Maybe it's time everyone - from Hockey Canada to the millions of fans - took a step back when it comes to the frenzy that has become the World Junior Championship. If not, look for Canada's teenagers to continue to choke under the white-hot pressure in big games for years to come.
Hockey Canada will officially end Canada’s favorite pastime and bar game tomorrow when it names its team for the 2014 Sochi Olympics. You’d have to look far and wide to find 23 men who will face more pressure, given that Canada hasn’t won a gold medal at either the senior or junior level since the last Olympics. But these guys are millionaires and the best in the world at what they do. They can handle it.
But to expect a bunch of teenagers to perform under that kind of backbreaking scrutiny, it appears, might be a little too much to ask. As Canada embarks on the second favorite pastime and bar game – which is What Happened to Canada’s World Junior Team? ™ - there are a number of theories out there. But it strikes this corner that perhaps one of the reasons Canada’s teenagers have come up so limp in the most crucial games of the World Junior Championship the past four years is they’re withering under the heat of the most intense spotlight they’ve ever experienced.
You certainly can’t chalk it up to the old ‘It’s not just Canada’s game anymore,’ excuse because that one has been around for about two decades now. Other countries have caught up in terms of skill, but to suggest that Canada is lacking in that department is absurd. Go to any local rink in this country any day of the week and chances are, you’ll see kids doing some very special things. But it does strike an observer that has been watching this tournament for a long time that one area where teams such as Finland and Sweden and Russia have caught up to Canada is swagger. The Finns proved in the WJC they fear no one. The Swedes pound their chests a lot more than they ever have and the Russians, Czechs, Slovaks and even the Swiss are matching the mental preparation and confidence levels of teams from Canada and USA.
Meanwhile, teams from Canada look as though they’re wilting under the pressure. So perhaps it’s time everyone from Hockey Canada to TSN to sponsors to fans in Canada take a step back and display a little perspective here. On the one hand, Canada’s obsession with all things stick and puck are what make it so unique. On the other hand, it seems to be choking the life out of its young players.
And in my opinion, it starts with Hockey Canada. The governing body for hockey in this country realized quite some time ago that the World Junior program represents a cash cow and it rarely fails to capitalize on that. (The kids, of course, get nothing for their efforts, but that’s a rant for another day.) In order to maximize the profits, Hockey Canada has found it extremely lucrative to turn the spotlight on these young men. And judging by the ticket prices for next year’s event in Montreal and Toronto, one that could generate as much as $100 million in profits for Hockey Canada and its partners, that isn’t about to end anytime soon. After all, people paying that kind of money to watch the tournament are going to expect their team to win it all.
Perhaps, though, Hockey Canada could take things down a notch. Perhaps it could stop pimping out its players for advertisers. Perhaps it could move the occasional WJC tournament back to a smaller center. Maybe it could not charge a king’s ransom to watch the games, then not parse up the tournament so that fans are basically forced to pay for two different ticket packages – one in Montreal and another in Toronto – if they want to see all of Canada’s games.
Meanwhile, this “holiday tradition” that TSN has created has spiralled out of control. After all, is it really necessary to show all Canada’s pre-tournament games? Do we really need to hear what some kid who has just been cut is thinking as he does the walk of shame through the team’s hotel lobby? But again, this is about money. Like Hockey Canada, TSN has found a cash cow in the WJC, and it comes at a time when advertisers have already sold most of their cars and stereos and hockey equipment for Christmas and traditionally wouldn’t be buying ad time. The more TSN perpetuates this tournament as the absolute be-all and end-all for Canadians, the more the dollars flow. And now that TSN has lost rights to the NHL, the prospects of this one changing are looking pretty dim, too.
That leaves you, hockey fans. Yes, you love Canada and you love hockey. We get that. But one of the problems in Canada is that so much of the national psyche and self-esteem is tied up in how it does in hockey. Don’t these kids get smothered enough when the tournament is in Canada? Is it really necessary to go traipsing en masse across the globe to watch a bunch of teenagers play hockey at a time of year when you might want to be home with your families?
When Canada fails in this tournament, among the navel gazing often emerges the notion that when it comes down to it, these kids, as wildly talented as they are, are teenagers and perhaps it’s not fair to come down too hard on them for not winning. That’s fine, if everyone involved remembers that before the tournament starts. Otherwise, nothing is going to change and Canada’s teenagers are going to continue to skate around at the WJC as though they have pianos strapped to their backs.
Ken Campbell is the senior writer for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com. To read more from Ken and THN’s other stable of experts, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Ken on Twitter at @THNKenCampbell.