“Can you believe it!?!”
When trying to understand the rise of the world junior hockey championship as a ratings juggernaut and source of national pride — or hand-wringing — Gord Miller’s signature call of Jordan Eberle’s dramatic tying goal versus Russia in the 2009 semifinal fits.
TSN has received — and deserves — credit for building the hockey showcase into what it is today, although the funny thing is that Miller tries to downplay the suggestion.
“I mean, people ask me all the time why it’s so popular and my answer is that, first of all, it’s great hockey,” the play-by-play man says. “It is the only best-on-best tournament in the world every year, and it’s kids, so it is different.
“It’s the holidays. It’s international hockey, and it has a fresh cast every year. People have said to me before (that) it is a TSN creation. Well, the same marketing people, the same camera and production people, have tried it with (Canadian university sports) and it never worked. You can try to dress things up as much as you want, but if you don’t have a good product to start with, you aren’t getting anywhere.”
TSN is celebrating 25 years of airing the tournament, which starts on Boxing Day in Toronto and Montreal. Prior to TSN’s involvement, CBC often carried the rights but only aired a few games before the final. One of those was a 1987 Canada-Russia tilt dubbed the Punch-up in Piestany after a bench-clearing brawl — unheard of in international hockey — that got both teams kicked out. The controversy raised the profile of the tourney. Even Don Cherry weighed in.
Two other notable events: Wayne Gretzky’s domination of the 1978 world juniors on home ice, and a pre-game malfunction that left Team Canada to sing the national anthem a capella in 1982 in Minnesota — a tradition that lives on.
TSN started airing all of Canada’s games in 1991 and while Team Canada was stacked, the buzz around Canadian Eric Lindros and Russia’s Pavel Bure just gilded the lily. That was the year the tournament really moved beyond something that just the hockey cognoscenti was aware of and started to worm its ways into the public consciousness.
Mark Milliere, TSN’s senior vice-president of production, says it didn’t hurt that Canada — which hasn’t won world junior gold in the past five years — performed so well during the 1990s.
“After 1991, we knew we had something to build on,” says Milliere. “Then we got into a period where Canada went on a run. They started dominating and put together a stretch with five in a row. Let’s face it, that started to feel pretty good. You know, you are watching young men with the Canada flag on their chest, best on best in the world, and you’ve got time. It’s over the holiday season so you can watch — everyone, the entire family can get into this — so now it’s bleeding beyond the sports fan. It’s getting everyone into the tent.”
The 1993-97 titles were followed by a seven-year championship drought, but Milliere says that just added to the drama — as did the national debate about the state of hockey in our country that followed. Another five-year roll from 2005-09 included stellar performances from Sidney Crosby and the next generation of NHL stars.
“There has been a series of events where, literally, Hollywood couldn’t write a script this good,” says Milliere. “Eberle in Ottawa, (Jonathan) Toews in Sweden. It really has been a perfect storm.”
It hasn’t been all rosy. Miller says he doesn’t like the immense pressure placed on young players. While the majority have been drafted by NHL teams and know about dealing with the spotlight, some world junior players will never make it as pros. Miller adds that TSN has tried to cut down on the “perp walk” approach to interviewing disappointed players who didn’t make the cut.
“My biggest concern about it, more than anything, is to not put too much on the kids too soon. Let’s not say that so and so is the next Sidney Crosby, or so and so is the next this or that,” says Miller. “There’s enough pressure on these players without us heaping it on.”
Beyond the fact that it has become a holiday tradition — the Canadian equivalent of U.S. college football bowl season — the numbers speak for themselves. Nine of the 15 biggest audiences in TSN history were for world junior games — topped by the 2011 final at 6.2 million. Finals don’t draw nearly as many viewers when Canada doesn’t make it, though last year Sweden vs. Finland averaged more than a million.
After losing the national NHL package to Rogers, the world junior championship is even more important to TSN. Milliere says a record number of countries have requested TSN’s feed, showing it continues to grow internationally. The Toronto-Montreal split will guarantee good crowds, and the battle between Canada’s Connor McDavid and American Jack Eichel to go No. 1 in the NHL draft — they face off on New Year’s Eve — is a natural storyline. TSN and Canadian viewers hope another Hollywood type ending is in the cards.