The theme of this year’s World Junior Championship in Saskatoon is, “Come for the hockey, stay for the party.”
And if you’re a fan of Canadian hockey, that’s exactly what this WJC and almost every one of them in recent memory has been. Of course, that party could come to a screeching halt if the Americans somehow find a way to beat the juggernaut that is the Canadian national junior team in the gold medal game Tuesday night. In fact, that might at least add an element of intrigue to what has been one of the least compelling WJC tournaments in history.
My guess, though, is they’ve sold a ton of beer and that’s always a good thing when you make a commitment to put at least $12.5 million into the pocket of Hockey Canada – one third of which goes to the Canadian Hockey League and none of which goes to the young men who are actually out there putting on the show. People have had a great time and they’ve watched Canada once again beat up on its competition. But isn’t all the fun in a party supposed to be that it’s a unique experience? Even wild parties stop being fun if you go to them every night.
Scouts have returned from the proceedings wondering whether their time and expense money could have been used more wisely. Blowouts have been commonplace and it seems every time a Canadian gets an assist these days he’s either broken or on the verge of breaking some national scoring record.
Is it just me or is anyone else starting to get a little bored by all of this? Think about it. Canada has not had to play one good game yet in this tournament and they find themselves playing for gold for the ninth straight tournament. By their own admission, they played a terrible game against the Americans in the round-robin portion of the tournament and still managed to come away with a win and a spot in the semifinal.
It’s interesting to see how the on-air talent on TSN keeps talking about how things have been a cakewalk for Canada, but then you get a lot of, “boy oh boy are they about to get interesting,” and “Canada will have to be a lot better next time out.” And you can’t blame them for doing that. They pay a good chunk of change for the rights to the tournament and stand to make enormous amounts of money by trumping it up to be something more compelling than it actually is. Let’s face it: You have to gild the lily a little when you’re trying to pump the natives up for a showdown in the semifinal against a Swiss team that is without its two best defensemen.
So there you have it. It’s conceivable Canada could win this tournament without being required to play a sound 60-minute game from start to finish. Great, eh?
The fact of the matter is that through its dominance, Canada is risking killing a golden goose here. I remember when the Russians and Czechs used to come to this tournament hungry and with a chip on their shoulders. Now they fail to qualify for the medal round and they don’t seem to be all that worked up about it. After his team lost to Switzerland in the semifinal, Russian captain Nikita Filatov essentially shrugged his shoulders and said life goes on. Coming from the leader of what is one of the world’s proudest hockey countries, that was a little sad.
I get the sense teams are beginning to react that way because they know they’re essentially doomed from the start; that the tournament is so tilted in Canada’s and Team USA’s favor they really can’t be expected to win. So they don’t and they don’t get too upset about it.
In Canada’s defense, Hockey Canada stepped in and took this year’s tournament when Switzerland, wary of being relegated on home soil, turned it down. And Hockey Canada can’t be condemned for doing its job so well. But having the event in or near Canada so much has basically made it irrelevant to hockey countries that once saw this as a major tournament for the development of their young players.
So a tournament that was once magical in its intrigue has become decidedly less than that and it doesn’t look as though that’s going to change anytime in the near future. I’ll be watching Tuesday night, along with millions of other Canadians, but I do so knowing the game and the WJC have become a rather hollow victory for Canada because other countries are approaching it with ambivalence instead of resolve.
I hope it’s a great game, a classic. Perhaps that might go a small way toward salvaging what has been a colossal bore so far.
Ken Campbell, author of the book Habs Heroes, is a senior writer for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog will appear Wednesdays and Fridays and his column, Campbell's Cuts, appears Mondays.
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