HALIFAX – After a week of World Championship hockey in Canada, the event has hit full stride and is humming along quite nicely. Attendance in Quebec City and Halifax has been excellent, despite weekday games, Stanley Cup playoffs competing for fans’ attention, and 16 teams with many players fans don’t know very well. Volunteers have made an exceptional contribution to the success of the daily operations, and players have provided enthusiasm for the event off ice and a high level of skill on it. If the tournament were to end today, it would surely be deemed a great success.
But will it come back to Canada, or is this a one-off to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the IIHF, never to return again until 2108 for the 200th anniversary? "Right now, I’d say yes," Nicholson answered when asked if he envisioned another application from Hockey Canada at some point.
The trouble is that the IIHF has already booked the tournament through 2013 and will soon award 2014. The earliest date, then, for Canada to host again would be 2015, seven years from now. Any positive momentum from this year might be lost by then. One of the reasons Canada was able to succeed to such a tremendous degree with the World Junior Championship (U20) was that in the late 1970s and early ‘80s, when it was a fledgling event, Canada could count on hosting it every three or four years.
"That is a problem," Nicholson acknowledged, "but we feel a more important issue is educating the Canadian fans about the tournament. What we’d really like to see with our fans is what’s happening here with fans from Germany, Finland, Latvia. Instead of worrying about hosting the tournament again soon, we’d like to see 1,000 or 2,000 fans travel to Switzerland and Germany and Slovakia in the coming years to watch Canada play this event in Europe."
There are two other major differences between the junior and senior events. The U20 takes place over Christmas and New Year’s, during the middle of the NHL season, so fans are more willing to direct some attention elsewhere during the dog days of a long pro season. Psychologically, the U20 is also seen as a “holiday tournament” in Canada, a time when hundreds of such events take place right across the country. As well, the juniors appeal to the grassroots of the game. And, in Canada, the U20 is really a tournament like a bar mitzvah or male version of a debutante’s ball—a coming out party, a tournament at which boys become men.
On the other hand, the senior tournament has much going for it, of course. First, it features spectacular hockey with a dramatic playoff format leading to a gold-medal game. Second, Canada has been able to attract big name players to the event in the last decade like never before, and this has meant a level of medal success matched only in the early decades of the game when Canada was supreme ruler of the rinks (1920s-1950s).
Third, the issue of using the smaller ice for the event has been a non-issue this year. No one has commented, complained, or even noticed, really. This ensures Canada can easily host the event again without having to worry about adapting rinks, which is either prohibitively expensive or simply impossible. Furthermore, far from alienating Europe, the moving of the event to Canada this year has attracted thousands of fans from overseas, another encouraging sign the tournament can return and be successful.
Lastly, IIHF president René Fasel has also suggested he’d like to return to Canada, although he says, “that’s up to Bob [Nicholson].” The truth is that although this is the first time the event is in Canada, it is only the second time Canada has applied to host it. The ball, as they say, is in Hockey Canada's court.
There seems no logical reason to suggest this is a one-off event. Canada has supported the 2008 World Championship well, and as the tournament reaches its climax, that support should continue to increase. Returning might not happen until 2015, but hockey fans in Canada have long and vivid memories. Just ask Bobby Orr, Darryl Sittler, and the rest of the 1976 Canada Cup boys who were honoured yesterday with a standing ovation. Here in Canada, hockey is life and life is remembered well.