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The medal toss heard round the world was glorious

The silver medal was placed around Swedish captain Lias Andersson’s neck, the traditional award for the team that loses the final game at the Under-20 IIHF World Junior Championship. Canada had defeated Sweden for gold on Friday night.

Andersson frankly wasn’t having any of it.

He glanced at the silver disc briefly before taking the medal in his hand and removing it from his chest. Andersson skated back toward his teammates and, in a stunning display, tossed his silver medal into the stands. (The fan who caught the medal, it should be said, was wearing three different hockey jerseys to the game, with a Team Sweden one under a Team USA one, which was under a Rochester Americans sweater.)

The medal toss was as beautiful as it was uncouth. A perfect moment in sports, when competitive fire leaves any semblance of sportsmanship or grace in a smoldering heap.

It’s not the first time we’ve seen someone chuck their talisman of shame into the crowd — Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho has done it on multiple occasions, for example — but upon seeing it, one wonders how it isn’t commonplace. If Hilary Knight or another member of Team USA hurled her silver medal into the Sochi crowd after a second straight Olympic gold medal loss to Canada, only this time in overtime on a specious call, it would have felt practically cathartic for the fans watching back home.

Andersson had his justification.

“He wanted it more than me. He’s going to have it at home in a box or whatever,” said Andersson after the game.

And then he elaborated. It turns out he earned a silver medal in the under-18 world championships, too, after losing to Finland in 2016. He still has it. At least he thinks he does. “I haven’t checked it in two years,” said Andersson. “I lost last time. I didn’t need another.”

It’s like opening a pack of hockey cards: He’s just tossing aside a duplicate.

Andersson, whom the New York Rangers selected seventh overall in the 2017 NHL Draft, was summarily censured by many hockey pundits and Canadian fans on social media for a perceived lack of sportsmanship in throwing his medal.

But the more surprising reaction is how many respected observers of the game came to his defense, eschewing the usual “what about the children watching at home!?” hand-wringing. The venerable Bob McKenzie of TSN called him a warrior and wrote “he could play on my team, if I had one, any time.” Former Team Canada goalie Corey Hirsch praised him, quoting that noted philosopher Ricky Bobby: “If you’re not first, you’re last.”

Andersson’s actions are the logical end to junior hockey’s Ricky Bobby mentality and its focus on victory as the only digestible outcome. Look at Canada. There’s no joy in Stouffville when the Canadians win silver. Instead, it’s a national crisis.

There’s still room for participation ribbons in hockey, like when Slovenia upset Slovakia in the Sochi Olympics, which was basically like winning a medal for them. But there’s little room for them in a championship round game between two hockey powers that consider themselves on equal footing. It’s there that a silver medal is less a symbol of accomplishment than a token of failure — Winnipeg Jets fans even weaponized it in 2012, chanting “SIL-VER MEDAL!!” to mock goalie Ryan Miller of the Buffalo Sabres, whose Team USA lost gold in overtime to Sidney Crosby and Canada in the Vancouver Olympics.

(In some ways, the bronze medal is more esteemed than the silver, at least in team sports. You leave the tournament with heads held high in victory, instead of staring down at your chest in postgame anger. And no, I’m not just saying that because the Americans won world junior bronze after choking against Sweden. OK, maybe not totally.)

Andersson’s actions are the reaping from what’s been sowed for a dozen years in world juniors, one of the most philosophically conflicted events in sports. When players are criticized for their performances, the default position to defend them is that they’re “just kids.” Yet when players act like “just kids” — be it Andersson tossing his medal, or the Russians getting kicked off a plane for being “too drunk to fly” after winning gold in 2011 — they’re trashed for a lack of sportsmanship. It’s always amusing when the “act like you’ve been there” axiom is applied to players that, well, have never been there.

It’s heartening that the hockey world appears to be inching closer to an acceptance of raw emotional responses within the unyielding framework of sportsmanship norms. Perhaps it’s OK to toss your “first loser” medal into the crowd. Perhaps it’s OK to not participate in the postgame handshake line, which is quaint for youth sports but is an exercise in forced sadism for pro hockey players. Perhaps we all realize that a request for athletes to display personality can’t exist in the same space as criticism for not displaying it to our preconceived specifications.

So grab those silver medals, find the nearest fan and hurl one to them. At best, you’ve given some lucky supporter eBay fodder to supplement the cost of their tickets. At worst, they have it at home in a box, or whatever.

You’ve earned your medal. And the right to do with it as you please.

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