Despite it being a fundamental part of our country’s cultural fabric, I’ve avoided writing about hockey up to now. What could I say about the frozen game that hasn’t already been said?
And yet I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention my long, abiding love for the World Juniors hockey tournament. It’s an annual international tournament that happens over Christmas and New Year’s among the best players under the age of 21. 10 countries vie for the gold medal, though these days there are really only four likely winners–Canada, United States, Russia and Sweden. There are also three middling teams–Finland, Czech Republic and Slovakia, and three whipping boys–Denmark, Switzerland and Latvia.
Each tournament features some of the most inspired and fierce hockey you’ll ever see. These young players are the best in the world, and they’re competing for national pride and future NHL salaries. There are no fights, few cheap shots or half-assed back checks. The gold medal game is usually the best game of hockey I watch each year.
As a lifelong hockey fan, the tournament is also a chance to watch future stars before they make the NHL. Most Canadian players will have some kind of NHL career. Though the very best players like Sidney Crosby or Jonathan Toews will only play in the tournament as a 17-year-old. By the time they’re 18, they’re ensconced in the NHL, and their teams aren’t willing to loan them to the national team for the tournament.
I’ve watched the World Juniors live twice. We lived in Ireland in 2002, so we made a trip to the frosty Czech Republic to watch Team Canada play. That’s me standing outside an arena in Kladno. In 2006, I saw an unstoppable Canadian team beat up on some listless Russians, winning the gold medal in front of 18,630 very loud hometown fans at GM Place.
This year, our boys have skated out to a 8-1 thumping of the Finns on Boxing Day. Tougher tests await, most notably in the form of an excellent American program that’s been in ascendance for the past few years. I’ll be worshiping in front of the LCD god of television in the coming days, gorging on a host of World Juniors and Canucks games.
Do you watch the World Juniors?