The WJHC: Caught in a bad Romance

I love Christmas. It’s always been a big thing in my household, down from family traditions on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day to going WAY overboard on gifts, to trying to cram as much turkey and dessert into myself as possible over 3-5 days. When you grow up in a household that places such a value on Christmas, once the holiday is over, there’s an inevitable letdown.

Luckily for me, I’ve always had the World Junior Hockey Championships to fall back on. My grandma, who is likely the biggest hockey fan you could ever meet(definitely the biggest fan who is 4’10” and has white hair) and I carried the Canadian holiday tradition of watching games and screaming at teenagers for years. Waking up early, watching the games, trying to pick out who would be the future stars of the tournament, and enjoying the games made the holiday seem longer, and gave me something to look forward to after Christmas and even after New Year’s.

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The World Juniors have long been something that’s been very “safe” to cheer for. We usually have good teams, and even if we don’t win, there’s still the joy of seeing future prospects succeed(or not succeed, if they’re Flames or Habs picks). The games are always entertaining, featuring players laying it on the line for their country with a passion rarely seen in the NHL, and everyone loves it. It was pretty rare for a long, long time to find anyone with any sort of disdain for the tournament, it was something that seemed devoid of any real criticism, as though there was just no one who didn’t like it. If there was, they didn’t actively hate it, they just didn’t watch it, preferring the NHL or no hockey instead.

This year is the first year that I can remember people actively coming out and trashing the WJHC. It’s been outright bashed by Stephen Brunt on Sportsnet, mildly put down by Roy Macgregor in the Globe and Mail, and partially defended(though you wouldn’t say without criticism) by Neate Sager over at Yahoo!

It seems odd that Canadians are just now beginning to feel like this is too much of a good thing. But is it? I can’t help but think that what is contributing to this overall downer feeling is a lack of two things: romance and excitement.

Sager alludes to the lack of romance that was once prevalent in the tournament, but there’s no question this is a major sticking point for many of us. I used to enjoy the thrill of waking up extremely early in the morning to watch the games. Oftentimes, games would be broadcast from some European hamlet at 6:30 in the morning, prompting my grandma and I to wake up together and take in the games. There was something that felt a bit more special about supporting Canada in that way–especially since there were roughly 500 people in the stands watching the live game. For a while, I had no greater dream than traveling to Europe and buying a bunch of cheap tournament tickets, cheering on Canada in the face of those big, bad Europeans.

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Those traveling contingents resulted in some amazing moments, too, as the teams were often known to celebrate in the stands with those who traveled after victories, and it felt like a far more Canadian process than now, where tournaments take place in gigantic arenas either here or a stone’s throw from our border in the States. Having to travel to Europe and beat them on their terms, on their soil, on their ice, with their refs was part of the whole deal. Reading the book about the first 30 years of the World Juniors for Canada, Thirty Years of the Game at Its Best by Gare Joyce, the point seems to be made often that for many a Canadian player, their proudest accomplishment was going away and doing just that. A win at home in front of the home fans is special, but there’s something about the added adversity that makes it even better. A win in front of the home crowd would also seem more special if it didn’t happen every year, right?

I have to admit, some of the excitement has gone out of the tournament for me. I miss the days when Canadian coaches would take players based on their ability to surprise, the players being so gifted that they HAD to be selected, even if they had shortcomings. Remember when Jason Spezza and Jay Bouwmeester BOTH made the team as 16 year-olds? Now we’re being told that some 18 year-olds are too young for the squad when they’re cut. I’m sure there were safer options up front than Jason Spezza, but the coaches believed he could bring a certain je ne sais quoi to the squad that others couldn’t.

It seems that team selection now is based far more on a player’s ability to play a two-way game than any sort of natural, exciting talent. Tyler Toffoli is a prime example of this. He has 124 goals in the OHL in his last 165 games for the Ottawa 67’s, a natural sniper if there ever was one. Now, two years running, he’s been overlooked for players like Michael Bournival and Curtis Hamilton, who barely put up a point a game.

I fully understand Canada needs to have checking players, but it seems that in past years, barring a disastrous camp or other outside influences, Canada chose the players who had the most talent and propensity to score, regardless of defensive ability. Is that the most effective way to win? Probably not, but it made the tournaments incredibly exciting. And choosing Don Hay to coach doesn’t seem like an accident. He hasn’t coached since 1995, and is a coach prided on getting his teams to work hard and play defensive hockey. Seems that with Canada icing what has been widely recognized as one of their least offensively gifted teams in years, Hockey Canada turned to Hay to get wins by playing a less exciting style. We’re only two games in, but already I’ve found this iteration of Team Canada a bit on the boring side. If it wasn’t for Jordan Eberle, we might’ve been having this conversation a few years ago, but it seems now is the perfect time to bring up that the World Junior tournament–or at least our philosophy about it– should be brought into question. And I’m not the only one who would rather watch the Yakupovs, Granlunds, and Kuznetsovs of the tournament as opposed to those wearing the red and white.

Now don’t get me wrong, I will watch every game and cheer Canada as loudly as any fan will. You won’t find a bigger fan of the World Junior format than me. I just think we need to be careful to preserve the things that made this tournament special, before we turn too many people away from our game, and the passion that these kids bring to it.