Image courtesy our friends at the Globe and Mail
“It’s a holiday tradition!” says TSN’s Bob McKenzie in this year’s edition of the network’s marketing campaign for the World Junior Hockey Championship (WJHC). This year’s advertisement features a number of former WJHC competitors from Eric Lindros to Theo Fleury to Darcy Tucker to Andrew Ladd exclaiming “I was there in [insert year of Canadian gold medal here].” Interspersed between these images are appearances from TSN commentators (such as McKenzie and the ubiquitous Gord Miller), past coaches such as Pat Quinn and the inexplicable presence of random fans extolling the virtues of various mobile devices (OK, perhaps we can explain this – type “vertical integration” into Google and you’ll see what I mean). But McKenzie is right; as evidenced by the 6.1 million fans who tuned in to watch Team Canada’s remarkable third period collapse this past January (notice how it is never described as “the Russians’ valiant comeback?”), TSN’s broadcasts of the WJHC are an essential part of the holiday season for many Canadians.
But how did this happen? The WJHC (officially known as the IIHF World U20 Championship) has been played annually since 1977, but few spectators (and even fewer media representatives) showed up to witness the likes of Gretzky (1978) or Lemieux (1983) lace up their skates for the Canadian side in the tournament’s early years. It was not until emerging Cable TV channel The Sports Network sunk its teeth into the tournament as a means to fill its otherwise vacant holiday programming schedule that the WJHC took off as a Canadian cultural phenomenon. As the always cantankerous Bruce Dowbiggin explains in the December 23rd edition of the Globe and Mail:
“Before the broadcaster [TSN] adopted its annual rite of Hockey Holidays, the tournament was a desultory under-20 fixture on the calendar of the International Ice Hockey Federation.
Played by teenagers in backwater European burgs for the benefit of scouts, suits and sweethearts, most saw it as the Spengler Cup’s bookend, unloved and, until the famous 1987 brawl in Piestany, Czechoslovakia, unremarkable. But in this red-headed stepchild, the TSN brain trust saw programming opportunities at a time when the cable network didn’t have the extensive NHL contract it does now.”
Dowbiggin goes on to explain how the WJHC tourney is also viewed as a chance to see the stars of the upcoming NHL draft (for which, coincidentally, TSN has long owned the television rights), and how interest in the tournament outside of Canada is paltry at best (reinforcing our belief that Canada is the world’s most “hockey-mad” nation). This type of reasoning should not be new for any avid follower of the WJHC, or anyone who takes seriously the cultural politics of Canadian sport. But I, personally, am left wanting more. Would TSN’s stroke of marketing genius have occurred had they bet the house on another tournament or media property? Sure the WHJC gives us a chance to watch “great hockey,” but high calibre hockey can also be found at the NCAA Frozen Four, the Women’s World Championship, the CWHL, the Spengler Cup or the AHL playoffs (some of these are also showcases for future NHL talent). Yet none of these events inspire the fervour that characterizes our love of “the Juniors.” After the jump, I delve into the symbolism that underlies dominant understandings of the WJHC and do my best to provide some insight into the tournament’s popularity. Read more of this post