Canada's still the big cash cow for world junior championship

Team Canada celebrates winning gold at the 2015 world junior championship in Toronto.
Team Canada celebrates winning gold at the 2015 world junior championship in Toronto.

Canada has always been seen as the promised land for the world junior championship. Thanks to wall-to-wall television coverage and a schedule that provides an attentive audience over the Christmas holidays, the tournament has taken on a life of its own in this country.

There is big money to be made and everyone, including the International Ice Hockey Federation knows it. It’s why Canada hosts the tournament as often as it does now. Even with a poor turnout at the Montreal portion of the 2015 tournament – blamed on high ticket prices for the market – Hockey Canada still turned a profit.

“I really like the idea that we go every second year to Canada,” said IIHF president Rene Fasel at a Q & A session with reporters on Tuesday. “I think the expectations were so big for Toronto and Montreal and I was part of the decision to make this back-to-back (in 2015 and 2017). I think we made a mistake. The expectations here were so high, but still Canada made, in 2015, they made a good profit, so don’t worry about that. Even when we complain a little bit, it still wasn’t bad.”

At the same time, however, the IIHF talks about trying to grow the game in markets that might not have the same cachet as their Canadian cash cow. After Toronto and Montreal will split hosting duties again this year, the 2018 tournament will move across the border to Buffalo, N.Y. Other cities that bid on the 2018 tournament included Pittsburgh and St. Louis.

It’s the second consecutive time USA Hockey will have gone to Buffalo to host the event in the U.S. The 2011 tournament was a rousing success since it was the first time the championship had turned a profit in America, though it was thanks to a huge number of Canadian fans who crossed the border from southern Ontario to fill HSBC Arena.

Hockey has been growing at a steady rate in “non-traditional” hockey markets across the U.S. and the selection of Scottsdale, Ariz., native Auston Matthews first-overall at the NHL draft last June is another testament to the Sunbelt surge.

So with all this talk about growing the game, is Fasel disappointed USA Hockey is going back to Buffalo for the Canadian money grab?

“Yes and no,” said Fasel. “There are not so many places you can attract Canadian fans. We can not attract as many in the U.S. as you can here so you have to play at the border. When we went with the under-20 in North Dakota, I think that was Winnipeg fans coming – they were mostly Canadian fans.”

“For sure Toronto fans will go to Buffalo again but (Canada) is unique,” said Fasel. “You love hockey here. The question is how much you can take.”

So how much can Canada take before fans start spending their loonies elsewhere?

“We’re cautiously optimistic,” said Hockey Canada president Tom Renney, “but we recognize that the market’s been saturated with a lot of tremendous activity.”

But the bottom line is still the bottom line. It’s one of the big reasons USA Hockey added an outdoor game where they hope to get 70,000 fans – many Canadians too be sure – at New Era Field, the home of the Buffalo Bills.

“It was a conversation that we had had,” said Renney of his talks with USA Hockey. “They asked us how we felt about that in the interest of helping them and helping the game and making an investment in our relationship.”

And as Renney said jokingly, “Fifty per cent of a 70,000 seat arena isn’t bad.”