Some call the annual IIHF World Junior Championship the most wonderful time of the hockey year. For the most part, it is. The best collection of the sport’s blossoming talent converges to battle not for money, but for their homelands. Players who never will amount to bean hills in the pros carve out a moment in the spotlight that millions of their countrymen will remember just as fondly. The WJC product is now all-gloss and big business – at least, in Canada – but the heart of it is still about as pure and admirable as it gets.
Unfortunately, the WJC also brings out the worst in some hockey fans. If you doubt this, put on a hazmat suit and venture on over to social media during the next week or so to disabuse yourself of that doubt. Once there, you will be knee-deep in messages from all kinds of people, from many hockey-loving nations, taking the low road by dragging down another country in order to build up their own, or by taking personal shots at teenagers who are under more public pressure than the grand majority of people ever will be in their lives.
All of it is vicious and petty and exhausting and unnecessary. It makes a relatively small hockey world smaller and distracts from the games themselves. And it really isn’t seen in other areas of the sports world.
Take the NCAA’s March Madness/Final Four college basketball championship. The United States is as emotionally invested in that tournament as Canadians are in the WJC, yet you rarely, if ever, see any American talking about it being “our game” and wringing their hands off because some European kid received a scholarship to learn the North American style of play. Yes, there are still some natural villains every year – Duke and/or North Carolina, depending on your perspective – but there never is an effort to turn the Final Four into a referendum on the present and future place of Americans in the sport.
In Canada, it feels like every WJC morphs into just such a nasty animal. If some of us Canucks aren’t grumbling under our breath about the two non-Canadians who are permitted to play on a CHL team each season, we’re ripping non-Canadian fans for cheering against Team Canada. Some of us seem to want nothing short of a Canadian coronation in every WJC – and we also want all our vanquished opponents to shower us with superlatives. And, should Canada not win a gold medal, the suggestion is that it is something Canada did wrong, not something the victorious country did right. The logical deficiencies of that perspective are staggering and wholly unbecoming of a people who pride themselves on their humility and unfailing grace.
Now, there’s nothing wrong with being critical of the manner in which one particular WJC team plays. As well, there certainly are on-ice decisions made by individual players that are worthy of wrath. But to ascribe a set of derogatory character traits to any collection of young men – especially when there is constant roster turnover from year to year – or any country is to hijack the tournament for your own agenda.
I hate that garbage with a passion. The truth is you can still enjoy the WJC each year without a soulless villain to post on your personal mental dartboard. You can still believe your side is playing for all the right reasons without believing the other side plays for all the wrong ones. You can continue to root your heart out for your home colors without degrading the opposition as players or people.
If the WJC is the most wonderful time of the hockey year, it only will remain so if we focus on the wonder of the game and ignore the anger and divisiveness sold by cynics and the professionally embittered.
Adam Proteau is writer and columnist for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.