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World juniors future: What is best for hockey?

Ryan Kennedy
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World juniors future: What is best for hockey?

From left: Jesse Puljujarvi, Sebastian Aho and Patrik Laine Author: HEIKKI SAUKKOMAA/AFP/Getty Images

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World juniors future: What is best for hockey?

Ryan Kennedy
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Hockey Canada and the IIHF have a great relationship when it comes to the tournament, but perhaps they're leaving the rest of the world behind in the process

Besieged by complaints about ticket prices and well aware of the perception that attendance in both Toronto and Montreal was embarrassing, the high hats of the IIHF and Hockey Canada held a press conference today in Montreal. But while those closely-linked matters were obvious issues this year, I can't help but feel the group was missing some other important questions.

The answers to the inevitable queries came as expected: yes, Hockey Canada would reassess ticket prices in the lead-up to the 2019 world juniors, to be hosted by Vancouver and Victoria. Scott Smith, Hockey Canada's newly-appointed COO (hired from within the organization), said that research during the 2015 world juniors – where Montreal hosted the preliminary round and also suffered from bad attendance – led them to cut "overall collective ticket prices" by 30 percent, though it seems that the devil is in the details there – he didn't say each individual ticket was slashed by that number.

The 2015 ticket prices were established by looking at the 2012 world juniors in Calgary and Edmonton, which was an overflowing success. Hockey Canada looked at NHL prices for the Flames and Oilers at the time to figure out the benchmark and since the event went so well, they took that concept to Toronto and Montreal.

Needless to say, that math didn't end up working.

Doubtlessly afraid of being misconstrued as profiteers, Smith and Hockey Canada president Tom Renney repeatedly pointed out that the money they make off this tournament goes back to local branches and, by extension, kids' hockey.

"There's a huge legacy left behind here," Renney said. "It's about grassroots development."

Smith reiterated that later, noting that "we use the term 'legacy dollars,' not 'profit.' "

But here's the crux of the matter for me: don't other countries deserve the chance to develop their grassroots? The world juniors has been in Canada every two years lately, with Buffalo (an unrecognized territory of Canada) set to host for the second time in a decade next year. Meanwhile, hockey is dying in Slovakia and the IIHF is based in Switzerland. Heck, wouldn't Denmark's amazing play of late be enough of a reason to give them a shot at hosting?

I know the tournament wouldn't be as "big" in those nations, but that shouldn't be the point. You don't need to grow the game in Canada, you need to grow it in Europe, where there is actual room to grow. And even if the home team doesn't win, is there not a great value in having kids in Denmark or Switzerland get to see future NHLers such as Dylan Strome and Alex Nylander up close and in person?

IIHF president Rene Fasel didn't seem to buy into that idea.

"Junior hockey is not very big in Europe," he said. "The under-20s, it's really done for North America. It's big, it's fantastic – I wish we could come here every year."

Ho ho. I just heard a huge 'yippee!' cry from the TSN suites. But from the folks I've talked to, at least one European federation isn't too happy with Canada hosting every other year. One in three? Maybe.

As for Europe not coming out for junior hockey, that has evolved. When Sweden hosted the 2014 tournament in Malmo, average attendance was more than 4,600 – but that number jumped to more than 11,000 when Sweden was playing. Helsinki was a huge smash hit last year and when Russia hosted in 2013, I remember the stands in Ufa being so packed for some games that families would have five seats for 10 people – the kids were sitting on the adults' laps the whole game!

And so what if the gross numbers are smaller? If the rinks are smaller too, the crowds will be just as electric. Fasel's counterpoint is that for the players, the opportunity to skate and compete at the ACC or Bell Centre is special and that is no doubt true. I won't even argue against that point. But it seems like the grassroots game needs a change if hockey is to remain vital around the world.

Will the pool of money be smaller? Sure. The panel acknowledged that ticket prices for recent world junior tournaments in Europe were substantially less than when North America hosts. But does it all have to be about dollars and cents?

I couldn't help but laugh when, at one point in the press conference, Fasel was talking about the attendance and ticket prices and then turned to Smith.

"You're still going to make a profit this year," he said, before catching himself and adding "for development…of course."

Development opportunities for all countries, of course, would be even nicer.

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World juniors future: What is best for hockey?