Wed Dec 28 05:45pm EST
EDMONTON — When it comes to the world junior hockey championship, Canada was born on third base and thinks it hit a triple.
The old line that was often applied to former U.S. President George W. Bush fits a tournament like your favourite broken-in hockey gloves. Canada has colonized the whole shootin' match. Maybe everyone gets this already and just ignores it. It is hard to tell amid all the hosers chanting "we want nine!" while Canada was dismantling Finland 8-1 on Monday.
Imbalances in each country's talent pool can't be legislated away to make the tournament more competitive. It's a little too cosy for comfort, though, when one country's governing body for hockey and the International Ice Hockey Federation are soon going to be marketing partners for the WJHC. Perhaps such a symbiotic relationship is the best way to keep the event profitable. It is impossible not to raise an eyebrow at having one of the tourney's chief promoters holding a vested interest in a particular country winning, particularly with what is often called a made-for-TV event. Ignoring that is like watching baseball without knowing the New York Yankees have a higher payroll than the Baltimore Orioles, a once-regal Major League Baseball franchise.
Yet Canadians, or at least as they're depicted in old media, carry on like the country's sustained run at the world junior is all about talent, wise coaching, character and the concentrated power of will. It can't have anything to do with hockey not being as popular in the U.S., as well-organized in Russia, or Canada have five times the population of Finland or Sweden. There's no denying this country is great at the sport, but it's like listening to some overachiever high school chess champion. Yes, you're brilliant at this, but you're about the only who does it.
Some find it odd a tournament of teenagers is the focal point for Canada in international sport outside of (Winter) Olympic years. It's so not. Canada is always a gold medal hopeful, so taking up a rooting interest carries almost no risk, perfect for a society full of status-quoers and play-it-safers. Caring about this tournament in a country that barely funds other national teams in sports actually contested seriously outside of a few affluent cold-weather nations ... well, it's perfectly in step with how Canada has become more isolated from the world.
It borders on being a Stephen Harper porn. Canada welcomes the foreigners in with an attempt at a warm smile, then hands out a hard, no-nonsense lesson This Is How We Do It Here. Simultaneously, there's an appeal to shallow patriotism to clear the way for the unabashed triumph of corporate values, getting every last loonie out of the consumers.
Canadians born before 1980 probably recall the era when this country's junior hockey team willingly played on Europe's terms. We didn't have to win all the time; it wasn't about how much it takes to make one happy, but how little, which seemed like a decent life lesson. There was something noble and poetic about it. They went overseas, ate the strange-tasting food, slept on the lumpy beds, played on the bigger international ice surface and fought through the frustration brought on by the, uh, different standard of officiating. When they won, it felt real.
Now the world junior is just a cottage industry of chest-thumping Canadiana. So much the quiet, understated nationalism. The payoff will be some good hockey as the event rolls along that is freer-flowing and more unpredictable than anything seen in the NHL on most nights. Perhaps that redeems the hollowness of it all. But you are not a bad Canadian if dread wells up inside you when the WJHC draws close. There are at least five reasons why many proud Canadians cannot stand it.
1. Home-ice advantage nearly every year — What did the 1972 Summit Series and 2002 Olympic double gold, arguably Canada's most seminal hockey wins, have in common? Each came on foreign ice.
That used to happen quite a bit in the world junior. It was, as Bruce Dowbiggin recently described it, the juniors were a "desultory under-20 fixture ... [p]layed by teenagers in backwater European burgs for the benefit of scouts, suits and sweethearts." Once Canada started to take it seriously, that whet appetites to play on this side of the pond more. The unintended consequence was that it swallowed the tournament whole.
Now the profit motif dictates playing in Canada or in a U.S. border city as often as possible. It's also more convenient for NHL people, who are only about growing the game globally when there's territory to conquer. This year marks the sixth time in eight years the tourney has been in North America. It got little press, but Hockey Canada is also bidding to host every second year starting in 2015. So that's not changing.
One can only wonder if we're starting to forget about what those 1980s and '90s teams overcame. Obviously, I was not in on the conversation, but Theo Fleury sounded resentful that the world junior as he knew has been wiped from the face of the earth. In 1988, the Calgary Flames legend captained a team that beat Team USSR in Moscow one year after the infamous Punch-Up in Piestany and just before the suspiciously fueled Soviet sports dynasty collapsed. Yet teams that had the easier ride at home are better remember.
"We accomplished that, and nobody ever talks about that team. That team was unbelievable. We had 12 first-round drafts picks. We had Joe Sakic, Trevor Linden, Theo Fleury, Jimmy Waite ... and nobody ever talks about that team.
"Everybody talks about the '87 team that didn't win a medal, and they don't talk about the '88 team that was as good a junior team as Canada ever sent overseas." (Calgary Sun, Dec. 22)
Hockey Canada president Bob Nicholson sounded almost nostalgic for those days during a recent Q&A with the IIHF website. He pointed out he'd like to build up the springtime IIHF under-18 championship in Canada. Why? Because it would be more of a challenge to win a medal when everything is not on Canada's terms.
2. Cheering is mandatory — On TSN on Tuesday night, Sportscentre anchor Dan O'Toole teased the upcoming broadcast, "Canada-Czech Republic, the whole country will be watching and you'd better be too."
Or else what, Dan? Are you going to start revoking individuals' citizenship, perhaps as a side gig during next summer's TSN Kraft Celebration Tour? So much for diversity in taste. Hockey didn't get to where it is by being shoved down everyone's throat. It developed fairly organically as an off-shoot of being a country with so much winter and so much ice.
3. Here's the price point; way over yonder there is sanity — Apparently one person's piece of fine Canadiana is another's high mark-up. Do people know the reason that Rexall Place in Edmonton was shy of capacity for Canada's first game, even though it was played on a holiday Monday? It came back to how tickets are sold.
Fans have to buy the whole package and well, the secondary ticket market is is a bit sketchy. A big controversy this week is that Hockey Canada and Ticketmaster are marking up the cost of tickets posted on its resale website.
The ticket price is automatically listed at 15 per cent higher than what resellers set as their posting price because of a buyer's fee, mentioned in the TicketExchange Help Page. "It's a normal fee for the ticket exchange site," says Scott Farley, vice-president, Marketing Services and Events for Hockey Canada. "It's standard for any secondary ticket seller."
If a ticket seller inserts a posting price of $300, Hockey Canada's website will list the price at $345. Edmontonian Gord Nuttall says he only gets 90 per cent of his $300 posting price, not the price listed online.
"They should get their 10 per cent (commission). It's their website and they're doing the selling for me," Nuttall says. "What's not cool is them listing (the price) for more than what I put up. I'm not trying to make any money selling the tickets." (Calgary Herald)
Mr. Nuttall, but someone is ... because apparently they're not making enough already. There is a good legal question there about ownership of the ticket.
4. Everyone's a junior hockey expert for three weeks — It would be great if the tourney produced a spin-off in interest in major junior hockey, let alone a better understanding. It does not.
Come late November and early December, Canadian players who mostly play out of the media spotlight will be thrust front and centre for soundbytes and Nike ads. The selection camp gets picked, the national media descend and try to sort out the IceDogs from the Sea Dogs.
Basically, junior hockey, a unique level of the sport, gets shoehorned into the NHL milieu for a couple weeks. Remember last season when then-Windsor Spitfires forward Zack Kassian got a two-game suspension for a head check? Judging by what was out there in social media, it was lost on people that junior hockey has much stricter rules about head shots than the NHL.
Come Jan. 6, junior hockey goes back to its own little bailiwick, chugging along like it always does. By the following week, one could swear the world junior never happened. There's nothing deeper. There's nothing, really.
5. It's the least international international sports event ever — See the photo above, assuming you've hung in through this long-winder post? That was actually taken at a game where Canada was not even in the same city. It was actually taken during the Switzerland-Russia game on Monday. Yet almost everyone is wearing Canada gear.
The world junior is not worldly at all. It's pretty much been taken over by Canadian fans whose mindset is best summed up as, "Any excuse for us to put on our Team Canada jerseys and cheer, we'll take it." And everyone else is doing it already, so there'll be no sidelong glances!
But hey, it's a good way to feel international without really leaving an an English-speaking culture. It's the rooting answer to spending a semester in Australia.
Point being, let's get over ourselves. This is not a love of hockey thing; it's a blinding interest in loving to see Canada win thing. And loving to see the United States lose like it did today against Finland. Let's call it what it is. Trust me, very few in Buffalo last January, especially the guy who was punching the shuttered door of one of the concession stands as the crowd filed out, were in awe of the game after Russia made a stirring five-goal comeback in last year's final. Good thing that young man chose to accessorize that day by wearing his favourite hockey gloves.
Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet (photo: The Canadian Press).