The Usual Suspects

TSN turned World Junior molehill into mountain

Special to The Globe and Mail

What if they held a hockey tournament in the middle of the forest and no one noticed? That was an accurate description of the world junior hockey championship until TSN decided in 1991 to make the annual event into something on the order of the Super Bowl. Or bigger. The prescient decision to commit the entire network to the efforts of under-20 players over the length of the Christmas and New Year's holiday break proves yet again that television defines the event, not the other way around.

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Certainly, the tournament is no indicator of NHL success as the John Slaneys, Justin Pogges and Marty Murrays have shown. Canada's dominance of the junior event hasn't necessarily predicted Olympic dominance either. But captured in the moment by TV, the juniors' passionate embrace of the Maple Leaf blurs rational description.

In the days before it obtained its current full complement of the NHL's TV package, TSN was looking around for a signature hockey property to fill its schedule. CBC had carried some of the earlier world junior tournaments since their inception in 1977, but the event was overshadowed at the Corp. by Hockey Night in Canada. It also fell on the holidays, leading some to think no one would watch during a time saturated with traditional football bowl games.

Then two things happened. First, the 1987 tournament erupted into what is now known as the Punch-up in Piestany. Canada lost the gold medal when it was suckered into a bench-clearing brawl by the Russian team. Tournament organizers tried turning off the lights in the arena to stop the fighting. The teams were kicked out of the tournament, leaving the gold to Finland.

Canada was convulsed in debate about whether the team should have allowed itself to be drawn into the trap. Don Cherry seized the day for the pro-brawl side, cementing his national reputation in a series of TV debates on the subject (during one of which he called Usual Suspects a coward who wouldn't defend his own kids in a fight). Suddenly the junior championships mattered. It was clear that Canadians could care about any team wearing the Maple Leaf in a hockey game.

The second seminal decision was obviously when TSN gambled that turkey-gorged Canadians stuck on the sofa with Uncle Wilbur wanted more than just football games over the holidays. The world juniors were a natural - particularly when the event's games came on in midday ET from European venues. So was the price, a fraction of Olympics or Stanley Cup finals. In 1991 TSN wrested the rights from CBC and threw its best punch at the annual tournament.

From there, Hockey Canada complied, dominating the event for long stretches. Canada won five successive titles from 1993-97 and then again from 2005-09. It became a good-news equation for TSN, wrapping itself in a victorious Canadian flag each holiday season. Ratings soared with last year's final in Saskatoon drawing a stunning 5.4 million viewers for the U.S. victory in OT over Canada.

Would the event have gone as viral had TSN not committed to it? Unlikely. Would TSN have grown as it did without the annual Gord Miller, Pierre McGuire and Bob McKenzie orgy of teenage hockey? Harder to say. But the residue of the juniors' success has lent credibility to the network and its stars against the august CBC product.

What can be said is that the power of TV married to hockey isn't infallible - otherwise we'd be watching women's hockey 24/7 somewhere. But elite men's hockey married to the Maple Leaf is an indestructible television product in Canada. In Britain, it's billiards and darts. In Canada, it's the little black disk.

Finally, the lessons of the world juniors' success has also been learned by the NHL in its Winter Classic format. Seeing the appetite for hockey over the holidays, the NHL and NBC have translated the formula for hockey hype to the world's best players on New Year's Day. To the surprise of many critics who believed the football bowl games would obliterate hockey, the outdoor games have quickly become a ratings success, the pro version of the junior tournament and second only to the Stanley Cup playoffs for most U.S. fans.

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