Is the WJHC getting too big?

PAUL FRIESEN, SPORTS COLUMNIST

, Last Updated: 1:21 PM ET

Like a child who's outgrown a pair of skates, the World Junior Hockey Championship doesn't fit easily in the places it used to.

There was a time the event slipped nicely into centres like Halifax, Winnipeg, Saskatoon, even Red Deer.

But where Winnipeg, for example, guaranteed a $1 million profit to host the 1999 event, Ottawa landed next year's WJHC by promising a whopping $12.5-million return.

This is a tournament on steroids.

Trying to put it into a town like Red Deer today would be like trying to stuff a drug-addled muscle-head into the same T-shirt he wore as a 12-year-old.

Which begs the question: has the event become too big?

"When you started something from the beginning, you're kind of proud to see it's grown to the extent that it has," Dennis McDonald, with Hockey Canada during the event's early days, said. "The concern would be that the program remembers its roots. And doesn't abandon them."

If it's all about the money, then Saskatchewan, Manitoba and the Maritimes can forget about it.

Halifax's then-record profit of $3.6 million in '03 looks like Monopoly money next to Vancouver's nearly $9 million bonanza from two years ago.

Now that Ottawa is upping the ante into the double digits, thanks in part to backing from Senators owner Eugene Melnyk, who's left to play this high-stakes poker game aside from this country's biggest cities, backed by NHL owners with an 18,000-seat arena at their disposal?

"I don't think that's in our league," Peter Woods, executive director of Hockey Manitoba, told Sun Media. "And we don't have a Melnyk that's going to underwrite that. That's a lot of money. I don't think we're at the numbers the last two events are. And I don't know if we have to be."

Hockey Manitoba is one of nine groups considering a bid for the 2010 and/or 2012 World Juniors, both of which will be in Canada.

The hope of smaller operators is that the presence of the Winter Olympics takes some of the heavy hitters out of the running for 2010.

"You can eliminate Vancouver," Woods said of the Olympic host. "And maybe some of the NHL rinks. It's going to be an Olympic year so they're going to have a condensed schedule. They'll have less facility space for that.

"If there is a chance, then our best opportunity would be for 2010."

One wonders what the chances will be down the road, without an Olympic Games as a diversion. Slimmer than a teenage supermodel in a growth spurt, a cynic might say.

"Absolutely not," Hockey Canada president Bob Nicholson said. "We haven't always gone to the highest (bidder). All those (smaller) cities have found a way in the past. I don't eliminate any of those cities at all. They all have a very good chance in the future.

"It's not all about money."

Nicholson says the ability to treat players well, to get minor hockey involved and to fill the buildings are Hockey Canada's other priorities.

"We've been able to get this back into Canada for one reason: the teams love coming," Nicholson said. "And they love playing in front of big crowds. If we can fill the buildings and have excitement, that helps us get it back."

With little chance of the WJHC becoming a huge hit in Europe, Canada should get a regular turn to host.

TSN hockey analyst Bob McKenzie expects Hockey Canada to spread the event around as much as possible.

"My guess is it's coming back to Western Canada," McKenzie said.

"Could it be in Saskatchewan again? Could it be in Winnipeg again? Sure. Money's important. But I don't think Hockey Canada wants to lose touch with its roots, either."

Of course, for every Manitoba or Saskatchewan resident longing for the tournament's return, there's one or two in Ontario eagerly awaiting next year's event.

"This is the first time we've been in Ontario since '87," Nicholson pointed out. "We almost forgot Ontario. In fairness, there's a lot of people saying there's other provinces behind Saskatchewan and Manitoba. Everyone wants it so bad. It's tough on us."

That demand is what's driving the price up.

It should be pointed out, too, that 50% of the profits from each Canadian WJHC go to Hockey Canada.

How loudly money talks in this conversation, we'll probably find out when the '10/'12 events are awarded.

The last two times, the dollar bill's been screaming -- and threatening to drown out anybody in smaller-city Canada.

"Right now, it appears that way," McDonald said. "Vancouver's had it, Ottawa's had it. See where it goes from there. If it went to Toronto and Montreal after that, I would say you're probably right."


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