Over the past several years there has been talk that Canada is the only country that really cared about the World Juniors. Tournaments held in cities like Calgary, Edmonton, Halifax, Winnipeg, Ottawa, Saskatoon, and other Canadian outposts have been fast sellers, and money makers for Hockey Canada for over 20 years now. And tournaments in border towns like Grand Forks, and Buffalo have been invaded by Canadian fans, with crowds full of red Team Canada jerseys far outnumbering the red, white, and blue of the United States.
Meanwhile tournaments held in places like Leksand, Sweden; Pardubice, Czech Republic, and Helsinki, Finland have seen sparce crowds. Selling tickets in Europe became such a problem that IIHF tournament organizers decided that a minimum of one out of every three tournaments should be held in a Canadian city. In fact, in 2010 Switzerland was scheduled to host the tournament, but withdrew when no suitable site could be named. Faced with a crisis, the IIHF quickly handed the tournament to Canada, and tickets in Saskatoon were sold out extremely quickly.
This year’s tournament is being held in Ufa, Russia; the first European Host since 2008 and the change in just the last several years has been remarkable. The arena in Ufa is full (especially when the host Russians are playing) and has been exceptionally loud for key matchups between Russia and the US squad; as well as today’s exciting Canada/Russia tilt. The jacked up fans cheering on the home squad have been excited at every scoring opportunity for the Russians, and have gasped at every close call around the Russian net. It really appears that they are into the tournament.
Pre-tournament games held in Helsinki were also a big event and well attended, a marked difference from when the tournament was hosted there in 2004. And these were merely pre-tournament exhibition games.
It would appear that Europe is catching the World Junior bug, something that we in Canada are very familiar with. Recent gold medal victories by the Russian and Swedish teams have set off large celebrations in those countries, as citizens have gathered in sports bars and town squares to watch the final game on large screen tvs. Victorious players flying home have been greated by thousands in airports, and treated as national heroes.
This is no longer the little tournament that only Canada cares about, as the Swedes immortalized the 2012 Gold Medal Winning “golden goal” by Mika Zibanejad on a postage stamp. Television ratings across Europe and especially in Sweden have been trending upwards in recent years as well. Next year’s tournament, scheduled for Malmo, Sweden, is expected to be another huge success.
This can only be good for the future of the tournament, and the good of the game, as more and more young hockey players can dream of representing their country on one of the world’s biggest stages. It seems as if everything World Juniors is coming up roses these days, and the IIHF must be extremely happy to be seeing the 40 year old tournament really take off.
The only country where the tournament is still unable to find it’s niche? The United States, where it is given nary a mention on ESPN, or NBC Sports, or on the sportscasts of your local news program. The tournament just doesn’t seem to make inroads during a busy College Bowl Season and the end of the NFL season and start of the playoffs. The only dedicated coverage it seems to have, is on the NHL Network. Its unfortunate because they just don’t seem to know what they are missing, which is one of the best and most exciting weeks on the hockey calendar, lockout or no lockout.