Drive for five will be serious challenge
By Wayne Scanlan
December 26, 2008
Team Canada head coach Pat Quinn (C) watches from behind his players during the first period of their World Junior Hockey Championships pre-competition hockey game against Team Sweden in Toronto Dec. 19.Photograph by: REUTERS/Mike CasseseOTTAWA -- Like so many things that become grand over time, the world junior hockey tournament started humbly enough.
Thirty-five years ago, Russian and Czech hockey federations thought it would be a good idea to stage a world hockey championship for players under 20. They pitched it to the International Ice Hockey Federation, with the understanding it would be an invitational, unsanctioned tournament during a three-year test period, from 1974-77.
I guess the IIHF liked what they saw.
For the Russians, the early world junior tournaments were just another opportunity to show off. In that first tournament, held in Leningrad, Canada sent over an Ontario Hockey League team, the Peterborough Petes, against a Russian squad that featured seven future world and Olympic champion players.
It was an obvious mismatch, but Petes head coach Roger Neilson directed Canada’s first foray into the worlds, using a defensive posture to finagle a bronze medal for his country.
Over time, Canada, and the tournament, grew more serious about this under-20 get together. Today, Canada’s best young juniors spend years preparing for world junior competition, by first competing in under-17 and under-18 world events.
In 1978, Canada played host to the second official world junior tournament, as the focus in Montreal shifted to a single, spectacular 16-year-old from Brantford, Ont., by the name of Wayne Gretzky.
While the Great One stole the show by scoring 17 points over the course of the tournament, the Russians won again, led by defenceman Viacheslav Fetisov.
It wasn’t until 1982 in Minnesota that Canada won its first gold medal, behind a team coached by Dave King and Mike Keenan. Players like Mike Moller, Gord Kluzak and goaltender Mike Moffat led the way for Canada, which didn’t lose a game and outscored the opposition 45-14.
For the first 19 official world junior hockey championships, from 1977 to 1995, the format of the event was a round-robin competition. In Boston, 12 years ago, the championship shifted to Olympic-style medal rounds. Canada defeated Sweden 4-1 in the initial gold-medal game on Jan. 4, 1996.
While Gretzky, Mario Lemieux, Sidney Crosby and dozens of other hockey stars made the world tournament their personal party, it was a Canadian television network’s decision to broadcast the entire tournament that made the world juniors the big production it is today.
Looking for something to fill the holiday gap in the NHL schedule, TSN could not have picked a better debut for its world junior programming. Saskatchewan was playing host to the 1991 tournament, and the Canadians were led by Eric Lindros, hyped by Canadian media as the ”Next One” after Wayne and Mario.
Canada won the gold medal over the Russians, on a dramatic goal by defenceman John Slaney of St. John’s, N.L. The country was hooked.
In recent years this tournament that started so innocently — a bunch of Peterborough Petes packing their bags for Russia, having no idea what they were getting into — has evolved into a multi-million-dollar business venture.
In Canada, especially, when people talk about “world junior gold,” it has a double connotation. As with our Olympic hockey teams, Canadians expect to win the junior tournament every time out.
Gold is also a symbol of the Hockey Canada coffers being filled.
When Vancouver played host to the 2006 tournament, the city guaranteed Hockey Canada a $5.2 million surplus. In the end, it delivered about $9 million.
The National Capital Region made a $12.5 million commitment, but expects a financial return of about $13.6 million. In a program spearheaded by Ottawa Senators chief operating officer and franchise co-founder Cyril Leeder, tickets to the event were sold out one year in advance.
The cash breakdown goes something like this: Hockey Canada receives 50 per cent of net profits, the Canadian Hockey League (which oversees the WHL, OHL and QMJHL) gets 35 per cent and the remaining 15 per cent is shared among the Ottawa District Hockey Association and the other 12 Branches of Hockey Canada.
TSN is in the midst of a seven-year contract extension with Hockey Canada that has the network broadcasting national championships and international events through 2014.
A five-year championship run by Canada from 1993-97 fuelled expectations that this tournament would always be Canada’s to lose.
Success in the tournament has become tagged to our development of young talent. When Canada does not have a strong showing, critics of Canada’s hockey programs come out of the woodwork.
Not coincidentally, when Canada finished out of the medals at 1998 Olympic men’s hockey tournament in Nagano, followed by a gold-medal drought at the world junior level after 1997, Canadian media published extensive series and programming exploring what had gone wrong with the development system here.
That issue has done a complete 180-degree turn, as other nations have come to examine Canada’s program of excellence in the men’s and women’s game.
In 2002, Canada’s Olympic men’s team, coached by Pat Quinn, today’s world junior boss, won gold for the first time in 50 years. Though the men struggled in Turin in 2006, the juniors are looking to repeat the run of five straight gold from a decade ago.
To borrow a basketball phrase, it’s no slam dunk, especially with so many good juniors in the NHL, unavailable for Canada.
“Among the hockey people,” Quinn says, “on a talent basis, I don’t think we’ll be rated at the top . . . but our goal is to be the best hockey team, and maybe the best that Canada has ever put out there.
“Our intention is to win a gold medal and all the other stuff doesn’t mean a darn thing right now.”
Some amateur scouts say Canada needs to be fearful of Team USA.
“They’re bigger, stronger, older than Canada,” said one scout.
Another NHL hockey operations director who scouted the Four Nations tournament in Sweden says the biggest threat to Canada will come from Sweden and the Americans.
Canada’s goaltending is considered a question mark by some. While Chet Pickard and Dustin Tokarski have the ability to rise up and backstop a championship tournament, they aren’t the dominant presence Carey Price was two years ago.
Last year, Steve Mason was outstanding for Canada. Pick a year when the Canadians won gold, and you’ll find a tremendous performance by the starting goaltender.
Team USA will look to Thomas McCollum, a New York State native who is having a strong season for the Guelph Storm of the OHL. McCollum was the first goaltender selected in the 2008 NHL entry draft in Ottawa, a 30th overall pick by the Detroit Red Wings. He backed Team USA to a silver medal at the 2007 world under-18 championship.
Coincidentally, the next player chose in that draft was goaltender Jacob Markstrom, expected to start for Sweden in this tournament. Markstrom, out of the Brynas club, was the first pick of the second round, taken by the Florida Panthers. The Swedes fell 3-2 in last year’s goal-medal game, and could be in the final again.
While Pat Quinn sorts out the line combinations and strategy he figures will give Canada the best chance to win, fans will expect another championship, as they do whenever Canadian players put on a national jersey.
No nation has won more world junior gold medals than Canada’s 14.
Winning No. 15, and a fifth consecutive championship, might be the toughest one yet.
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