The roster for Team Canada was announced yesterday, and I, along with millions of other Canadians were waiting with bated breath (or at least mild curiousity) to see which 22 young men aged 17 to 19 would make the cut and become the focus of an entire nation for an 11 day period.
As Nick Nolte said in the Acadamy Award snubbed movie Blue Chips, “You know, 900 million Chinamen couldn’t give a damn, they couldn’t care less”. The same goes for this tournament. Everywhere but Canada, unless you are a die-hard hockey fan, this tournament is not on your radar.
In fact, other than the Olympic Men’s hockey tournament, the World Juniors are the most passionately followed international event on the average Canadian sports fan’s calendar.
People from other countries just can’t seem to comprehend why our country’s hopes and dreams rely on the success of a group of 22 teenagers. And if you really step back and look at it from the outside, they are probably right. For a nation of 33 million or so people to put so much pressure on young players to have a “gold or bust” mentality seems to be asking a lot.
HOCKEY IS OUR GAME
To see why this tournament is so powerful, you must look at the game itself. Hockey is our game, it forges much of our nation’s identity. The Toronto Blue Jays won back to back World Series’, but how many of those players were from Canada? Maybe one? From Gretzky to Lemieux to Crosby, hockey player are our icons. This tournament offers all Canadians, whether you are from Nanaimo, BC or St. John’s Newfoundland a chance to say “I remember him from the World Juniors” when the next great Canadian hockey superstar is anointed.
These players play in three different junior leagues, and one plays in the NCAA. Not a lot of junior games are broadcast on National TV, so their exposure is pretty much limited to their own region. This is really the first chance for Canadians to see them all at once, on a national stage. It is the first chance for many fans to see and become familiar with these players, many of whom will become NHL regulars if not stars. They have a variety of backgrounds, but all have one thing in common – The Red Maple Leaf.
This tournament didn’t begin to gain the momentum it did until TSN got on board and made it a brand. The massive appeal really began when TSN started hyping it so much during the 1994 NHL lockout when the network was starved for content, and it the World Junior Tournament was the answer. They took the ball and ran with it, and haven’t looked back since. The amount of coverage and exposure TSN gives this tournament forces it to the top of mind almost year round. Thier coverage is increasing every year and it has become a ratings bonanza. You could call the tournament a creation of the media, but if the appetite wasn’t there from the viewers, it wouldn’t matter.
The IIHF holds many age-level championships for both men and women, but this is the only one that happens right around the Christmas holidays. This is the only time of the year where many people can invest the time into a tournament because it starts after the Christmas rush but while many people are still in holiday mode in terms of work schedules. It runs 11 days from beginning to end, and then it is over. Until the countdown to the next summer evaluation camp. It has become a holiday tradition, and one that couldn’t be timed any more perfectly
It is hard to tell what came first, the players passion for the tournament or the fans’. Either way, they fuel each other and it has become an upward spiral in terms of growing in popularity every year. Whether the players became passionate and hungry to win because of the enthusiasm of the people , or fans became passionate because of the enthusiasm of the players, it doesn’t matter. In what other venue do elite atheltes completely put their egos aside and commit to doing whatever it takes to win as a team? None that I can think of. These players for the most part are not spoiled by wealth (yet) and are playing for the love of the game and for their country as opposed to money and fame. The fame and wealth will come eventually for many of them, but the players they play with in this tournament with will be friends for life, regardless of what happens between them in other venues (junior, the minors or the NHL).
Another reason that the tournament is so popular – we usually win. In the 30 years since the NationalTeam program was created for the 1982 championships, Canada has won gold 15 times. Add in 7 silvers and 3 bronze, meaning they have only finished out of the medals 5 times. Winning breeds success, and success breeds expectation, which leads to passion. Why do people, outside of Yankees fans themselves, hate the Yankees? Because they are cocky and can ususally back it up. We need to win this particular
tournament, and when we don’t, we become that much more passionate the next time around. Canada is on a silver streak and it has to end this year. NO IFS, ANDS or BUTS about it, nothing less than Gold will do.
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I had the chance to experience the tournament first-hand when it was held in Ottawa in 2009, as I am sure many of you reading this did. Three of the games in that tournament rank among my personal greatest sports moments that I have witnessed, live or otherwise.
The collective energy in the building those nights were unexplainable, and that is why every year, millions of Canadians gather around their TV and pin their hopes and dreams on a group of 22 teenagers to bring home the gold medal.
And I don’t care if you Americans (or other nationalities) don’t care as passionately as we Canadians do as a nation about this tournament. Just make sure you aren’t the first one to throw it in our face should we happen to not win.
Remember, Americans were the first to rub our noses in it when the US beat Canada in the round robin game at the 2010 Olympics, but when Canada beat the US for gold days later, they acted as if they couldn’t care less, that it meant nothing to them.
For us Canadians, it is in our blood. We live and die by the success of our National Junior teams. Hockey is the one venue where Canada is a true super-power, and doesn’t need to take a back seat to anyone, America included. I dont expect you folks outsitde the country to understand it, but you should respect it.
Thanks for reading and as always, comments are welcomed.
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