Not any more

The World Junior hockey tradition continues – The Globe and Mail

In Canada on December 12, 2010 at 21:06

It gives a small sense of the occasion.

When Tyson Barrie was a child, which may seem a bit like last week for a 19-year-old, his parents took him out of school so he might watch Canada play in the world junior hockey championship.

We are not talking World Series here, back when the baseball classic was sensibly played in the natural light of an afternoon, but a hockey game played by teenagers, in a tournament that somehow obsesses Canadians while it holds about as much interest for the rest of the world as a rubber game of crokinole.

He was then attending David Cameron Elementary in Victoria. His father, Len, may be a former NHLer and past partner in the Tampa Bay Lightning, but his father and mother are also Canadian hockey parents and know how this junior tournament sparkles in the eyes of the young.

“I think it was Canada against Belarus,” remembered the young Kelowna Blazers defenceman trying out for this year’s Team Canada, “and they won something like 13-1. I probably could have missed that one.”

Canadians, however, don’t care to miss anything once the “world junior” gets under way. This year it begins Boxing Day in Buffalo, winding up with the gold-medal match on Jan. 5. This week’s junior camp, at the MasterCard Centre in Toronto’s east end, is merely the beginning of a month-long celebration of Canadian hockey players who are more worried about their skin than their contracts.

The popularity of the tournament among Canadians is one of sports’ great mysteries. Perhaps it is the Canadian equivalent of college bowls. Whatever, the tournament is usually notable for empty seats and lack of widespread interest when held on any other national ice. The tournament that Switzerland declined in 2010 became the hugely successful world junior held in Saskatoon and Regina a year ago, when television audiences soared, the arenas were sold out despite 30-below weather, and the nightly 50/50 draw soared into the range of a single-family dwelling in booming Saskatoon.

The reasons for such madness in Canada are threefold. One, the time frame – Boxing Day through the first week of January. It comes as the NHL slows for all but its outdoor classic yet has spent the fall whetting the national appetite for the national game played at its highest levels. There is also the increasing reality that, for many Canadians, the week between Christmas and New Year’s is a dead time, often with work largely suspended in a country renowned for its stringent holidays. People have time, the interest – and the juniors are the perfect idle distraction.

Second is TSN, the sports channel that now challenges, and often exceeds, the high standards set for NHL broadcasts by the CBC. TSN learned its art through the world junior championship, with broadcasters Gord Miller and Pierre McGuire as well as analyst Bob McKenzie supplying an impressive historical perspective as well as current knowledge.

And third, Canada wins. Do not underestimate that importance in a country renowned for anxiety attacks over its national game. In the past 33-year history of the tournament, Canada has taken gold 15 times, twice (1993-1997 and 2005-2009) running up streaks of five straight championships. And even when they don’t win, they seem to make the final.

Heresy though it might sound, the tournament is not quite as magnificent as imagined. Some challengers have faded. The Russians, despite huge talent, seem to have difficulty producing teams out of such riches. And North American juniors have competed hard, physically hard, for years longer than their European counterparts. It has created a situation of late where the great matches, as in women’s hockey, belong to the Americans and Canadians, with the United States the defending champion heading into Buffalo.

At the moment, concedes Team Canada head coach Dave Cameron, it is advantage America.

“They are playing at home,” he said Sunday after the first hour of practice, “with a lot of returning players that won it last year.”

Cameron aims to construct a “blue collar” team out of the 40 players – six of them named Ryan – invited to camp. The team has eschewed the flashy for players who, as Cameron puts it, will follow the successful Team Canada Olympic model of “200-foot players. You have to be able to play in all three zones, with or without the puck.”

The players have been quick to buy into this philosophy.

“Backcheck as hard as you fore-check,” said Sean Couturier, the Drummondville Voltigeurs forward who is expected to go high in the June NHL entry draft.

“Keep it simple.”

But, of course, it is never quite as simple as that sounds.

First task is to make the team, and that will be determined not by simple acts but by valiant, intelligent and determined acts demonstrated over the next few days of intrasquad tryouts.

“Any time you get all the best players in camp,” Tyson Barrie said, “it’s going to be intense.”

But not nearly as intense as it will get as the month goes on.

“We’re going in to win the gold medal,” coach Cameron promised.

As if he even needed to say it.

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