Why Buffalo Works for the WJC

After Team USA’s first game, there was a lot of talk about the game and the excitement of the tournament’s first day. However, much of the discussion shifted to the fact that the Canada game out-drew the American game and even much of the crowd was in maple leaf jerseys for Team USA’s bout with Finland.

Should this be alarming to any of us? It shouldn’t be surprising, that’s for sure. The World Junior Championship is wildly popular in Canada and only in the infancy of becoming part of the American hockey fan’s hockey menu. I’m not happy that there were more red-clad Finland fans at the USA game the other night, but I am happy that there was a very good portion of American fans there. It’s progress.

Of course Canada cares a lot about the WJC. It’s been dominant at this event for a long time. There’s a real sour taste in the mouths of Canadian fans after last year’s defeat. So why shouldn’t they cross the border and cheer on their team? I welcome our neighbors with open arms. The fact that Canadians are coming in droves and Americans are coming in smaller numbers is only an indication of the awareness of the tournament, not the importance. The “Canadian invasion” is not proof that the tournament doesn’t belong in the U.S., as some may lead you to believe.

Another thing I am sick of hearing is: “Well, this doesn’t matter to anyone but Canada.”

If that was true, then why even send a team? The 22 players on Team USA and the rest of the teams care deeply about this tournament. The people who should care most in this country, do. USA Hockey hopes fans latch on to the tournament and get more interested, but the most important thing is seeing a U.S. team win the gold medal. I think success in the tournament standings is far more important in the long run than financial viability or fan support. Success in the medal race will begin to take care of the other parts slowly.

Still I’ve seen a few articles from Canadian media patting themselves on the back for their fellow countrymen showing up the U.S. by buying more tickets, even to U.S. games. Apparently, the event should only ever be held in Canada, since they’re the only ones that truly embrace it. That’s probably the reason I decided to write this post after some inner debate.

Perhaps the most laughable take comes from Mark Sutcliffe of the Ottawa Citizen, who had this to say:

Organizers might delude themselves into thinking that big attendance numbers for this year’s tournament prove the game is digging deeper roots in the United States. But they should face the facts: the world juniors have special meaning in Canada, unlike any other country on the planet. The IIHF should put the tournament in Canada every year, rather than placing it just across the border and pretending it’s an event with international appeal.

First off, no one is deluding themselves into thinking that at all. This event has nothing to do with hockey’s roots in this country. Much of the hockey community in the States is unaware of the tournament. But they are becoming more aware. Which is a start. USA Hockey will point to increased membership as proof that hockey is growing in the States and roots are getting deeper, not the World Juniors.

He’s correct about the tournament having a special meaning to Canada. I think its awesome that Canada is so in love with this tournament. The passion of its fan base and its team makes it fun to watch, but this is not a strictly Canadian event.

Despite a lack of international appeal, the tournament is part of a bigger picture for international hockey. This WJC  is huge for player development and it does help some in spreading the influence of the game worldwide.

The sense of entitlement that Sutcliffe displays is off-putting and borderline pathetic. It’s our game, it’s our tournament. No. It isn’t. Hockey is an international game and is continually growing down here in the United States, whether you want to believe it or not.

For those that think the World Juniors is supposed to be an annual affirmation of Canada’s hockey dominance; of its superiority in the sport: We get it. It’s part of your culture and your traditions. That doesn’t make it purely Canadian. There are some people, no not as many as Canada, but there are some people who give a damn if the U.S. wins or loses. There are people who give a damn if Sweden or Russia or Finland wins or loses.

The World Juniors is the greatest amateur hockey tournament in the world. While it is most financially viable to hold it in or near Canada, hosting it in the same country every year will make the tournament less and less relevant to everyone else. How does that do the tournament any good? It’s a disservice to the players, other international hockey federations and to hockey fans worldwide. It robs other countries of the opportunity to make this tournament matter. I hope to see the event return to Europe, just to give more countries and their cities the chance to make it work.

I am so glad Buffalo was chosen for this event. They put together the best bid and they put in the leg work and they earned the right to host this championship. I heard nothing but great things about Buffalo’s bid package from a few of the folks who were part of the selection process. It’s in the right place in 2011.

At the end of the day, USA Hockey, the IIHF and the host committee want this tournament to make money. However, placing the tournament in the U.S. gives it slightly more visibility in the American media market. That is an added bonus. Buffalo is one of the most consistent hockey markets in the U.S. Still, the tournament has to make money. It is such an expensive event to run for the host country, so putting it in a location that it most likely would make money is just good business. There may be a time when it can go further south, but we’re not quite there yet.

While folks like Sutcliffe will point to empty seats and a sea of red jerseys, I point to the games being on NHL Network in the U.S., the growing Twitter following of the event, the interest on message boards and blogs, and heck… the fact that people read this blog at all. There’s also more interest than ever in the NHL Draft, NCAA hockey, junior hockey and the international game. It’s not all about what’s happening in Buffalo. It’s about progress. And we’re making plenty of progress. Hosting the tournament in the U.S. helps fuel that progress.

Perhaps in 10 more years we’ll see this tournament in LA or Chicago or even Dallas. Maybe that never happens, but the point remains that its more possible that it could happen now than it was 5 to 10 years ago.

It makes me proud that the American hockey fan is evolving into one that cares about hockey in general, as opposed to only being a fan of his/her NHL team. It’s not going to dramatically change overnight, but the process has been underway for a while now.

To my Canadian friends, I hope you do not feel that this is an attack on Canada or its fan base. Be proud of your country, your national team and hockey heritage.

To Mr. Sutcliffe and the like minded I say this with all due respect: This game is not yours. It’s all of ours. Hope you don’t mind sharing.

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About Chris Peters

Editor of The United States of Hockey. Contributor to CBSSports.com, USA Hockey Magazine and more. Former USA Hockey PR guy. Current Iowan.
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2 Responses to Why Buffalo Works for the WJC

  1. Woody says:

    Maybe Sutcliffe would like to see the Canadians come out and skate by themselves for 60 minutes, lift a trophy and take a picture with it.

    As for me, I like that the US players go into hostile territory because when they win it magnifies it all that much more. There is no comparison between the crowd reaction in Saskatoon and Helsinki.

  2. Cindy says:

    As a Canadian and a follower of the tournament,
    I had the pleasure of attending the WJC in Ottawa a few years ago and the experience is a cherished memory.

    I can think of nothing better than to have more Americans and more countries fall deeper in love with the great fun that is the WJC. The more the merrier and the better for all of us who love hockey. And if that means losing the championship, well that just makes the wins all the sweeter. I’ll boo your team on the ice and raise a glass to all players and fans off the ice.

    And after we finish conquering your hearts with hockey, we’ll get back to working on convincing you that curling is the other cool winter sport. 😉

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