There are a lot of things the International Ice Hockey Federation could do to restore the lustre to the WJC. Reducing the field to eight teams would be a great start.
Between the Toronto quarterfinal games Monday afternoon at the World Junior Championship, I chatted with a veteran scout who hasn’t missed one in the past quarter century. He is not prone to overstatement or hyperbole and measures his words carefully. Which is why what he said shocked me so much.
“This tournament is so overrated,” the scout said. “Some of our guys have been asking me, ‘Are the games always this bad?’ And I’m telling them, ‘Yeah, most of them are.’ ”
Thankfully, with four games of consequence remaining, we’re finally getting to the meat of the WJC, a tournament that has taken something of a beating this year in Montreal and Toronto for everything from shockingly bad attendance to little star quality. In fact, 2017 might be remembered as the year that the bloom finally came off the rose for this event.
Or Jumped the Shark. For those of you unfamiliar with that term, it’s the precise moment in time when a phenomenon, usually a television show, reaches the point where it hits an inevitable and desperate decline. It’s in reference to a 1977 episode of the television show Happy Days, where Fonzie, the main character, jumps over a shark on water skis.
It’s certainly not a stretch to suggest that this event reached its apex with Connor McDavid vs. Jack Eichel in 2015. In this day and age when so, so much is being shoved down our throats from the games we love, perhaps the days of the WJC being an absolute definite on the hockey calendar are over. And if that’s the case, you can pretty much blame it on the same phenomena that led to the Decline of the Roman Empire - excess and a little laziness.
This event has simply become too much. Too many teams, too many bad games, far too much money required to see it live. On Monday night, the Bell Centre in Montreal was less than half full for Canada’s quarterfinal against the Czech Republic – something that would have been unheard of in previous years - in part because hockey fans in Montreal are clearly not willing to pay top dollar for junior hockey. But it was also because those fans who stayed away knew that, unless there was an upset of monumental proportions, the result was a foregone conclusion. Events like this one rely on drama to draw people in and, at least in the preliminary round, there is almost none of that anymore.
Part of the reason for that is there are simply too many teams playing. With all due respect to Denmark and Latvia, they would probably be beaten by most teams in the Canadian Hockey League and probably a couple of really good Jr. A teams in Canada. Prior to 1996, the WJC was an eight-team tournament that was played on a round-robin format, with the gold medal being won by the team that had the best record after seven games. That made every game meaningful and the tournament often built up to a crescendo where there were all kinds of permutations and accompanying excitement.
Going back to that format would do nothing to reduce the number of meaningful games in the tournament. As it stands, the WJC has 31 games, but three of those are relegation games that nobody cares about and would not be necessary because the team that finished in the bottom of the standings would be relegated. If you had eight teams playing seven games each, that would amount to a total of 28 games. And the best part of it is you’d be guaranteed to see the top teams seven times. As it stands now, if one of the hockey powers is upset in the quarterfinal, fans only get to see that team play five times.
And for goodness sakes, let’s get it out of Canada for just a little while. By the time the event finishes in 2019, it will have been played for eight of 11 years in a Canadian venue or American border city. That not only gives Canada a huge advantage – for example, it had the run of the expansive Maple Leafs dressing room through the entire preliminary round – but also creates the excess and fatigue that has been the biggest contributor to the malaise we’re seeing now. Clearly going to Toronto and Montreal twice in the space of two years was a huge miscalculation by Hockey Canada. There is some big-event fatigue that in Toronto that led to the dip in numbers, but you simply don’t sell this tournament without selling the intrigue that comes with it. Part of what made this tournament great, especially for Canadians, was that people never really knew how it was going to do on foreign soil. It created an ‘us-against-the-world’ mentality that simply no longer exists.
You get the sense that Hockey Canada, when it awarded the 2015 and 2017 events to Toronto and Montreal back in 2013, had the notion that you’d simply throw the doors open and the fans would come pouring in. Well, they didn’t. For Canada’s preliminary round game against Slovakia, each volunteer was offered two free tickets for the game and there were still more than 6,000 empty seats. That’s where the complacency comes in. There is virtually nothing in Montreal that indicates the tournament is even going on and, partly because of unforeseen circumstances, it got buried in Toronto.
But this is not about Montreal and Toronto. It's not about star attractions or lack of them. It’s about rebooting the World Junior Championship, wherever it’s held, to make it something that’s worth circling on the calendar again. It's about fixing something that is clearly broken. As it stands right now, the World Juniors is trying too hard to be something it’s not and having an outdoor game next year in Buffalo is perfect example of that. And it's that kind of mismanagement of what used to be a crown jewel that could ruin it for years to come.