December 12, 2011
Fixating on who could be playing for Team Canada has become a bigger cliché than the player who says he's willing to play any role in order to make the team.
This isn't meant to deny that yes, Canada could use Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and the others who have graduated to the big league before turning 20 years old. It's just a way of asking why this narrative gets so much play at the outset of camp each year, long after it's been established who's not walkin' through that door, Brett Connolly and Devante Smith-Pelly's late additions notwithstanding.
Is this a case of the fragile Canadian ego steeling itself against disappointment in an increasingly wide-open world junior championship? Or is it just too easy a storyline to pass up, especially when the audience might pay more attention to an article about 19-year-old NHLers Tyler Seguin and Jeff Skinner more so than 18-year-olds Ryan Strome and Mark Scheifele? (One year's age difference apparently means all the world for a Q rating.) Either way, and while it's acknowledged much Canada's interest in the tournament is tied to the country's chance of winning, nothing else, focusing there does overlook part of the world junior's allure.
It is fine for some to write, as Eric Duhatschek did last night, about "a perfect world where national team duty would trump everything, including professional hockey commitments." That's the what should be. The what is, however, is that no one who follows junior hockey ever seriously considered that Seguin, Skinner, or Nugent-Hopkins once he stuck with the Edmonton Oilers, might wear the Maple Leaf this holiday season.
The IIHF does officially call it the world under-20 championship, but the reality is we should all go with the working Canadian definition of junior player. The teenaged NHLers have ceased to be juniors. Besides, as Terry Jones pointed out, no other country would be able take such a hit to its player pool without having a compromised roster.
Last but not least, as much as the tournament has become a ratings juggernaut because of Canada's success, it also owes much to those who did the winning. In the 1980s and '90s and on through the early Internet era, the fun of the world juniors was that you could still be surprised. It was not about the next generation of NHL stars or loading up with players who were still eligible but had moved on from junior hockey. One could develop an appreciation for players from the NCAA and two junior leagues other than the one you followed, or see a lesser-known junior step up for Canada. Think John Slaney scoring the winning goal in 1990 or Justin Pogge stoning Russia in 2006.
So, not to call out anyone in particular, it is beside the point to dwell on who's moved on to the NHL. Canada still has four players who played in the big league this season — Connolly, Smith-Pelly, Scheifele and Minnesota Wild prospect Brett Bulmer from the WHL's Kelowna Rockets. It has, pending Jonathan Huberdeau's health, three of the top seven picks from June's NHL draft. The nation should turn their eyes to them.
Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet (photo: OHL Images).