On top of the world

CHRIS STEVENSON -- Ottawa Sun

, Last Updated: 9:00 AM ET

Dave Branch can remember creeping along a highway in a raging snow storm in Minnesota.

He was driving with NHL executive Jim Gregory, on their way to the world junior championship in 1982 in Rochester, Minn.

It marked the return of Canada to the under-20 hockey championship and the first time Canada was using an all-star format.

"We were joking between us that if we went off the road, would anybody find us? Did anybody know this was taking place?" remembered Branch, the president of the Canadian Hockey League, chuckling about it yesterday.

They didn't go off the road and found the rink.

"It was a small, minor-hockey arena," said Branch. "There was a good crowd, but you felt you knew everybody there. It was very intimate. They might have crammed 1,500 people in there."

Canada won that tournament and it's become the stuff of world junior legend. They didn't have a recording of O Canada, and the kids lined up on the blue line and sang it themselves.

Since those teenagers lined up on the blue line in Minnesota in a tiny arena, the WJC has become big business, at least here in Canada, drawing huge crowds and monster TV ratings, the only place in the world where that happens.

Senators owner Eugene Melnyk and the rest of his organizing committee are confident enough in the potential revenues here to have guaranteed Hockey Canada $12.5 million to host the 2009 tournament -- more than double what the Halifax-Sydney bid guaranteed for the 2003 tourney.

Since 1982, the world junior championship has become a Christmas tradition in this country. After three previous tries to bring it here, the Hockey Canada folks finally found fit to bring the WJC to this place which bills itself as Hockey Country.

"It's not that long ago when you think of it," said Branch, reflecting on how big the tournament has become. "I really believe when we hosted the world junior at Copps Coliseum in 1986, that to me, was almost a catalyst, it was the spark for what I term the renaissance of major junior hockey. It made a lot of us believers and showed that our product, presented properly, dressed up in a big-time way, could stand up as a sport and entertainment property against anything.

"To me, we took off after that. It was largely through that experience. Copps Coliseum, a new venue, state of the art for that time, sold out, great coverage, great TV numbers. That was a great experience."

As you might expect on the day Ottawa's successful bid was announced, organizers are predicting the biggest and best world junior tournament ever in 2009.

If all games are sold out, Ottawa will break the attendance record set this year in Vancouver (456,000) by 75,000.

The 31-game tournament will be held at just two venues, Scotiabank Place and the Civic Centre. IIHF officials apparently found the Vancouver-Kamloops-Kelowna, multi-city, multi-venue too unwieldy this year. The two pools were split up between Vancouver and Kamloops-Kelowna and there were issues, including one instance where a door on a plane couldn't be closed so a team had to unload and take a bus.

ON-ICE BOOST

The huge attention focused in Canada on the WJC not only makes it a financial success, but is also responsible for on-ice success as well, said Branch.

During the tournament in Halifax, he went out to dinner with officials from USA Hockey, who gazed longingly at the crowds, the coverage and the expectations here in Canada.

"They said, 'You guys have a big advantage over us in hockey. You have accountability,' " said Branch. "They were blown away with what was going on in Halifax. They knew the TV numbers. It was almost role reversal from being in Rochester, Minn., wondering did anybody know this event was going on?"

Oh, they'll know it's going on here.

Senators president Roy Mlakar said the Bell Capital Cup, the huge minor hockey tournament with about 400 teams, will also be held at its traditional time, the same time as the world junior.

For that couple of weeks after Christmas 2008, Hockey Country is going to be standing room only.


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