Every year around this time the Canadian media becomes obsessed with a team of 17-19 year old boys and no, it’s not because they are an anglophone society (ha!), it’s because the IIHF World Junior Championships are the second most important international tournament, in the minds of Canadians, after the Olympic games. It’s that time where we get to hear Pierre McGuire do this:
And unfortunately also this:
First let me say, from a hockey perspective, the WJC is probably the most over-analyzed event compared to its real-world consequences in the world of hockey. Occasionally there is a Jordan Eberle or a Ryan Ellis who makes his name in the tournament, but for every player like this there is a Dustin Tokarski or a Brayden Schenn for whom the tournament is the highlight of their careers. Instead I am much more fascinated by the sideshow that develops around these young adults. Here are some things I have observed about the spectacle of the spectacle.
- Canadians take this event effin’ seriously: It’s gold or bust. Actually let me scratch that – it’s zero losses or bust. The first thing I realized about the Canadian fans (from reading message boards) is that they are deeply committed to their team. To be honest, when I watch the tournament, I’m rooting for my team’s prospect to do well or for the Ducks’ prospects to do poorly. I’m no Canadian so I can’t speak with the authority of knowing about hockey-dad zealousness on the ground level, but this event represents everything about the insane pressure this country puts on its children at playing a sport. Luckily this pressure is matched by the fact that the Canadians have the most talented roster almost every year. Except in one key area…
- The Goalies are Always Screwed (for Canada): For some reason Canada does not produce a number of elite goalies that corresponds with its talent level in other positions. This means that the team will occasionally have a down year, which really means that their goalie will be equal to the goalies of other nations. When you place this goalie behind a defense the result is that they will not see many shots, which means that there will always be a bad goal, somewhere along the line. The goalie (a 17-19 year old boy) becomes the focal point of hatred for an entire nation. Check out how Marc-Andre Fleury, Stanley Cup winner, let in the game winning goal way back in 2004. As if 30 million voices suddenly cried out in hockey-dad anger and were suddenly silenced by alcoholism/politeness.
- Politics Holds Back the Cold War Rivals: Let’s start at one end of the spectrum: the Americans and the Russians are very capable of underwhelming performances. The Swedes generally do well and the Canadians always medal (boohoo if it’s not gold), but sometimes the Ruskies and our own boys just don’t put out a great team. A huge part of it is politics. As the Canadians are very eager to remind us, every year some Americans and Russians are left off their respective national team for refusing to play in the appropriate national league (the USHL/NCAA for Americans and the VHL for Russians) and instead choosing to play in the Canadian junior system. This year the Americans are leaving off Jeremy Bracco and Connor Garland, who are putting up incredible offensive numbers, for political reasons (let me say that this doesn’t stop America from exceptional cases like Patrick Kane, who was playing in and destroying the OHL).
- The Little Guys Can Win: I am going to focus on two other countries: Finland and Switzerland. Neither of these countries is a talent powerhouse, although recently Finland has started to produce some pretty interesting players like Granlund, Barkov and Rantanen. Yet both of the national teams these countries put out are always well-prepared and ready to play a defensive style of game. For whatever reason these players, and their coaching staff, possess a cohesion that is lacked by the other countries. The fact that Finland medaled at all is a good achievement, but the fact that they secured gold in 2014 is a testament to the fact that talent is not always the most important factor for success. Switzerland has yet to medal recently, but they always keep games tight with the best of them despite having at best 1 or 2 NHL prospects on their squads.
- This Event is not Intended for Americans: I am a bit cynical about this event, so clearly I am missing something. This is because I am American – the event is of interest to an American as an opportunity to watch the next wave of great prospects play. For example, this tournament allowed me to see current NHL players like Doughty, Tavares and Carlson for the first time. Once my team stopped having enough elite prospects to place in the tournament it lost a lot of interest for me. Having followed the circus that the Canadians throw for this seeming exhibition series, I think I get it now. They see this as a serious competition. They see a gold medal at this tournament as a bragging point for the fact that their hockey system is indeed the best in the world. It isn’t good enough to win point to previous achievements. Even a single loss will allow other nations to besmirch the good name of Canadian hockey.