Raphael Diaz was in his early teens when he first made the realization.
As a youth in Switzerland, Diaz says he began dreaming of playing in the IIHF Hockey World Junior Championships several years before he was eligible. And when he did, he didn’t envision his countrymen in the stands watching.
“Growing up, when I was 13, 14, 15 years old … everybody says, ‘I hope the world championship Under-20 is in Canada or in US,’” said Diaz, who is now a defenseman with the Calgary Flames. “Especially in Canada. It’s unbelievable there. I was really lucky to have the tournament there in Vancouver.
“It was important to play in the spotlight and challenge other countries.”
Diaz represented his homeland in the 2006 tournament, which was held in Vancouver, when he was 19, and even in what seemed like a meaningless game against Slovakia, he marveled at the fan support.
“I remember we played a game for seventh place or something like that. It was an afternoon, and it was Switzerland against Slovakia. … There were 8,000 fans there, and I was like, ‘Oh, my god, what’s going on?’ It’s unbelievable,” recalled Diaz, who recently turned 29. “I knew that’s the country of hockey, Canada.
“It doesn’t matter if it’s Under-20 or professional hockey, they just love to watch hockey.”
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In Canada, the World Juniors are as much a part of the Christmas tradition as trees and turkey. Canadians schedule their days around games, which run from Boxing Day to the first week of January. The tournament features Under-20 hockey players from the top 10 hockey nations. Many of the players are either draft eligible or already drafted leaving the tournament to showcase their talent to NHL scouts and general managers.
When a tournament is hosted by Canada, the attention amplifies. Canadian television network TSN reported it had 13.4 million unique Canadian viewers for Canada’s 5-4 gold-medal victory over the Russians on Jan. 5.
“It’s the Super Bowl, it’s the Rose Bowl, it’s that time of the year,” says Hockey Canada president and CEO, Tom Renney. “Especially when you look at things like the Rose Bowl or … National Championship. That’s what this is. It’s a tradition that has been deeply entrenched in every Canadian’s mind and families and households for quite some time now.”
Journalist Lucas Aykroyd, who has covered six tournaments for the International Ice Hockey Federation, believes the World Juniors are “more Canadian” than watching the Olympic hockey final.
“The World Juniors really reflect how much Canadians crave hockey. It’s our equivalent of March Madness. People who don’t care one iota about sports otherwise will watch an Olympic final every four years,” Aykroyd said. “But I remember doing stuff like getting up at 4 a.m. to watch Canada play Czechoslovakia at the World Juniors in West Germany when I was a kid.
“The World Juniors make you into a hardcore fan. And TSN knows that if Canada wins, people will tune in next year in hopes of continuing to ride the euphoria. If Canada loses, then it actually increases the urgency to watch until they get the gold back. TSN can’t lose.”
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It’s not just fans who go wild for the World Juniors, either.
The current Flames roster features players from six different countries, and Diaz says there was money on the line as the teammates watched the tournament earlier this month.
“Yeah, you’re going to bet with some guys,” he said. ”You’ve got to take your country, of course, and try to make some money.”
According to retired goaltender Sean Burke, it’s important to make people aware of what this tournament means to its participants.
“I think what you have to try and get people to understand is these are really the up-and-coming stars and the future,” said Burke. “All the teams here are represented by their best young players. These guys are not a long way off of either being in the NHL, or, for some of them, they’ll never be in the NHL, but at this point, they’re among the best players in their country.
“The intensity of this tournament, because of that, it’s a world championship for this age group, so it’s an incredibly intense tournament.”
Now the assistant general manager and goaltending coach of the Arizona Coyotes, Burke played at the World Juniors in 1986 when Hamilton, Ontario, played host.
“When you play in this tournament, especially as a Canadian, it’s amazing,” said Burke. “It’s really your first taste as a young player of the importance of what international events are really like.
“You have an opportunity. In those days … the Soviet Union was the power, so that was an incredible experience. I think that’s what I remember as a young player, is the battles we had with the Soviets.”
Burke went on to appear in 820 NHL games over 16 seasons with the New Jersey Devils, Hartford Whalers, Carolina Hurricanes, Vancouver Canucks, Philadelphia Flyers, Florida Panthers, Phoenix Coyotes, Tampa Bay Lightning and L.A. Kings. The 47-year-old, who was a part of Hockey Canada’s management team at this year’s event, said playing in the Under-20 tournament prepared him for the pressures of the NHL.
“When you’re this age, these guys now have had lots of opportunity to deal with media and play on the big stage, but looking back, you don’t realize until years go by what an incredible microscope is on these kids,” he said. “It’s probably a good thing. The pressure usually comes from within, but in this tournament, there is a lot of expectations.
“For our boys here being in Canada, I think they’re starting to sense that. You have to be really mature to handle that stuff. I think the tournament matures you in a hurry.”
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Despite the popularity of the Christmas tradition in Canada, Hockey Canada perhaps overestimated just how much people loved the international competition when it came to pricing tickets for this year’s event.
A large storyline throughout the two-week event was the lack of interest in Montreal, which co-hosted the event with Toronto. Tickets for Canada’s round-robin games, which were all played at Montreal’s Bell Centre, ranged from $66 to $261 CAD ($53-$210 in American dollars) – prices not seen in some NHL markets.
The pricing even caught IIHF President, Rene Fasel off guard.
“I was really surprised. If you were to do it at this pricing in Europe, you would have nobody in the arena,” he said. “Hockey Canada decides what the pricing is. Not us. Maybe we had really high expectation in Montreal. A lot of people are talking about ticket prices.”
Canada’s four games at the Bell Centre, all wins, drew an average crowd of 15,222 well under the capacity of the arena, which has a capacity of 21,287 for Canadiens home games.
Despite the struggles in Montreal, a Germany and Switzerland relegation game on a Saturday night (Jan.3) drew nearly 8,400 at Toronto’s Air Canada Centre.
“If we have a look at Europe, we have six to eight times more people (in Canada),” said Fasel. “(Saturday) evening, Germany-Switzerland — 8,000 people. If you do that game in Finland, I don’t know, 400 people? It’s really a nice problem to discuss about the numbers.”
For its part, Hockey Canada says it’s evaluating the situation. Montreal and Toronto are slated to co-host the 2017 event.
“We’ll look at everything for sure, but we’ll do that when the tournament is over,” said Renney. “ I think as much as we all have to work to be a solution to what might happen in Montreal moving forward. We’ll concern ourselves with that when the competition is over.”
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Scouts will turn up regardless of the location. The tournament is an opportunity for NHL teams to look at the handful of draft-eligible players each country has on its roster while at the same time re-evaluating the team’s previous draft picks.
“For me, as a manager, it’s good for me to come in here to see how our draft (picks) compare to the other teams (picks),” said Nashville Predators general manager, David Poile. “It’s sort of one stop shopping from a scouting stand point for someone like myself to see all these different players from these different countries.
“A lot of these guys are going to be future players in the NHL, some of them are going to be future stars in the National Hockey League.”
Added Minnesota Wild general manager, Chuck Fletcher: “Every team has several kids that are going to be playing in the NHL in a few years. It’s a great opportunity to see some potential kids, draft eligible kids for this coming draft, but it’s also a chance for somebody like me to come and see a lot of the young players that are already drafted and try to get a sense of who the top prospects for the NHL are.”
As for who stood out at the 2015 tournament, there was one name at the tip of everyone’s tongue.
Connor McDavid, who recently turned 18, finished the tournament tied for the scoring lead with three goals and 11 points in seven games.
McDavid, a standout with the Ontario Hockey League’s Erie Otters, is expected to have his name called first at June’s NHL Draft.
New York Rangers director of player personnel Gordie Clark was surprised at how quickly he saw improvement in McDavid’s game. McDavid was unable to play in a competitive game for 39 days leading up to the tournament due to a broken bone in his right hand.
“You just can’t use your hand for four to five weeks,” said Clark. “You can’t go out and skate for the first two to three weeks ’cause if he ever fell, and damaged it again … so it’s pretty impressive to watch that kid after four or five weeks with the hand in a cast.
“Never mind every game in the tournament, every shift in the tournament he’s just getting better.”