U.S. warms up to junior tournament

PAUL FRIESEN -- Winnipeg Sun

, Last Updated: 8:37 AM ET

The first time Brad Berry made the trip from the University of North Dakota to Winnipeg, he was a wide-eyed, 20-year-old embarking on a pro hockey career.

It was 1986, and the Jets draft pick would spend the next five years as a defenceman with the organization, part of a 13-year career in the NHL and AHL.

Yesterday, Berry made the drive up the I-29 again, this time to sell a hockey tournament.

The transplanted Albertan, a coach at his alma mater, lives in Grand Forks, host for the 2005 World Junior Championship, Dec. 25 to Jan. 4.

"We hope to duplicate the job you did in 1999," Berry said, referring to our city's record-setting World Junior.

To that end, he and a delegation of organizers were here to remind everyone that hotel rooms and tickets for all of Canada's games and for the medal round, are still available.

It shouldn't be a tough sell here. The tournament has become one of the marquee events on the sports calendar in this country. Anyone who was in the province back in '99 knows why.

Throw the best 18- and 19-year-olds in the world on a sheet of ice, put their nation's flag on their jerseys and a gold medal on the line, and they'll go through the end boards for you.

'SPARKED INTEREST'

But it was a different story down in North Dakota when Berry first began approaching people about the event. Let's just say he had some educating to do.

"Quite a bit, actually," said Berry, a member of Canada's gold-medal winning team in '85. "It was kind of a mixed reaction, because they didn't know what the tournament was about. And as they learned ... it sparked interest, and especially (after) winning the gold medal last year in Finland."

Sure enough, being the defending champs seems to be sitting well with the Yanks.

Instead of the half-empty buildings that plagued the last World Junior to be held in the States (Boston, '96), this one is 90% sold, with less than 10% of tickets going to Canadians.

The Canucks who do make the trip south will no doubt be their usual loud, flag-waving, face-painting selves, bent on seeing Team Canada avenge last January's 4-3, gold-medal loss.

Or the loss to the Russians in '03. And '02.

MIGHT BE THE YEAR

Come to think of it, Canada hasn't won this thing since '97.

But this might just be the year, thanks to the NHL lockout.

Where some of our best juniors often aren't released to play by their NHL clubs, this year's edition of Team Canada won't have that problem.

"We'll probably leave behind a crop of players that, in any other year, would be on the team," Hockey Canada's Denis Hainault said.

Toss in the fact Canada will have up to 13 returning players, compared to the U.S.'s eight, and maybe a reversal of last year is in the cards.

And the pressure's on them for a change, right?

"It's good pressure," Jim Johannson of USA Hockey said. "For us, it's the first time ever to defend the championship. And hosting this event, (pressure) comes with the territory."

One thing is certain: this promises to be one of the most talent-laden World Juniors in years.

"The North American teams, especially," Berry said. "You look at Team Canada, maybe a Nathan Horton (Florida) playing, an Eric Staal (Carolina) playing. Those are world-class players.

"From a U.S. standpoint, I think Dan Fritsche from Columbus is going to be playing. Ryan Suter, who's in Milwaukee and will be playing here Sunday with the Admirals (against the Manitoba Moose). It makes for a tremendous tournament."

And one the Americans seem to be catching onto.

On and off the ice.


Photos