JEFF BLAIR

World Juniors: Cue the over-the-top nationalism

The Globe and Mail

Devante Smith-Pelly and teammate Mark Stone

The Christmas period is a difficult time of the year for people who become uncomfortable when Canadians start acting like Americans.

Yes, the World junior hockey tournament is upon us. Cue the over-the-top nationalism, the hefty weight of expectations placed on young hockey players. Will members of the team have to sign a “pledge” this year, as was the case in the past, where they agree to abide by the principles of Canadian hockey? Considering what is known about junior hockey, it’s a safer hazing ritual than forcing players to drag water bottles around with their genitals. Or walking down a hallway nude with a marshmallow in the butt, careful not to drop it for fear of what might come next.

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Twitter is not always where you’d go for deep philosophy, but somebody made a point last week that the World junior tournament, which will be held in Alberta beginning Boxing Day, is Canada’s version of the NCAA Final Four. Another wit responded that was true – if only one of the schools competing in the Final Four cared about winning. Truth is none of the other countries will follow their kids the way Canada will but there’s nothing to apologize about that. It’s hockey. For many Canadians, it defines who they are.

But it wasn’t hard to detect a nasty change in tone in last year’s event in Buffalo when a surprising number of Canadians turned on the junior team after it choked in the Gold Medal game against Russia. Perhaps it was representative of a new, emboldened Canadian sports psyche resulting from success at the Vancouver Olympic Games or perhaps it was simply a matter of the World Junior tournament being so tilted towards Canadian success that hockey fans really do see it as little more than a parade towards a championship. It’s OK if a couple of the games are close, as long as the kids win out in the end.

The World Junior tournament is a strange event in that for it to be successful financially it must out of necessity be played either in Canada or in an American border city easily accessible to hordes of face-painted invaders from the north. Most world championships would want to spread themselves out around the world – you’d think a junior tournament would focus on growing the game outside of Canada – but the financial drop-off going to Europe is so pronounced that even when the tournament does shift to Europe it quickly returns to Canada the next year to repair the financial damage wrought in the previous year.

Look: at its core, the junior tournament matters to us because at this stage of their careers the players are still defined by hometown as opposed to NHL team. Sure, they play for junior teams and junior hockey is a money-making business, but because they have not yet become full-fledged professionals – the demands placed on members of the World junior team are such that NHL teams are now reluctant to send eligible players to the tournament because the players tend to miss too much NHL playing time – it is still easy to picture them taking a spin on a frozen pond, wearing a toque and scoring on goals marked out by boots or chunks of frozen snow. Hot chocolate all around.

There is nothing wrong with the fact that during the holiday period, the members of the Canadian junior team all become part of our family. But here’s a word to the wise: beware investing all your emotional capital in teenage boys and if you must, prepare yourself for the consequences. If you invite them into your house and are ready to celebrate their achievements, be prepared for the defeats, too. Be there for them when they’re down as well as when they’re up. That’s the Canadian thing to do, isn’t it?

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