The fire that fuels our passion for hockey

MORRIS DALLA COSTA -- London Free Press

, Last Updated: 1:02 PM ET

A little Santa Claus, a few presents, a big turkey dinner, a few Czechs, some Russians, a load of Swedes and a passion that grows every year.

Welcome to a Canadian Christmas holiday tradition.

For many Canadians, the world junior hockey tournament has become the international call to arms.

Sure Canadians get worked up every four years or so for the World Cups. As Canada grew more competitive in the world championships in April, interest began to grow in that as well. And with NHLers now in the Olympics, Canadians strap on the Maple Leaf and let their jingoism show.

But, on a year-in, year-out basis, it's the world junior tournament that generates the most passion internationally. It is the tournament that restored international credibility to our game.

It's the world junior that touches the core of Canadian hockey fans. Our best young players against theirs. Most have not yet become jaded millionaires. The Maple Leaf grows bigger and stronger on the chests of the young.

"I've been watching since I was six years old," said David Bolland, a London Knight who is an alternate captain on this year's national junior team in Vancouver. "Depending on when it was, we'd open presents, have breakfast and I'd turn on the television and watch the junior team. Everyone watched it.

"I'd get excited waiting for the game. I'd think how great it would be to play one day."

Canada's fascination and tradition with the world junior is off the scale when compared to other countries.

Bolland's teammate with the Knights, Rob Schremp, is on the American team for the second straight year.

Schremp's from Fulton, N.Y.

"I hadn't even heard of the world junior tournament until I came to Canada," said Schremp, 19. "I was 16 before I saw a game and I had no idea it was played over Christmas."

That would have been when Schremp came to the OHL and the Mississauga IceDogs.

"It didn't take long to see how important the tournament was to Canadians. All of a sudden it's like 'wow.' They went crazy," he said. "It's different now. I love watching it and I know how important it is for junior hockey players."

The tournament's popularity in Canada is one reason the International Ice Hockey Federation lets it return to Canada every three years.

Bolland was the last player cut from last year's gold-medal winning team. Even though he was disappointed at not making the team, he watched every game he could.

"It was different because I was watching and thought, 'I could have made that team,' " he said. "It made you really wish you where there. You saw all the celebrations and with (Danny Syvret) and (Corey Perry) there it made you wish you were playing even more, instead of watching it on television."

Syvret and Perry were Bolland's teammates on the Knights last year.

It would be rare to find a hockey player whose imagination isn't captured by the showcase of the world junior.

Players who make this team immediately vault onto the national hockey stage, no matter where they play or how obscure their hockey program.

In Canada, the event is much sought as a means of raising community profile and for its economic impact.

The popularity of the event in Canada has made it difficult for smaller communities to satisfy the financial demands of Hockey Canada. The world junior is a guaranteed sellout for medal games, no matter the size of the venue.

It's become the focus of the Canadian hockey world over Christmas and New Year's, is front-page news in most newspapers and has become a television event.

But it wasn't always such.

Canada's first win in the world junior tournament was in 1982. It drew little attention and interest. Previous tournamentshad been dominated by the Soviets.

"I remember driving to that tournament final (in Rochester, Minn.,) with Canada playing the Czechs and needing either a win or a tie to win the gold medal," said Ontario Hockey League commissioner David Branch. "I drove through a driving snowstorm and was wondering if anyone knew the tournament was even happening. There was so little fanfare and hardly any publicity at all.

"We won the gold medal and, something that was unheard of, we also won the Fair Play Cup. I think that was one of the catalysts that sort of began the tournament as a Christmas tradition."

Branch believes, though, that the real coming-out party for the world junior was 1986, when the tournament final was held in Hamilton.

"This tournament ignited tremendous awareness and excitement," said Branch. "Copps Coliseum was brand-new. It has just opened its doors. A number of games were held around the province, from London to Oshawa to Barrie and the Niagara Falls peninsula. Taking it to a number of communities helped generate excitement and enthusiasm. That was the springboard with the sold-out games of 17,000 plus and television. While we didn't win, we were in the gold-medal game against the Russians and that captured interest and attention."

Branch believes that not only did that tournament make future tournaments a part of holiday tradition, it also injected life into junior hockey.

"It demonstrated that maybe junior hockey, properly presented, was a great entertainment sports property," said Branch. "It marked a renaissance and awareness of junior hockey across the country."

Success has helped. From 1990 through 1997, Canada won seven of the eight tournaments played, and the event established itself as part of the fibre of this country.

The tournament has captured Canadian hockey fans and non-fans alike. They are captured by the passion and enthusiasm of the players, their unabashed love of the game and the fiery competitiveness fuelled by their desire to be the top players in their age-group in the world.

For most of us, watching is exciting enough. Imagine the feeling for someone who has watched for years and now will finally participate.

"It's going to be awesome," said Bolland. "I watched for years, now they'll be watching me instead of watching someone else. It's like a dream, getting a chance to play."


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