It was fun while it lasted, said Carter Hart.
But going forward, he's probably not going to insist on being the last player off the ice.
"All the attention I got," the Flyers' goaltending prospect was saying over the phone Tuesday, "it's kind of unwanted attention. And attention we really didn't need at the time."
No, Team Canada needed less attention during this year's World Junior Championships, not more. With Hart in goal the previous winter, the team had lost the gold-medal game in a shootout to the United States, lost on home soil in Montreal, felt as teenagers the sting from unfulfilled expectations. This time around, playing just south of the border in Buffalo, the expectations had been heightened, if possible. Seven players, including Hart, returned for their final season of eligibility. The team's 44-year-old coach, Dominique Ducharme, spoke almost incessantly about redemption.
And Hart, who allowed the decisive gold-medal goal the year before? "To be honest, not really," he said of redemption. "The coach definitely thought about that a lot. Some of the players, too. I was kind of approaching it as a new chapter, a new tournament. Last year was in the past and this year we get another opportunity to do something special. So just try to make the most of it and just try to be there in the moment, taking things day by day because that tournament goes by pretty quick, so …"
So… who is the 44-year-old again?
Hart is 19, the son of an Edmonton-based oil broker and a school secretary. Touted from an early age, he treats the attention he has received with a combination of earnestness and bemusement. When a player on the Swiss team tried to sabotage his superstition of being the last one off the ice between periods, Hart's response was playful, not irritable. He hid out of view, used a trainer as a scout, then jumped back on the ice with the Zamboni already doing its rounds.
"I was laughing," he said. "Like, I really didn't care."
The press conference afterward, too, was all laughs and jokes. NHL stardom someday might alter this, but right now Hart's demeanor off the ice mirrors the personality he exhibits on it. During a preliminary-round game against the U.S., played outdoors in the Bills' stadium in a blizzard, the foam in the back of his helmet froze, icing the back of his head. No problem. Reaching for his water bottle after a series of saves, that too had frozen.
"There was so much snow, it was insane," he said. "They were taking wheelbarrows of snow off the ice. It was crazy. But fun."
And when it ended with another shootout loss to the U.S.? Hart shrugged it off, and ran off a string of stellar – and more meaningful — performances from there. "I've never seen a goalie that's just so calm back there," said Team Canada defenseman Cale Makar after the 3-1 gold-medal victory over Sweden. "Even when we're down or have a few lapses, he's able to pull us back together."
Hart made 35 stops in the gold-medal game, outdueling Pittsburgh prospect Filip Gustavsson to be named the player of the game. He finished the tournament with a .930 save percentage and the undying love from a hockey-crazed nation that won this tournament for just the second time in the last nine years.
"It's been crazy," he said. "All the support I've gotten, not just from family and friends, but from people I don't even know. I don't know how they even got my phone number, but after the game, I got over 100 texts from people I don't even know."
He also got a few from people he did know, people whose opinion matter greatly going forward.
"I think there's a maturity in his game that is certainly improved from last year," said Flyers general manager Ron Hextall, who used a second-round pick in 2016 to select Hart. "He's very compact. He's very clean with his movements. He's reading the game extremely well and his performance is reflecting that.
"I said it before the tournament: For a Canadian kid to play in the world juniors is certainly more pressure than they've ever faced. You don't have a junior franchise or a city on your shoulders, you essentially have a country on your shoulders. So when an 18-, 19-year-old kid gets through that and handles it as well as Carter did, it's certainly an indication that, mentally, you've got something there."
After a few days of recovery, Hart will rejoin the WHL Everett (Wash.) Silvertips, on Thursday. He is in his final season as a junior, and it is expected that he will at least begin next season playing in goal for the Lehigh Valley Phantoms. As he noted Tuesday, "Neuvy [Michal Neuvirth] and [Brian] Elliott are doing a good job for them,'' and both Flyers goaltenders have another year left on their contracts after this season.
But as we know too well, Neuvirth has a history of injuries and Elliott will be 33 in April. It's quite possible that by this time next year, Carter Hart will have brought his game to Philadelphia.
Minus a superstition.