By Matt Ventresca
“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.
It does not take too much thought to dream up straightforward or logistical factors that help account for the popularity of the WJHC. As outlined by Roy MacGregor in the Christmas Eve edition of the Globe, the enthusiasm surrounding the tournament can be easily attributed to TSN’s mighty promotional apparatus, holiday downtime, a dearth of quality sports news coupled with a lull in the NHL calendar, and the tournament’s generation of sure fire excitement drenched in patriotic sentiments. It is the final item from this list that I believe requires the most attention.
Of course, the narrative of protecting Canada’s unshakeable hockey superiority is one that continues (and continues) to be re-asserted whenever Team Canada enters international competition. Given the competitive imbalance between Canada and most of its opponents at the WJHC (in terms of visibility, funding and talent pool), TSN’s programmers and audience are pretty much guaranteed that the Canadians will compete for a gold medal – if not be the unquestioned favourite. Yes, the World Juniors allows hockey fans across the country to breathe a collective sigh of relief and rest assured that Canada is still the hockey powerhouse so many of us believe it to be.
But to stop our analysis here would stand as a failure to seek a greater understanding of the immense and complex symbolism that underlies the popularity of the WJHC. In my debut post in this space, I presented a dual reading of hockey’s dominant masculinity: players are commonly understood as violent and aggressive on the ice, but playful and fun-loving away from the rink. What I left out (as if that post needed to be any longer) was that this “two-ness” is inextricably tied to societal constructions of childhood and age. Keeping this in mind, we can then argue that hockey is widely understood as a site where boys become men, but never truly stop being boys. While this dual existence is unquestionably embodied by the NHL’s adult professionals, the players who take to the ice at the WJHC can be understood as even more vivid embodiments of this preferred masculinity.
World Junior players occupy a liminal space between the boyish innocence of childhood hockey and the intense and demanding world of the pros. There is no question that elite players at the junior level are impressive physical specimens. Yet certain physical traits, especially their youthful faces and clearly adolescent voices, remind us that these players are not the fully developed men of the pro ranks; fittingly, they are commonly referred to as “boys,” “kids” and “young men.” Broadcasters dedicate a disproportionate amount of time discussing the players’ families and hometowns and “our boys” are asked to provide answers to trivial questions about their boyhood heroes or favourite food. Then there is the ludicrous, but strangely compelling, ritual that occurs at the end of the team’s selection camp where successful players receive an early morning knock on the door and a congratulatory handshake from the team’s head coach. While TSN’s coverage of this moment is emblematic of the general over-production of the tournament, its inclusion in the broader spectacle that is the World Juniors is certainly quite meaningful. This scene resembles the morning routine of many parents across Canada who wake up their child for 6 a.m. hockey practice with a similar knock on the bedroom door. These symbolic elements allow Canadian parents to watch the Juniors and declare that these players are “just like my boys” (NOTE: I very much recognize the gendered nature of this statement and the attention given the World Juniors in general).
Yet despite these allusions to the innocence of youth and the rituals of minor hockey, our understandings of the WJHC is profoundly influenced by the culture of the professional game. Players are outfitted in top-notch gear and their efforts are scrutinized to the nth degree by the same commentators that appear on TSN’s NHL broadcasts. Most of these kids are affiliated with an NHL team (while some have already started their pro careers), and the league is the most commonly used frame of reference for the banter of coaches and analysts (seriously, if I had a dime for every time I’ve heard Pierre McGuire exclaim “Buckle up, [insert name of NHL team here] fans! [Insert name of team draft pick here] is going to be a quality player for a lot of years!”). This emphasis on the NHL reproduces the league’s monopoly on major league professional hockey and acts as a promotional vehicle for TSN’s most valuable media property, the NHL on TSN. But WJHC participants play for free and are commonly seen as representing the ideals of amateurism and the “I play for the love of the game” ethos that pervades dominant understandings of junior hockey; these young men have yet to be corrupted by the big money and big egos that come with making it to the big leagues (and by extension, are playing exclusively for their country’s hockey pride).
With the WJHC, Canadian audiences get the best of both worlds as two of hockey’s most prominent mythologies are on simultaneous display: the skill and win-at-all-costs aggressiveness emblematic of the professional game, and a nostalgic longing for the innocence of childhood hockey. While high calibre hockey and representations of sporting nationalism are available elsewhere, the World Juniors’ transformation from obscure event into marketing tour de force is largely supported by these cherished myths. The WJHC has lost a lot of its lustre for me personally, but its undeniable that the tournament gives many Canadians a reason to shout loudly from the rooftops about our international hockey supremacy and to earmark future stars that will make us proud in the NHL and beyond (Mark Stone, consider yourself earmarked). Underlying these beliefs is an implicit understanding that the players Canada sends to the World Juniors each year represent the absolute best that this hockey nation has to offer.