable putting him back into the lineup,” Berdusco explains.
Like Lafreniere, the decision to let Hayton play again in the tournament was in the hands of Berdusco and a chain-link of other people caring for the player.
“It was again a shared decision making with the athlete, team management, the team physician, Barrett’s doctors in Phoenix and his personal doctors as well,” Berdusco said.
“It’s not just an easy one where you go, 'Yeah you can play.' There is a lot of people who get involved and I think that’s good for the athlete.”
Many Canadians were surprised to see Lafreniere and Hayton back on the ice so quickly. There were even rumours swirling on social media of Hayton suffering a broken collarbone.
However, Berdusco assures the nation that neither player was putting themselves at risk by rushing back into the lineup.
“My ultimate goal is the safety of the athlete and if I thought at some point it was unsafe for an athlete to play, then they don’t play.”
Dealing with those critical injuries to Team Canada gave Berdusco and the Team Canada staff a great deal of adversity, however, he says it was dealt with smoothly due to preparation and experience.
“Anytime you have injuries, it provides a challenge for sure. To get through an entire tournament without one would be great but I have never had that happen before," he said. "Hockey is a fast game and associated with the sport are, unfortunately, injures so we were prepared to face that."
“Hockey Canada makes it so everybody who is on their staff is well prepared. They bring people on that are good at what they do and they make sure you know what you're doing," he said.
In the gold medal game against the Russians, Berdusco’s medical treatments paid off as Hayton scored a goal and Lafreniere set up two goals leading Canada to a heart-stopping 4-3 comeback victory.
Winning gold was tough to put into words, said Berdusco.
“It was an unreal feeling, walking up and being able to have the medal put around your neck ... it’s hard to describe that feeling, knowing how many people who are involved. It’s the two therapists we have, it’s the two equipment guys, it’s the strength and conditioning person, it’s a huge medical team and everybody was involved in treating the athletes,” Berdusco said.
Treating athletes is a little easier when you were once an athlete, said Berdusco, 55. Spending his youth playing house league hockey and high school football in Orillia has contributed to his success as a doctor in sports, he said.
“I think having played team sports certainly helps what I do now for sure. It helped me relate to the players which is something you have to be able to do,” Berdusco said.
Berdusco will bring the gold medal back to Orillia when he makes his annual summer visit where he spends a week or two catching up with his family and friends.
His adopted home of Edmonton, in tandem with Red Deer, will host the 2021 World Junior Hockey Championships.
Berdusco hopes to once again help the national junior team. But he may have a different role; he plans on applying to become the medical director for Team Canada.
“It’s something else I could do," he said. "There are lots of really great physicians in Hockey Canada, so someone else would like to get their shot to do it and I would like to do the medical director position. It’s something I would like to try and see how it goes.”