Team Canada at the 2009 World Juniors Hockey Tournament. Photo by Tricia Hall.
It’s been just over a month now since the gold medal game was played between Russia and Sweden at the 2012 World Junior Hockey Tournament in Calgary, Alberta. The final match was an absolute thriller—Sweden outshot Russia 50 – 16 in regulation and the game went into overtime with a 0 – 0 tie. Sweden’s Mika Zibanejad jumped on a stripped puck at Russia’s own blue line, freeing him up for a clear break on the outstanding Russian goalkeeper, Andrei Makarov. With a crossing backhand at 10:09 into the first overtime period, the game was over and Sweden had its first World Junior gold medal since 1981, immediately ascending Zibanejad to national hero status.
For me, I was in New York. I couldn’t for the life of me find this game on regular cable television, and so I was forced to walk to my local sports bar on 9th Avenue where the manager was kind enough to put it on one of the small screen television sets in the back corner, with no sound, as to not interfere with the other 20 large-screen TVs playing the Knicks, ESPN’s SportsCenter, and golf. I wasn’t bothered, but only because I wasn’t surprised. Had Canada been playing the U.S. for the championship, it may have been a different story, but then again, probably not.
The International Ice Hockey Federation (or IIHF) annual world competition is a tradition back home (this writer is a Canadian living in the U.S.) much like football at Thanksgiving. The tournament begins the day after Christmas, always with a Team Canada game, and comprises how millions of Canadians spend the day eating leftover turkey sandwiches, turkey soup, and some baked sweets after the big Christmas feast has surpassed. Here in the United States, it’s not even an after-thought. It is as if the tournament doesn’t exist and holds the same amount of audience interest as Australia’s “League State of Origin” rugby battle, the ICC Cricket World Cup or the GAA Hurling All-Ireland Senior Championship. Why is that? How is it that a sport can have so much interest and national pride in one country, and not even exist in the public eye in its neighboring country only 340 miles away (the distance between Toronto and New York City)?
“As for south of the border, the WJHC has never really been a big deal. A minor blip on the radar. But when Americans beat Canadians at their own game – or any nation, for that matter – people take notice,” writes Travis Hughes, the NHL editor for SB Nation, drawing attention to the growing popularity of the tournament in the U.S., especially after the 2010 overtime victory over Canada for the gold medal. “That’s the kind of thing that makes people watch the next year. And the next year. And the next year,” continues Hughes. “This wasn’t the first time the U.S. beat Canada for the gold, but that first time was in 2004, just before the NHL lockout. By the 2005 tournament, as the Americans set out to defend their title, the hockey world was completely dormant in the States, and a victory over Canada never had the chance to gain any traction.” Hughes argues the 2010 gold medal presented that opportunity. I disagree and even if he was right, the opportunity then was never seized properly.
Perhaps it is the time of year. How can non-professional hockey players compete with the NFL playoffs? While attempting to explain my fervor for the tournament to American sports fans, the number one argument I would hear would be, “Juniors? They’re kids. They aren’t even professional hockey players yet.” Of course, my rebuttal was always to ask said skeptic if he she was interested in Bowl Season or March Madness. A second possible explanation could be all the hype the U.S. television networks put behind the Winter Classic over the WJHC. Advertising companies and the NHL must feel there is more opportunity at revenue from one outdoor game of professionals than an entire tournament of juniors. Canada’s National Post sportswriter Ken Warren captures these sentiments perfectly in his article “Winter Classic, not world juniors, captures U.S. imagination”.
Whatever it is about the “World Juniors”, as they are known around the northern hockey world of Canada, Russia, Finland, Sweden, the Czech Republic, and some of the U.S., there is no doubt about its level of competition and thrill. These “juniors” play with just as much energy and enthusiasm as any other 17 – 20 year-old representing his or her country. It’s great hockey, without doubt. If only we could find a way to get the American audience more interested.