National Pride

PAUL FRIESEN

, Last Updated: 8:54 AM ET

It began as a six-team invitational, played in relative anonymity. Truth is, most Canadians wouldn't have known it was even going on.

Today, it's a holiday tradition, grabbing sports fans and glueing them to television sets across the country.

It's the World Junior Hockey Championship, and when held within our borders, with Team Canada in the gold-medal final, one in every 10 Canadians is likely to be watching.

How the WJHC attained mega-event status drawing Grey Cup-like TV audiences can be traced back to a handful of key developments in the tournament's history.

To help kick off our coverage of the 2008 WJHC, Sun Media's Paul Friesen looks at this made-in-Canada phenomenon.

Doug Jarvis was tired, but excited.

His team, the Ontario Hockey League's Peterborough Petes, had been grounded two days in the Moscow fog, and was finally arriving by train in what was then called Leningrad, now St. Petersburg, Russia.

It was 1974, and the Petes were Canada's representative at a world junior tournament, the first of its kind, being played under the armed guard of a country still in the throes of communism.

Like lambs to slaughter, you might say.

"We were a club team," Jarvis, the team captain, recalled. "So we knew, going in, the competition was going to be pretty stiff."

It wasn't too bad, actually. Until they reached the last game: 9-0, Soviets.

"They beat us badly," Jarvis conceded. "But a win in that game, we would have captured first place in that tournament."

Jarvis remembers doing interviews with one media outlet, the local Peterborough paper, in 1974.

Thus, the seeds were sewn.

Three years later, the tournament was sanctioned as an official world championship. But Canada continued to send mostly club teams, usually the Memorial Cup champion from the previous season, finishing no better than second.

Until 1982, when a true national junior team was born.

Overseeing the birth, Murray Costello, president of what was then called the Canadian Amateur Hockey Association, and his technical director, Dennis McDonald.

"I always believed we had the talent," McDonald said. "But we did it like a crap-shoot, almost. We didn't do anything to prepare the players, to evaluate and select the kind of players we needed, to prepare the coaches. We just went into it hoping for the best."

That all changed in '82, when Dave King became the first head coach of a federally funded national team, complete with a summer development camp and a final selection camp.

With Minneapolis hosting that year's tournament, CAHA officials rolled the dice, paying for the rights to three Team Canada games and staging them in Winnipeg. Their new baby would be on display for all to see.

"It was fairly ordinary crowds for the first two games," McDonald recalled. "But then the Russian game... they had huge lineups outside and some of the people apparently didn't get in until close to the end of the first period. The Russians had dominated the world junior up to that time. So that was really the start of it."

The Canucks blew the Soviets out of the water, winning 7-0. By the time they reached Rochester, Minn., for the last game of the round robin, they were on the threshold of a gold medal.

And a nation began to get it.

Media scrambled to cover the final game, CBC throwing a radio broadcast crew together at the last minute, as McDonald remembers it.

"It kind of took everybody off guard," Bob McKenzie of TSN, then working part time at the Globe and Mail, said. "I remember all the Toronto papers rushing people down once they realized this was going to be a championship game. It suddenly took hold and people got excited about it."

The Canadians, led by future NHLers like Marc Habscheid, Scott Arniel, Troy Murray and James Patrick, played Czechoslovakia to a 3-3 tie, good enough to become the country's first gold-medal winner.

What happened next produced a special moment in WJHC history that lives on today.

"We lined up at the line, waiting to hear our anthem like we'd heard every other game, and nobody had it," Arniel recalled. "Everybody started looking around, and I'm not sure who it was, but somebody said, 'Let's start singing'. Those Canadians that were there jumped in with us, it became very loud and the tradition that I still see today goes on. It was pretty exciting."

And what better way to validate the new national program?

"We really got a big boost by winning a gold the first time out of the chute," McDonald said.

From that point on, the WJHC had status in Canada. When it returned to this country, in Hamilton four years later, CBC-TV was all over it.

"The fact it was being televised, and that a lot of the young talent was going on to play in the NHL, it really started to develop after that," play-by-play man Don Wittman said.

Wittman was there for the tournament's darkest hour, literally, when in 1987, in Piestany, Czechoslovakia, a brawl between the Canadians and Russians got so out of control officials turned out the arena lights in an fruitless attempt to break it up.

The Punch Up in Piestany left the game with a black eye, but it may have given the WJHC some notoriety. Didn't somebody once say there's no such thing as bad publicity?

The tournament's next major boost came in the 1990s, when TSN acquired the broadcast and took the promotion of it to a new level.

McKenzie, a hockey analyst for the network, had been captivated by the event ever since seeing a 16-year-old Wayne Gretzky tear his way through the tournament on TV in '78. The way McKenzie saw it, the WJHC was the purest of world championships: the only best-on-best, annual event.

As fate would have it, TSN's first tournament, in Saskatoon in '91, produced another watershed moment.

"That was the first year it was in Canada and Canada won," McKenzie said. "It sort of kicked it off. That launched it as a domestic property on television at that level."

The WJHC was sparking something within Canadians, and five straight gold medals, from 1993-97, only fuelled the fire.

"It just built more and more momentum," McKenzie said. "We love to watch winning hockey. It makes everyone feel good about themselves. You keep winning, winning, winning -- I don't think Canadians get too tired of that."

Today, TV audiences for a gold-medal game in Europe approach one million, a total that more than triples when the event hits prime time in Canada. Attendance and profits continue to break records, and the media attention has gone through the roof.

The rest of the world, though, has been slow to warm to the event.

"There's been some when there's basically nobody there," McKenzie said. "A bunch in Europe, even in the States."

Sweden, last year's host, drew between 4,000 and 5,000 fans for its games, encouraging numbers, say Canadian officials.

"The Czech Republic are telling me this is going to be a very, very successful tournament," Hockey Canada president Bob Nicholson said. "They say all their games will be sold out. Those are big steps for those countries."

Perhaps. But nobody's likely to keep up with the Canadians, who've been running with this thing for 25 years, taking it further than anybody could have predicted.

"Beyond my wildest expectations," McDonald said.

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HOCKEY CANADA

You've come a long way

The Evolution of the World Junior Hockey Championship

1974

The first version of the tournament, an exhibition involving just six teams, is held in the former Soviet Union. Canada sends a junior club team, the Peterborough Petes, who finish third.

1978

Now eight teams and an official world championship, the event comes to Montreal and Quebec City, where the Soviets finally lose a game -- their first in five years -- but still win the gold.

1982

Icing its first true national team and led by head coach Dave King, Canada wins its first gold medal in Rochester, Minn. But there is still no television audience to witness the medal-clinching game.

1986

After spotty television coverage through the first dozen world juniors, CBC is all over Team Canada's silver medal in Hamilton. The Steel City sells a record 148,632 tickets.

1987

The infamous Punch Up in Piestany (Czechoslovakia). A bench-clearing brawl between the Canadians and Russians, televised by CBC, leads to the disqualification of both teams, ruining Canada's gold-medal hopes and igniting a firestorm of controversy back home.

1991

TSN, Canada's first all-sports TV network, broadcasts its first WJHC from Saskatoon. Led by Eric Lindros, Canada wins gold over the Soviets.

1995

The host city, Red Deer, Alb., turns a record $1.6 million profit.

1997

Canada wins its fifth straight gold in Switzerland. TV viewership for the final approaches one million.

1999

Winnipeg sets records for attendance, TV viewership and profits, generating more than $2 million.

2003

New records for attendance (242,173) and profits ($3.6 million) in Halifax. The final game between Canada and Russia remains TSN's most-watched program ever, with 3.45 million viewers. Canada didn't capture gold -- but the network sure did.

2006

Vancouver organizers take the bar and set it higher than ever, guaranteeing Hockey Canada a $5.2 million profit -- and taking in close to $9 million. Another huge TV audience of just over three million watches Canada win a second straight gold.

2009

Ottawa gets the tournament next year, thanks in large part to a $12.5-million guarantee. Can anybody top that? It shouldn't take long to find out: Canada will also play host in 2010 and 2012.

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BEST OF THE BEST

Canada's All-Time World Junior All-Stars

First Team

Forwards

Eric Lindros (1990-92): 31 points, No. 1 all-time; led team in scoring twice.

Wayne Gretzky (1978): 17 points in six games -- as a 16-year-old.

Patrice Bergeron (2005): the best player on what might have been Canada's best team.

Defence

Dion Phaneuf (2004-05): 10 points in 12 games, and lots of bodies in his wake.

Greg Hawgood (1987-88): The only defenceman to lead his team in scoring.

Goalie

Jimmy Waite (1987-88): Didn't lose a game in two years.

Second Team

Forwards

Jason Allison (1994-95): Second to Lindros in career points, with 24.

Jeff Carter (2004-05): Tied with Lindros in career goals, with 12.

Dale McCourt (1977): 18 points is Canada's best, ever, for one tournament.

Defence

Bryan McCabe (1994-95): 12 points in '95, the most ever by a defenceman, any country.

Kris Russell (2006-07): 10 points in 12 games, and a plus-9 rating.

Goalie

Carey Price (2007): Unbeaten and a goals-against-average of 1.14.


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