The last time the United States hosted the world junior tournament, you had a chance to see future stars on the ice and an opportunity to shake the hand of everyone in the crowd. That’s just another way of saying that a great hockey tournament was played in front of possibly the sparsest crowds in the history of the tournament.
Led by Jarome Iginla and Jose Theodore, Canada won the gold in stirring fashion in Boston, Mass. The tournament didn’t reach its climax in the final—the Canadians beat Sweden 4-1 in a game far more one-sided than the score.
No, the game of the tournament came in the semis when Canada beat the Russians 4-3 with Theodore turning aside 43 of 46 shots. Iginla scored an unforgettable shorthanded goal in the third period that turned out to be the margin of victory.
“We knew what we had to do today because it’s what Canadian teams have to do against the Russians,” said coach Marcel Comeau. “We had to play closer to the boards and win play below the dots. We have to crash the net and look for second and third chances on shots. That’s how we got a couple of our goals today, (Mike) Watts’s and (Jason) Podollan’s second.” It was a classic cliff-hanger.
The Russians, led by 16-year-old Sergei Samsonov, blitzed Theodore. The game wasn’t free and clear for the Canadians until the buzzer sounded. In fact, there was only one thing missing at the game.
Boston never really caught world-junior fever. In fact, the city never even came down with a sniffle. The Boston newspapers mostly ignored the tournament, except for a story or two about local players on the host U.S. team. Television and radio in Boston ignored it completely.
College rinks served as the venues but those drawing up the schedule booked games not just in Boston but in surrounding college towns—where all the students had, of course, gone home for the holidays.
And then there was the weather. The night of the game against the Russians a nor’easter blew into Boston—on local newscasts talk about “the storm of the century” had nothing to do with what Jose Theodore had to weather in the third period. It was no surprise that there were only a few hundred fans at the semi and the final—fact is, on a half-hour drive to the rink you were lucky to see anything other than a streetcar moving about downtown Boston.
The world junior tournament returns to the U.S. this year and the approach is entirely different. Grand Forks, North Dakota, is the site, so the tournament won’t have to compete with professional sports for the public’s and media’s attention. The University of North Dakota’s arena is regarded as the finest in the U.S. college game, one of the best in hockey anywhere.
The game will have a higher profile than ever in the U.S. with ESPN carrying games in the later rounds. And with the proximity to Winnipeg and the rest of the west, there will be a lot more fans crossing the border to take in games than there were in Boston.
The host team is coming off its first ever world under-20 title, clinched with a 4-3 victory over Canada in Helsinki. Fourteen players return from the Canadian team that led the U.S. 3-1 going into the third period of the final. Will one of them emerge as the forward of the tournament, like Iginla did in Boston? Or will it be Patrice Bergeron, who at 18 played for the Canadian team that won the gold medal at last spring’s world championships? Or heralded prospect Sidney Crosby?
Though coach Brent Sutter might have a more skill through his line-up than the Canadian team did back in 1996, the same rules apply as spelled out by Marcel Comeau: win play below the dots, crash the net, look for second chances.
For 14 players this tournament is the second chance they’re looking for. If only the weather co-operates.