Greetings and welcome to 2011. I hope your holiday season was as wonderful, emotional, and rewarding as mine luckily was this year. It was nice to get some time off from the shows on the Fan 590, but I’m always excited to get back and will be back tomorrow morning.
In addition to some time off, I was also fortunate enough to fill in for McCown on Prime Time Sports a couple days and had a blast doing it. Thanks to Bob for leaving the chair warm (custodial staff IS looking into that…), and thanks to his bountiful audience for treating me so nicely….it was nice to be on hearing from folks driving HOME from their jobs instead of driving around aimlessly, or sneaking a call in from their offices. As much as I’ve loved my new environment at Rogers and The Fan 590, I was thrilled to get asked to fill-in. I’ve said it before, Bob’s the gold standard — and The Fan 590 really is the house that HE built by being so good at what he does. You need to believe me when I say that every day I get to mention his show is coming up next, is kind of an exciting moment for me, no question.
Now — this time of year also brings the World Junior Hockey Championships. I was 5 1/2 years old when they “officially” started in 1977. Pretty amazing evolution. The first tourney had eight teams, they all played each other once, and that was pretty much that. No national (or regional) television, no gold medal game, no ticket scalpers, and umm, Poland was in the tournament. Nothing against Poland — but…did I mention Poland was in the tournament? OK, I am now.
Slava Fetisov made that tournament’s All-Star team. Yes, he was 18, but looked 33. Danny Almonte thought something was suspicious about “Papa Bear” and his birth certificate. Dale McCourt and future Leaf John Anderson led the tournament in scoring and Canada finished with a 5-1-1 record. The Soviets were a perfect 7-0, and many of the core of this team would be with the Soviet National team by the time they walloped the NHL All-Stars in the 1979 Challenge Cup, and the 1981 Canada Cup Final by an 8-1 score. They even beat the USA squad 15-5.
Canada would only pick up one bronze medal in the next three World Junior Championships, and that was at home the following year, when the tournament was held in Montreal in 1978.
It really hit the radar here in Canada the first time Canada won in January 1982, tying the final round-robin game in Rochester, Minnesota, against Czechoslovakia. That year’s tourney was bizarrely shared by several cities in Minnesota, with some games being played in Winnipeg and Kenora.
I seem to recall the first tourney to get serious TV coverage (on CBC, before TSN or Sportsnet existed, obviously) was the 1986 tournament in Hamilton where the Canadians were led by Jim Sandlak, Shayne Corson, and Joe Murphy. In fact a few games were played in London that year, and being a massive fan of international hockey at an early age, I have no idea how I didn’t con my dad into taking me to some of the games. Obviously the Piestany Punchout got a great deal of attention for the tournament itself and once the 1990s hit and Paul Romanuk began calling the games, the World Juniors really hit their stride and full and awestruck credit to TSN folks at the time, on-air and off-air, who decided it could become an iconic staple of their programming schedule.
But with the tournament almost 40 years old, it’s fair to ask some serious questions about where it is now and where it will go. Though I’m a big Buffalo supporter and love the Western New York community, I’m not sure the tourney has “worked” there. Be it slower than usual ticket sales, teams like the Russians and Swedes playing to 30 percent or under capacity at Dwyer Arena in Niagara, or just a general lack of buzz when the extremely talented USA squad plays evening games in its OWN arena, something’s not right.
As an example, I’m writing this ten hours before puckdrop for the Canada/USA semi-final – should be an amazing night, right? I can buy a $95 ticket online for face value on the Buffalo World Juniors website. Why is this? People have dropped $400-$500 in recent years at Canadian venues to scalpers or ticket brokers to get into such an affair, whether it’s the gold medal game or the semi-finals. Are prices too high? Is the border-crossing that much of a hassle? People cross the Peace Bridge from Ontario to go to Target or Dick’s Sporting Goods. Or 41 Sabres games! You can’t tell me they won’t do it for an affordably-priced piece of hockey history.
Next year’s tourney is in Alberta — Calgary and Edmonton — it should be a raging success. In 2013, it’s in Russia, where it WON’T be a raging success. I maintain the best thing that happened to the tournament last year was Team USA winning. The more forward-thinking Canadians might have been disappointed not to win a 6th straight gold medal seem to comprehend that the tournament needs: a) to find successful homes outside the Canadian border for hosting it, and b) Canada can’t win every year. The sports fan loses interest in anything that’s predictable. Take USA basketball — when Greece 2004 was a total disaster (thank you, Larry Brown), the great players finally decided they ALL (not just a few) wanted to play again. The World Juniors was and may still be risking becoming a tournament only WE as Canadians care about (I know, I know, many of you think it’s there already but you embrace it nonetheless) and once that fully comes to fruition, it’ll be a tournament only we send our best players too. Although watching Team USA play, you get the sense they’re here to stay and will start being the more consistent threat than the Russians on the junior level as well as the adult level.
These are all valid questions and concerns but there’s no great solution one way or the other. I don’t know how you MAKE nations care about a sport or be better at a sport without funding injections or resource-sharing. Similar to men’s soccer, once the United States spent money, improved their NCAA system, and got good on the world stage, they were never coming back to Canada’s level, and they never will. Same as women’s hockey, which has provided, in my mind, some VERY entertaining and amazing moments on the world stage at the Olympics, but the game will stagnate if countries like Sweden, Russia, and Finland don’t get more women playing hockey at a grassroots level, and developing them (either over there, or through NCAA means) when they become elite. It’s the only hope the game has.
Lastly, it’s so laughable to see members of the women’s hockey community take shots at this tournament and a few lopsided scores, given their own game internationally is in such jeopardy. Never mind that an 8-1 Canada/Slovakia score in the World Juniors on an entertainment/value level can’t even be compared to watching the Canadian women wax China 8-1 in an Olympic Women’s tourney or a world championship. That’s an argument they know they’ll never win.
Canada and Team USA outscored their female counterparts at the Olympics 86-4 in 8 games…an average score of just under 11 goals to, umm, a half-goal. And they want to trash THIS tournament in terms of competitive balance. What a joke.
I was in attendance at the USA/Sweden women’s semi-final in Vancouver last February. Just a dreadfully boring, antiseptic sporting event. Sweden BEAT USA in the 2006 Torino Winter Olympics, but this was so lopsided. You’d never find a quarter-final game in a women’s tournament that had the energy, human drama, or passion that Russia/Finland had last night (the Russians coming from 3-1 down after 56 minutes to win in overtime), not in a million, trillion years. So honestly, ladies, don’t compare apples and oranges. Your tournaments aren’t in the same universe in terms of entertainment value — keep working on that “pro league” thing that people like Hayley Wickenheiser feel the women’s hockey community is “owed”. And no, one isn’t a sexist because the only women’s hockey that matters to them involves either friends, family, or Canada v. USA for a gold medal, they’re simply a discriminating consumer.