Thursday, December 24, 2009

Dear Santa...

team canada world juniors
Well, it’s almost Christmas and that means I’ll be taking a brief hiatus to focus on family party time. That means lots of food, lots of beer, a little gambling, and most importantly, lots of sports. Since Christmas falls on a Friday this year we get the gift of sports from Santa Claus. The weekend is full of football, which even includes a NFL game on Christmas Day. However, I live in Canada and in Canada Boxing Day isn’t just a day for fighting with old ladies over marginally discounted goods. Boxing Day means the World Juniors.

The World Junior Hockey Championship kicks off at 2pm on Boxing Day with the Czech Republic taking on Sweden, followed by Canada beginning their title defence against Latvia at 3pm.

The World Juniors has become a Canadian staple during the holiday season. It is a period of two weeks where the whole nation rallies around a group of under-20s and expects nothing short of success. Canada is riding a streak of five consecutive gold medals, which has somewhat spoiled us fans. I expect them to win every year, however, before this five-year streak Canada went a span of seven years without a gold medal. That was a period of time when people considered the decline of Canadian hockey and were generally worried about the future of Canadian hockey. Was the Canadian game broke? How do we fix it? Is this all Joe Thornton’s fault? Okay, so I added the last one. Five gold medals have thankfully erased people’s memories of this dark time.

The World Juniors is so special because it is one of the most exciting hockey tournaments in the world. It is far superior to the men’s World Championships and may even rival the Olympics for national pride. It’s exciting to see the NHL’s future superstars battle for hockey supremacy. While some of the game’s biggest stars have carried their country to gold, it also provides an introduction to less heralded players.

The intense passion these players play with makes this some of the most fun hockey to watch. For many of these players this will be the apex of their hockey careers. Although almost all of the players are drafted, not all of them will make the NHL. For many of the players this is their Stanley Cup final. They play extremely hard for the entire game and their exuberance is easy to see. The look like they’re having fun, which resonates with the fans. Combine this with the national pride that is at stake and you have some great hockey.

Some may disparage these tournaments because they may lack the name power of the NHL’s current rookie crop (like Tavares and Stamkos), but this allows new heroes to emerge and the formation of new memories. Next year we will lament the loss of Taylor Hall or (hopefully) Nazem Kadri, but by tournaments end there will be new stars of Canadian hockey, at least for one year. Even if Jordan Eberle never becomes an NHL star I will always remember his thrilling game-tying goal in the dying seconds during last year’ semi-final matchup against Russia. That goal was one of the most electric plays I have ever seen. It looked bleak for Canada and almost everyone was losing hope, but the puck miraculously found Eberle’s stick and ended up in the back of the net. Extraordinary. I was jumping up and down. This memory will live with me as I’m sure everyone old enough will not only remember the Punch-up in Piestany, but have it burned into their memory. Hell, even watching clips of it is enough to sear an indelible imagine into my mind.

If the beginning of the World Juniors wasn’t enough the weekend’s main event takes place Saturday night. Almost every NHL team is in action Saturday night, most notably the Montreal Canadiens at the Toronto Maple Leafs at 7:00 pm, followed by the Edmonton Oilers at the Vancouver Canucks at 10pm. I’ll be watching these games in a primarily Hab-centric house, so I imagine wagers will fly and verbal jabs will be incesent. What a day for hockey.

Thanks for the sports, Santa.

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