Thoughts on the Final, and the Tournament at Large

BUFFALO NY - DECEMBER 26: Defenseman Nikita Zaitsev #2 of Russia dumps the puck in as forward Cody Eakin #21 of Canada tries to block the puck during the 2011 IIHF World U20 Championship Group B game between Canada and Russia on December 26 2010 at HSBC Arena in Buffalo New York. (Photo by Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images)


The city of Buffalo has been through the wringer in this tournament, the target of misguided 140 characters of wisdom from Californian teenagers, Swedish bloggers (who are helpful to me), and a flooding of Canadian fans that made the American team strangers in their own country.  The discussion shouldn't really be about the lack of nightlife, or the city's aesthetics.  It should really be about the possibility of growing the event beyond the reach of Canadian fans.  Neate Sager of Buzzing the Net said it quite well, saying that the prices of the event were catered to the Canadian fans coming down, not to the prospective local American audience. 

The World Juniors became a running one up challenge in Canada over the years, with Saskatoon in 1991 being the first marquee event, followed by even bigger totals in Brandon/Winnipeg (1999), Vancouver in 2006, and the mother of them all, Ottawa in 2009.  It was getting to the point where I wondered whether smaller Canadian markets like Saskatoon, Halifax, and Red Deer would have the chance to host the tournament in the future.  Saskatoon got another go last year, but it was in a special circumstance, as Canada was awarded the 2010 tournament after Switzerland couldn't find a host.  They renovated the arena to hold over 14,000 people, even though its an obscenely large arena for a market of 230,000.

Canada has gone down the road of big markets and big profits.  They haven't gone to Toronto or Montreal yet, but they're going to Calgary and Edmonton next year.  Hopefully the USA doesn't follow suit.  The World Juniors doesn't need NHL rink capacity to be a world class event.  If the US does decide to host the WJHCs further south for a change, it shouldn't feel it needs to be tied to a NHL team.  There are plenty of college hockey, junior hockey, and minor league hockey towns throughout the land that could work for them.  Don't feel the need to charge them top dollar, either. 

As for today's big game, one can't help but feel a little for the rest of the hockey world. Canada-Russia is a titanic battle, but it's probably safe to say that fans in smaller European countries and the USA are grumbling a little bit, having to choose the lesser of two evils to root for, if anyone at all.  Russia might earn some bit of sympathy from some traditionalists, as it's been a down period for the country at the junior level, but it really hasn't been that long since they were on top. 

The thing that's interesting about Russia is how little everyone knows about their players yet again.  With NHL teams staying away from KHL players since they don't want to get into competition with them, only a handful of names were really known to North American fans before the tournament.  Now, you see a top defenseman like Yuri Urychev and you realize that there's still a lot of quality talent still there, they just aren't getting drafted anymore.  Sergei Bobrovsky was unknown and undrafted when he was signed this offseason by the Philadelphia Flyers, yet he backstopped Russia to a bronze medal at the 2008 WJCs with a .919 SV%.  This team left off known talent like Alexander Avtsin, Kirill Kabanov and Nail Yakupov (and have Alexander Burmistrov in the NHL) yet here they are, sixty minutes from gold.  

Canada making its tenth straight final is nothing short of a remarkable accomplishment, but you have to wonder if these teenagers might be taking the gold for granted now that they knocked off the USA and don't have to play Sweden in the final.  Of course, they won't give any hint of thinking that way, and Dave Cameron will drill it in their head about what they still have to accomplish, but there can sometimes be natural thoughts that creep into your mind that allow you to rest on your laurels a bit.  I think the goaltending switch to Mark Visentin helps a bit, but we'll see how he reacts if tested early and often by the Russians. 

Canada should win.  They are the favourite, they have more talent, more size, more depth.  They've been the favourite all tournament, no matter what they told you.  Now they can't hide from that fact.  It's an interesting change of attitude they'll have to take.  By beating the team they claimed were the favourite, they've assumed the title.  Russia lucked out in getting here, winning in OT with late game heroics and winning in the shootout with the help of a questionable waved off icing call.  But in the great tradition of Canada vs. Russia, anything can, and often does, happen. 

As for the bronze medal game, last year Sweden made sure they got their medal.  They were very professional about it, but you wonder if the tough way in which they lost this year might hold them back.  The Americans seem more determined than usual to take the bronze due to being on home soil, and the humiliating manner in which they lost the semifinal.  Usually I always take the European nation in this type of scenario, but I'm not as sure this time around.

Predictions:  I called both these matchups at the start of the tournament, but hey, I know it was a lot of dumb luck that brought the result together (I had the brackets mixed up significantly, but the end result ended up the same).  So, I suppose I've got to stick with Russia for the gold and Sweden for the bronze, then.

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