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World junior championship: Tournament’s scale ‘out of control?’

Team Canada players stand on the blueline following the bronze-medal game loss to Russia (Frank Gunn, The Canadian …

It takes only modest powers of observation to note the world junior championship is trumped up all out of proportion to the actual profile of junior hockey in Canada, where 83 per cent of Canadian Hockey League teams are experiencing an attendance decline.

Since Team Canada did not medal for the second year in a row, and since the price point for 2015 tournament split between Montreal and Toronto is sky-high, the two trends go hand in hand. Nothing is off-limits from the hand-wringing, including the tourney's profitability.The Hockey News' Ken Campbell came through with a philippic.

The governing body for hockey in this country realized quite some time ago that the World Junior program represents a cash cow and it rarely fails to capitalize on that. (The kids, of course, get nothing for their efforts, but that’s a rant for another day.) In order to maximize the profits, Hockey Canada has found it extremely lucrative to turn the spotlight on these young men. And judging by the ticket prices for next year’s event in Montreal and Toronto, one that could generate as much as $100 million in profits for Hockey Canada and its partners, that isn’t about to end anytime soon. After all, people paying that kind of money to watch the tournament are going to expect their team to win it all.

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Meanwhile, this “holiday tradition” that TSN has created has spiralled out of control. After all, is it really necessary to show all Canada’s pre-tournament games? Do we really need to hear what some kid who has just been cut is thinking as he does the walk of shame through the team’s hotel lobby? But again, this is about money. Like Hockey Canada, TSN has found a cash cow in the WJC, and it comes at a time when advertisers have already sold most of their cars and stereos and hockey equipment for Christmas and traditionally wouldn't be buying ad time. The more TSN perpetuates this tournament as the absolute be-all and end-all for Canadians, the more the dollars flow. And now that TSN has lost rights to the NHL, the prospects of this one changing are looking pretty dim, too.

That leaves you, hockey fans. Yes, you love Canada and you love hockey. We get that. But one of the problems in Canada is that so much of the national psyche and self-esteem is tied up in how it does in hockey. Don’t these kids get smothered enough when the tournament is in Canada? Is it really necessary to go traipsing en masse across the globe to watch a bunch of teenagers play hockey at a time of year when you might want to be home with your families? (The Hockey News)

It's the eternal business of sport conundrum expressed by a character in novel/film North Dallas Forty: "Every time I call it a business you call it a game and every time I call it a game you call it a business."

It seems like a stretch to place guilt on sports consumers for going a "little overboard here in our passion and interest in world juniors." The two developments, profits from the Canada-hosted ournament increasing by a factor of six over a decade at a time when the national junior team's fortunes are ebbing, aren't necessarily entwined. Correlation does not confirm causation, but, but, it's two notable trends.

The 2003 tournament in Halifax and Sydney, N.S., netted $3.68 million. Organizers of the '06 tourney in Vancouver cleared $9 million, 50 per cent above projections. And so on and so on: the official tally for the 2009 tournament in Ottawa, the last that Canada won, was $15.8 million. Then the 2012 championship netted $22 million, while Canada's streak of 10 consecutive gold-medal game appearances ended. Please keep in mind that is shared with the Canadian Hockey League (with its flat attendance numbers) and provincial hockey associations, the grassroots.

It's easy to come away believing Campbell is on to something. There is more to it, including Canada's historic stubbornness about not wanting to play on the rest of the world's terms. It could just be that gold medallist Finland played the most taut, structured game, which is what tends to work in tournaments on international ice where the team that scores first will have five players skating backwards to defend without even a pretense of forechecking.

One conclusion is Canada's five-years-and-counting gold drought isn't due to a lack of readily available talent, at least at forward and on defence. It could be always be nurtured better or differently.

Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet. Please address any questions, comments or concerns to btnblog@yahoo.ca.

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