I never, ever thought it would come to this.
Here we are, one day before the start of the World Junior Championship. Not only do I not know Riley Hozapfel from Charles Nelson Reilly or Colin Wilson from (his dad) Carey Wilson, I’m rather perplexed and a little spooked to say that I don’t really care.
Over the course of my career, I have covered eight of these tournaments and there was a time when this used to be my favorite time of year. I often covered Canada’s pre-competition camp, which gave me a great chance to get to know many of the players I would be covering for 10 days during the tournament. Aside from the time of year, which is brutal, particularly when you have to leave your family on Christmas Day, the World Junior Championship was always one of my highlights of the season.
Perhaps it’s because I’m not covering this year’s tournament, which begins tomorrow in the Czech Republic, but I think it goes deeper than that. There have been other years where I haven’t been covering the tournament and I’ve been just as enthused about it as if I were right there. No, I think it’s because the WJC has largely become a coronation for Canada, one that is utterly and completely without drama.
Over the course of the past three WJCs, Canada has won 18 straight games and outscored its opponents by a combined 86-20 margin. There have been some dramatic moments, a 2-1 shootout victory for Canada over USA in last year’s semis comes to mind, but generally speaking, the last couple of years have been found wanting in both competition for Canada and compelling story lines.
A big reason for that, I believe, is that the rest of the world doesn’t care about this tournament the way Canada does, and that’s a shame.
The USA, which has been hothousing its best prospects for more than a decade, has one gold medal to show for its efforts, in part because of internal politics at USA Hockey and a lack of pressure to perform.
When the Americans won the tournament in Finland in 2004, it was a bigger story in Canada than it was in the USA.
Russia and the Czech Republic were once powerhouses at this level, but both have dropped off significantly, partly because they lose so many good young players to Canadian junior leagues and partly because they don’t devote the resources needed to defeat the likes of Canada.
No country makes more of a financial, on-ice preparation and emotional commitment to the WJC than Canada does.
But it would be nice if somebody came close.