Apathy greets juniors

STEVE SIMMONS,SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 9:23 AM ET

BRAMPTON -- It is Thursday night at the Powerade Centre and for every seat that is occupied, at least five are empty.

This -- not the world junior experience, not the 3.7 million watching on television, not the national celebration -- is the reality for junior hockey in and around the Greater Toronto area. This is what Cody Hodgson, world junior sensation, future NHL star, returned to last night after a whirlwind ending to the tournament of a lifetime.

Last night, there was a camera waiting for him in the hallway and an interview pad or two, a lot of Brampton teammates to catch up with, an adult or two to hug, and a perpetual smile on his face. Just not a whole lot of paying customers to welcome him home.

We love junior hockey for two weeks every year, mostly when there is a flag involved: It is our madness before March, our Bowl games without voting on a champion. The rest of the year we pay attention only if a John Tavares gets traded, if there is scandal or violence or both; or when the Sidney Crosbys come around. And in between, the best kid hockey players in the world toil the way a Matt Duchene does, in virtual anomymity. Last night was $5 night in Brampton. And it didn't matter.

You could argue, quite sensibly, that Hodgson, not Tavares, was the best player on the gold-medal-winning Canadian team. He did a little more, was a little more complete, at least at this level and at this time.

But he gets none of that overt attention and maybe he's the better for it. The trading of Tavares was the talk of Canadian hockey yesterday, with nobody wondering how it is that a hockey league that boasts about its plan to educate allows high schoolers to be moved from city to city just as exams are approaching.

But that's another argument for another day, another forum. It is strange the place junior hockey holds in this city. We can't get enough of it, and then instantly ignore it. We cheer like mad as a kid such as Hodgson gets honoured at centre ice at the Air Canada Centre -- "That was incredible," Hodgson said. "I watched it on TV and I thought I looked a little nervous. I was supposed to wave and forgot." -- then go home to watch the Leafs and Habs last night rather than take an easy highway drive for the least expensive entertainment you'll find anywhere.

It was interesting to watch last night in Brampton. In those disturbingly ugly green uniforms of the Battalion, there was Hodgson, who should play in Vancouver next year, and there was Duchene, who will be an early NHL draft pick, and on Mike Foligno's Sudbury Wolves there was the kid, John McFarland, just 16 years old and already a point-a-game player in the Ontario Hockey League. And maybe, if you want to be generous, there were a 1,000 people in the stands.

None of this seems to matter to Hodgson, who still is walking on air. And who wouldn't be? There was the comeback against the Americans, the crazy last-second win over the Russians and the dominance over the Swedes, and then he came home to stand and hear an ovation at the ACC.

"They started cheering before they even introduced us," he said. "I don't know if I'll have anything like that the rest of my life."

Stan Butler, the Brampton coach who has done the world junior experience himself, was wise enough to give Hodgson two days off after Monday's night's emotional victory.

"I needed the time," Hodgson said. "I needed the sleep."

How tired was he? Tired enough that when he tried to stay awake to watch Mats Sundin's first game as a Canuck, the team that drafted him in the first round last June, he didn't see a minute of it.

"I crashed out before it began. I saw the highlights this morning," he said.

Today, and maybe tomorrow, you will see Hodgson's highlights on some television station. And soon that will fade until he begins to play in Vancouver.

"It's great to be back," said Hodgson, same age as Tavares, one draft year ahead. "I had the experience of a lifetime. I just took it all in. Everything. It's something you'll never forget."

Most Canadian hockey fans won't. There were no empty seats in Ottawa on Monday night. But plenty of good seats available last night.


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