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Therien's Take: Christmas at the Rink

by Chris Therien @ctherien6 /

The National Hockey League takes a three-day break over the Christmas holiday, from Christmas Eve through Boxing Day, but that doesn't mean there's no hockey to watch. One great thing about hockey in general is the Christmas tournaments that take place at most levels of the game.

The annual IIHF World Junior Championships, which start on Boxing Day (Dec. 26) and run until just after New Year's, has grown into one of the most highly anticipated events on the hockey calendar and a rite of passage for the teenaged prospects who participate. Most of the top prospects who go on to become NHL stars participated in the tournament at least one time and some play in two or even three before they age out of eligibility once they turn 20. 

One thing that's very cool is that, once they return from the holiday break, the players on most every NHL team sit around their locker room and watch the World Juniors on TV. The pros are watching the kids, and provide running commentary the same way that diehard fans do.

The NHL guys vocally root for their home country's national team and rag on their teammates from other countries. They swap stories and tall tales from their own past WJC experiences. The tourney absolutely captures their imagination for a week-plus and becomes required watching. 

Last year, for example,Carter Hart, who played for Canada in a famously snowy and blustery outdoor WJC preliminary round game in Buffalo against Team USA, shook his head at the memory of the teams muddling through the almost unplayable conditions that day. Although his team lost that game, he could laugh about it a year later, because they went on to win the gold medal. 

In the meantime, Flyers players marveled at some of the moves and passes that then-prospects (now NHL rookies) Joel Farabee and Morgan Frost made in the tournament games -- or highlights -- the Philly players were able to catch. There were knowing chuckles about how the WJC is a step up in competition from anything you experience in junior or college hockey -- and it only gets tougher and tougher from there.

While not every NHL player played in the World Juniors during their teenage years, the vast majority have international experience at some level. Whether its the Spenglar in Switzerland (an even longer-standing holiday tournament tradition at the pro hockey league), the old Izvestia Cup in Russia (now known as the Channel One Cup) or, going all the way back to their minor hockey days, tournaments played over the winter break from school, most players have represented their home country in one way, shape or form.

Over my time as a player, I was honored to represent Canada three times. Each of those moments when you get to don your jersey with the national team crest on the chest -- kind of like Elf on a Shelf, only more magical to the player -- is something that brings shivers down your spine.

The first time I had such an experience was my freshman year of college at Providence. I had a chance to play for Team Canada in the USA Cup in Albany, New York. A multitude of university players and seasoned veterans were put together to make a team to compete in that tournament.

The following year was an unbelievable experience. I was a member of Team Canada in the Spengler Cup, which we went on to win. My teammates included 
various candidates for the 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer, Norway. Our head coach was Andy Murray; formerly an assistant coach with the Flyers among many notable head coach and assistant coaching stops in his career.

There were were also numerous former NHLers on the squad, including the legendary Brian Propp. The five-time NHL All-Star and member of the Flyers Hall of Fame was winding down his pro career as a member of Swiss team HC Lugano. Although he was nearing the end of his career, he still had hands and puck skills on a level that I had never seen before in a competitive situation. I'd played with and against some outstanding players, but the skill level of a seasoned NHL All-Star caliber player was astounding.

The atmosphere in Davos during the Spengler Cup is nothing short of one big, nonstop party with some excellent hockey games as the backdrop. The fans were tremendous, bringing incredible energy to each and every game. The hockey and the fun are at a maximum, the sleep at a minimum, in Davos.

I am generally someone who much prefers the NHL-size rink game to the bigger ice game of European and IIHF hockey, but it was impossible not to get swept up in the atmosphere of the Spengler Cup, on the ice as well as off. That was my first taste of what the game-night atmosphere is like in Switzerland, which has its own long-established teams and traditions, and it was simply awesome. Really one of the greatest Christmas tournaments I ever had had the privilege of playing in my life. 

The third time I represented Canada was on the national Olympic hopeful team during the run-up tournaments to the Olympics in Norway. In December 1993, I was part of Team Canada as we traveled to the Izvestia Cup in Moscow. 

At that time, the CSKA Moscow team -- better known as the Red Army club -- was still pretty formidable although the Soviet Union had been dissolved and many of its best former players were starring the NHL by this point, such the trio of Sergei Fedorov, Pavel Bure and Alexander Mogilny. The Dynamo Moscow team was also stacked with talent.

On the ice, it made for highly competitive hockey. In terms of the travel, it was quite an interesting experience. If you haven't been there, well, I'd suggest going to Hawaii first. It gets pretty cold in Moscow in December. Even so, it was a memorable experience.

Almost as soon as we boarded on our Moscow-bound Aeroflot flight in Helsinki, they started passing bottles of vodka down the aisle. In the meantime, someone had brought their pet Great Dane aboard the flight and allowed to jog around and explore the middle of the plane; generally doing the type of things that a big dog with freedom likes to do just because it can. It made for quite a Saturday travel experience. 

In the two decades since then, Russia became way more westernized in terms of the standards of comforts available to those able to travel to experience its more upscale amenities. Back then, though, it still was barely removed from the Eastern Bloc era and comforts were few and far between.

When we got to Russia, we were fed borscht; beet soup, which can either be served hot or served cold. Ours was tepid. I know some folks who like borscht, and perhaps it's an acquired taste, but I personally wouldn't recommend it. The food in general was pretty bad the entire time.

At our hotel in Moscow, we were told that it was highly recommended to sleep with the lights on. The rooms were infested with cockroaches, and they'd crawl right in the sack with you. 

This made for a beautiful, beautiful Christmas, let me tell you. My dad join me in Russia. We both laughed and tried to make the best of it, but we were certainly hoping that the country become more westernized -- in a hurry.

That said, in other respects, it was a really neat trip. We stayed essentially in Red Square and had a spectacular view of Saint Peter's Cathedral and the Kremin. We got to see Lenin's tomb, where the famous historical figure still lies in state. It was eery. He is still quite dead to this very day. 

The best part of Izvestia was the hockey. It was great for the Canadian and American players to come, not even knowing some of your new teammates, and to bond together. You had to, because no one else spoke your language and everything surrounding you was unfamiliar and vaguely hostile. The dressing rooms were very spartan In being together basically 24 hours a day, you formed bonds that carried over on the ice as well as off-ice. 

Something else happened in Davos and Moscow, as well as during the World Junior Championships. Players are filled with national pride. You never feel more Canadian or American or Swedish or Finnish or whatever your nationality than you do when you're representing your country. That's especially true when you are playing overseas. 

Around here, in Flyers country, we're all NHL fans in general and Flyers fans in particular. But for people that are fans of hockey as a sport, do yourself a favor and check out the WJC games and catch some highlights from the other tourneys that will take place during the NHL break.

 To all of you out there, I wish you nothing but a happy holidays and a merry Christmas. Even when you can't get to watch NHL hockey over the break, you've still got a lot of a lot of other options to sifter and enjoy our great sport. 

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