January 1 / 2008
By MORRIS DALLA COSTA
But by the time the week-long competition is over, those who bother to attend the event will agree with Al Murray.
Murray is the man who put together Canada's national junior team. He's Hockey Canada's head scout. He knows young hockey talent.
"It's the best kept secret across the country," Murray said of the tournament. "The attendance doesn't justify the level of play. People don't recognize or know about the kind of talent that's at this tournament."
Murray is referring to how attendance at this event always lags. It's the holiday season. The world junior hockey championship is held at the same time and when people look at the age category they assume it's just another international minor hockey tournament.
There's a reason Murray is at this tournament and not with the junior national team in the Czech Republic. His job with this year's junior national team is done. He's now beginning his work for future national teams.
"This is the age group that we begin evaluating," Murray said. "It's a good way to see them because they are playing with their peers. Many of these players, when they are playing with the junior teams, you don't get a chance to see them killing penalties or on the power play. They don't get the kind of ice time they'll get here."
But this year is a little different in the composition of teams that have come to the tournament. While some teams still use AAA minor hockey players, other teams like Ontario, the West and Pacific, have players who are playing in major junior leagues. Not only are those players on major junior rosters, they are also playing key roles in the success or failure of their teams -- an unusual situation for players who are so young.
"I think the (players born in 1991) may be a special age group," Murray said.
One thing is clear from the early going in this tournament, including exhibition games -- this is the next generation of young hockey stars.
What the spectator will see are teams that don't take their foot off the pedal. They skate, hit and play with great emotion.
Young hockey players looking to prove something on an international stage have a way of doing that.
While this tournament hasn't had the attendance it should have, early returns have been promising, especially in the satellite locations like Lucan and St. Thomas.
Lucan had Finland against Quebec and West against Germany yesterday. Those are hardly the kind of teams that stir local passions.
Yet the games averaged about 750 fans. The organization and atmosphere were terrific. You couldn't have asked for much more.
An exhibition game on Friday in Lucan also drew about 750 people and the hockey was so good, fans were still talking about the 5-4 win for Pacific over the United States. Pacific came back from 3-0 down to win in a shootout.
"We're a community of 1,900 people, the rink seats 2,000 people and (last night) we had about 850 people," said Cathy Burghardt-Jesson, event chair for the games in Lucan.
"It's a big thing for the community."
In St. Thomas on Friday for an exhibition game between Ontario and Russia around 2,800 jammed the rink.
They came because it's an event but the more they see, the more fans will recognize that it's not a B brand of hockey, merely a brand that's younger and unique.