World Juniors and the cult of Canada

This post has been percolating in my mind for a while.

It first started when an interesting conversation sprouted on Twitter between Bob McKenzie and Chris Cuthbert from TSN and Bruce Arthur from the National Post a few weeks ago. It's a Canadian tradition that when cuts are made at the World Junior camp, the players who are heading home have to face a gauntlet of reporters waiting in the hotel lobby moments after finding out that they won't be playing for their country. So there they stand, young men, teenagers with eyes like deer in headlights, trying to sum up some sort of cliched answer to describe their disappointment. Cuthbert and Arthur raised the question of whether this practice was "right" with McKenzie taking the moderate approach of admitting that it's not ideal but the kids need to handle it as it is part of that World Junior "experience".

My own thought process kept churning and gained traction when Ryan Lambert jumped into the fray, intentionally antagonizing the blindly passionate Canadian fans on Twitter, talking about how Canadian players are uneducated (a shot at the struggles of the CHL's educational pursuits as well as an indication of the politics that both Hockey Canada and USA Hockey seem to employ with a nod towards the fact that the majority of Team USA's roster comes from the NCAA, rightly or wrongly). In truth, his tone isn't likely far off from most of the patriotic chest-beating that happens every year by Canadians with the tournament.

Which bears the question: What's with our obsession? Are we the only country that cares about this?

Neate Sager at Buzzing the Net captures most of my thoughts in his blog. The mere fact that his article exists makes me feel a bit better about wondering what role that the World Juniors plays in both hockey fandom and Canadian culture. The World Junior tournament is the closest that Canada seems to have to their very own homegrown March Madness and the whole country seems to jump on board to some fashion. So we have Esso, Molson Canadian, Nike, RBC and other companies wrapping themselves in the flag and making their brand equal to a symbol for the country.

Let's be honest. Junior hockey is weird. It's weird to yell at 19-year-olds to beat the snot out of 17-year-olds on the ice. It's weird to see people in the stands wearing Team Canada sweaters with the nameplates of players young enough to be their own children. It's just a weird little world and it's that much more bizarre when it is risen to the level of national pride.

It's just a game, but is this what we've become?


Something special

It's not every day that you get to see something special on the ice, but that's exactly what took place last night here in Halifax.

The Quebec Remparts were in town to face off against the Mooseheads and the plethora of young talent on both teams meant both fans and scouts alike were there in droves to see the game.

In the early goings, Quebec's star forward, Mikhail Grigorenko showcased the talent that has him named as one of the top players eligible for the 2012 draft. He tallied a goal and added an assist as Quebec had what appeared to be a strong lead at the mid-point of the game. And then the magic started occurring.

Having already scored one goal on the night (redirecting a great pass from Alexandre Grenier into the net), Nathan MacKinnon absolutely took over the game. Starting in the final minutes of the second period and continuing through the third, the 16-year-old wunderkind scored four unanswered goals to lead the Mooseheads to victory.

He finished the game with five goals, the first time such a feat has been accomplished in ten years and tying a team-record set by a 20-year-old. And he's only 16. It will be another 18 months until he's eligible to be drafted. Definitely a magical night for MacKinnon, the Mooseheads and their fans.

But there's another part of this story that is just as compelling.

As I detailed last week, Hockey Canada has recently completed their invitations for their World Junior championship national team final selection camp. MacKinnon was not included on that selection roster. It was a move that surprised many in the QMJHL. Although the World Juniors is namely known as an 18/19-year-old tournament, MacKinnon's play as a rookie so far has shown that he's more than capable of keeping up. In fact, he's shown that he's able to dominate.

The match against Quebec was only the second game since the selection camp roster was announced and with that extra motivation of being excluded, MacKinnon's electrifying performance speaks for itself. Some extra icing on that cake is the fact that the goaltender he torched for four of those goals (the fifth being an empty-netter) was Louis Domingue, one of four goaltenders that will be attending the selection camp.

It's difficult to avoid being caught up in a single game's performance and to start second guessing the decisions made by Hockey Canada. Their track record speaks for itself and Canada is a constant competitor for gold at the World Junior level. But MacKinnon's performance has already started a movement that Hockey Canada would rather avoid.

Like Sidney Crosby not being named to the 2006 roster for the Torino Olympics, a single game by MacKinnon has already began the navel-gazing and self doubt by Canadian hockey fans. After two straight years of silver medals, passionate hockey fans across the country are itching for a return to gold. If this year's Team Canada falls short, the first words on their lips might be "what if Nathan MacKinnon..."