TORONTO — For the 52nd time on Wednesday night, Jonathan Toews slipped on a Team Canada sweater and played a meaningful game for his country.

For Corey Crawford, it was the very first time.

“Watching it as a kid, watching the Olympics and the World Juniors, it was a pretty special feeling to put that jersey on,” Crawford said after making 19 stops in Canada’s 4-1 win over Team Europe, clinching the top spot in Group A. “Having friends and family, my parents here, it was a great feeling.”

Crawford demurred when asked if it meant a little more to him than his teammates, given the rest of the roster has a combined 51 gold medals — 21 at the Olympics, 16 at the World Championships, and 14 at the World Juniors. Crawford said everyone in the dressing room feels that same sense of pride when donning the famed maple leaf, and that “it’s nothing but smiles and good times in that room.”

But Crawford is the lone Canadian on the roster without previous international experience. And while triple-gold winners such as Toews, Sidney Crosby, Patrice Bergeron and Corey Perry have been representing Canada since they were teenagers, Crawford took the long road to Toronto. He spent four full seasons in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, then the bulk of the next five seasons in the American Hockey League with just a handful of NHL games to his credit. By the time he broke into the NHL for good in 2010-11, he already was 26 years old.

Now, the longtime minor-league journeyman who has been doubted and dismissed his whole career is not just a two-time Stanley Cup champion, but the No. 2 goalie on possibly the greatest team ever assembled, a key cog in the new red machine — behind only gold-medalist Carey Price. He dressed for all three World Cup games ahead of reigning Vezina Trophy winner Braden Holtby.

The long-running Corey Crawford Doesn’t Get Any Respect story line is now just a footnote in the hockey history book. And even Crawford couldn’t deny it’s been a gratifying rise to the top.

“Definitely,” he said. “I’ve always wanted to play for Team Canada. It’s always been a goal of mine. It’s pretty special to wear that jersey in a game.”

At the outset of the World Cup, Crawford sounded like a guy who was just happy to be here, the likely No. 3 goalie who was just trying to get in a few extra drills after practices. But Canada coach Mike Babcock saw first-hand how good Crawford can be under pressure during the unforgettable 2013 Blackhawks-Red Wings series, and always has been one of Crawford’s biggest boosters. Canada already had clinched a spot in the semifinals before Wednesday night’s game, but the top seed in Group A was still on the line.

Babcock cited Crawford’s two Cups when asked why Crawford got the call.

“It’s hard, anybody could start for us, they’re all really good goaltenders,” Babcock said. “But its what Crow’s résumé is all about — composure under pressure and winning situations.”

Still, even though he’s played in 83 Stanley Cup playoff games, Crawford admitted to genuine nerves on Wednesday night. After all, it was something he’s been waiting for basically his whole life.

“Wearing the jersey, being on the ice with all those guys, it got me pretty nervous,” Crawford said. “It’s special. I’ve always wanted to be a part of that. To play in the game was awesome.”

Crawford didn’t face a ton of action — he saw just four shots in the first period, thanks to Canada’s stifling defense and masterful puck-possession game — but after a long summer, the high-level competition in games and practices can only help him get off to a quick start when the NHL season begins.

“There’s so many good players out there,” Crawford said. “You have all the best players in the world here playing, so it’s really at a high level right now.”

A level that now, finally, includes Crawford himself.

Email: mlazerus@suntimes.com
Twitter: @marklazerus