The pressure cooker
For most players involved in the World Junior Championships, the tournament provides the first real glimpse of the fish bowl of big-time hockey.
For the first time, players must deal with more than just the game. It can be a daunting experience for even the best young players a nation has to offer.
Ryan Hughes was a member of Canada's 1992 entry into the World Junior Championships, held in Germany. At 19 and a second-round pick of the Quebec Nordiques, he thought he was ready for all that the tournament demanded. Until he arrived for the training camp, that is.
"From the pressure perspective, it was unbelievable," said Hughes, who now works for the NHL. "Especially in playing for Canada, the pressure was enormous. The amount of media there -- all the guys covering the NHL that you read as a kid -- and the attention just for a training camp was unbelievable. It was like an NHL training camp."
Things only got worse from there.
Eric Lindros was also a member of that 1992 entourage. At the time, he was being billed as the next great NHL star despite having not yet turned 20. All eyes were on him every day of the tournament, and the glare only grew when Canada struggled out of the gates.
"I remember sitting there watching him deal with all the attention," recalls Hughes. "It struck me, here was a kid, just a teenager, and he was never going to have a normal life. He was just an ordinary guy and people were making him out not to be. It was something to see."
But, that is just a glimpse of the pressure players at the World Junior Championships must handle.
The tournament's mere structure makes it an unbelievable pressure cooker.
Starting the day after Christmas each year, it reinforces the notion of homesickness that all too often engulfs young men away from home for the first time. The rotation of host countries also means that on any given year more than half the participants will be intimidated by being in a completely foreign culture, suffering while trying to do simple things like converse with others or order meals.
"It's amazing what we ask these kids to do," said Keith Allain, who coached last year's Team USA entry. "Nine out of 10 years, the tournament is in Europe, so we take these kids to a different culture, introduce them to new foods and new places. Plus, it happens over Christmas and New Year's -- a time that you usually spend with family. For some of the kids, it's the first time they have been away from home. So it is a tough process for the players."
A process made even tougher today as the attention on the World Junior Tournament increases thanks to the internationalization of the game and the presence of so many Europeans in today's NHL. For traditional hockey powers -- Canada, Sweden, Finland, the Czech Republic and Russia -- the WJC tournament is the be-all and end-all of the holiday break.