Canada can count on a large - and vocal - contingent of supporters no matter where the world juniors are played. (Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)
Hockey Night in the Czech Republic
Canadian fans flood Pardubice for world juniors
Last Updated Fri., Dec. 28, 2007
By Vince Chew, Special to CBC Sports
A sea of rowdy fans, enjoying their cheap Czech beer, decked out in Canadian red and white, are taking over the city of Pardubice for a week and a half.
They're here for the world junior hockey championship, the sport's equivalent to the American college basketball's March Madness tournament, an annual rite of passage that could be coined Christmas Craziness.
Event organizers predicted more than 1,000 Canadians would flood Pardubice and the tournament's secondary site, Liberac, to watch hockey's emerging stars battle on the international stage from Dec. 26 to Jan. 5.
Zbyneek Kusy, the chairman of the local organizing committee, estimates approximately 20 per cent of the seats will be filled from out-of-country tourists.
Among those fans are 450 Canadians who booked a vacation package costing about $5,000 a head to attend the tournament. There's also the Bains family, who flew over from Surrey, B.C., to watch their second such event live.
"It's so much better than the NHL, because the players have passion," said Herman Bains, clad in a Team Canada jersey.
"I remember as a kid waking up at 5 a.m. — it's part of Christmas holiday tradition back home."
There are also those fans who are already away from home, such as Sean Bennett and Alexis Lemmex. Originally from Ottawa, they've been studying in Norway and Belgium, respectively, for their Masters degrees. For them, it's just a hop, skip, and a jump to the Czech Republic on a train or short flight.
Some of the fans on the vacation package are repeat customers, such as a man from Halifax who travelled to last year's tournament in Sweden. Sporting a Halifax Mooseheads jersey while chatting with some of his new friends — a couple from Moncton in their matching "Marchand" shirts — he explained, "There's no better way to travel. You get to see the world, which is great, and you get to see hockey, which is even better."
Juniors can generate millions in profit
The world juniors have become so engrained in the Canadian sports psyche — and such a cash cow — that organizers in Ottawa, the lucky hosts in 2009, are already guaranteeing their event will turn a profit of $12.5 million.
The tournament was last in Canada in 2006. Co-hosted by three B.C. cities — Vancouver, Kamloops and Kelowna — the event generated an estimated $41 million in economic activity in the province, according to Hockey Canada.
The budget for the Czech Republic tournament is approximately $2.14 million, and Kusy is projecting a profit of "a few million" Czech koruna.
And the impact of the tournament is felt well beyond local economies.
There are the nearly 200 scouts who make a living from attending these tournaments, analyzing virtually every second of the action.
For Claude Carrier, the assistant director of scouting for the New Jersey Devils who is attending his 20th tournament, the world juniors is simply the best place to decide which players may have an NHL future.
Other tournaments like the Canadian Hockey League's Memorial Cup or the Frozen Four, the American college hockey championships, don't even come close, he said.
"It's the best representatives from each country. It's never easy to predict who will be a star, but we can get a good idea of who will develop into a solid player."
Draft stock at stake
These potentially solid players include the undrafted Luke Schenn, a Saskatoon native who plays for the Western Hockey League's Kelowna Rockets. Schenn stands to gain a lot from an impressive performance at the tournament. A good showing could push up his stock and net him a well-paying NHL job in the future.But, for now, he says he's just enjoying the ride.
"There's a lot of people watching — scouts, friends, family back home. You can't top playing for your country, when you grew up watching the games at Christmas, and all of the sudden you're a part of it," Schenn said after the morning skate on the first day of the tournament.
The world juniors also gives NHL teams a glimpse into the future of drafted players — such as Halifax native Brad Marchand, a Boston Bruins' pick — sometimes revealing whether the clubs have made a good or bad decision to scoop them up.
Even though he's one of the returning players from last year's Canadian gold-medal team, Marchand knows opportunities to represent one's country at this level are few and far between and must be taken advantage of.
"You have maybe two years, but like four or five for a Memorial Cup, and hopefully a whole lifetime for the NHL," said Marchand, who ranks the hardware he won at the 2007 world juniors in Sweden as an accomplishment that could only be eclipsed by an Olympic gold medal.
'Vindication' for early morning practices, father says
There's also a lot invested by the parents of the players — such as Richard Boychuk, whose son Zach Boychuk, a native of Airdrie, Alta., came to Team Canada from the WHL's Lethbridge Hurricanes.
He said seeing his son play at such a high level is like "vindication for all of the early mornings waking at 6 a.m. to drive him to practice."
The tournament is also a time to catch up with old and new friends, as the parents of players tend to become a travelling fraternity.
Since a lot of the players have been part of the U-18 national team program, or played in the recent Super Series against Russia, their folks have had a chance to bond as well.
"These events, it's like a mini-reunion for us parents," said Boychuk. "But it's funny, when the boys are playing against each other, there's definitely some tension between the parents."
Whatever because of family ties or just a strong connection to the game, hockey fans from across Canada are sure to continue their yearly trek to the world juniors. No matter how far they have to go.
The world junior championship began as an invitational tournament in 1974, and was sanctioned by the International Ice Hockey Federation three years later.
- Russia: 26 (12 gold, nine silver, five bronze)
- Canada: 23 (13 gold, six silver, four bronze)
- Czech Republic: 13 (two gold, five silver, six bronze)
- Finland: 13 (two gold, four silver, seven bronze))
- Sweden: 11 (one gold, six silver, four bronze)
- United States: 5 (one gold, one silver, three bronze)
- Switzerland: 1 (bronze)
- Slovakia: 1 (bronze)
Ten teams are divided into two groups of five. Each team plays the others within the group, after which the group standings are set. The first-place team from each group gains a bye to the semifinal. Second and third-place teams from each group cross over to play quarter-final games. The winners advance to the semifinals to determine the gold-medal matchup. Semifinal losers play for bronze. Effective this year, there are no ties in preliminary games, meaning overtime and shootouts will be implemented. Three points will be awarded for a regulation win, two for an OT or shootout victory and one for an OT or shootout loss.
- Jonathan Bernier – Lewiston (QMJHL)
- Steve Mason – London (OHL)
- Thomas Hickey – Seattle (WHL)
- PK Subban – Belleville (OHL)
- Luke Schenn - Kelowna Rockets (WHL)
- Drew Doughty - Guelph (OHL)
- Karl Alzner* – Calgary (WHL)
- Josh Godfrey - Sault Ste. Marie (OHL)
- Logan Pyett – Regina (WHL)
- John Tavares - Oshawa (OHL)
- Steve Stamkos – Sarnia (OHL)
- Zach Boychuk – Lethbridge (WHL)
- Colton Gillies – Saskatoon (WHL)
- Brandon Sutter - Red Deer (WHL)
- Kyle Turris – U. of Wisconsin (NCAA)
- Brad Marchand* - Val-d'Or (QMJHL)
- Claude Giroux – Gatineau (QMJHL)
- Matt Halischuk – Kitchener (OHL)
- Riley Holzapfel - Moose Jaw (WHL)
- Stefan Legein – Niagara (OHL)
- Shawn Matthias – Belleville (OHL)
- Wayne Simmonds - Owen Sound (OHL)
* Member of 2007 championship squad