It's a given to say that Canadian fans expect nothing less than a gold medal when the World Junior Championship begins next week in Calgary and Edmonton.
Bob Nicholson, the president of Hockey Canada, didn't guarantee gold during his appearance Thursday night on the "NHL Hour With Commissioner Gary Bettman," but he did promise the upcoming WJC would be a record-breaking event.
"We have two great partners, the Calgary Flames
and the Edmonton Oilers
, and we're going to have probably 200,000 more people than ever attended a World Juniors before -- it'll be over 500,000 people," Nicholson said. "Every game is sold out -- not just the Canadian games, but Latvia, when they're playing, they're going to be playing in front of sold-out buildings. So it's going to be very special for the Canadian fans and the players from around the world."
Nicholson spread the credit far and wide in explaining how the popularity of the World Juniors has grown over the years.
"We have to give a lot of our credit to TSN and our partner, the Canadian Hockey League, who loan us a majority of the players for this tournament," he said. "We've seen it grow and now this year being in two NHL buildings -- it's the first time that we've done that. But the TV numbers, out of the top-10 viewing games, eight of them are World Junior games. It's Christmastime and we're very fortunate, we've been in 10 straight gold-medal games. We've lost the last two years, so Canadians want to see us be successful -- but it's holiday season and that's World Junior time in Canada."
Nicholson also expounded upon what it takes to put together a 22-man roster out of a talent base as enormous as what Canada has to choose from, as well as the selection Thursday of St. Louis Blues
draft pick Jaden Schwartz
as team captain.
"I think one of the toughest jobs, whether it be the World Juniors or the Olympics, is putting a group of players together for Team Canada," he said. "Hockey is a global game today and every country has so many great players and great teams, but the one strength Canada has is its depth. We have a person, Kevin Prendergast, that is our head scout, that scouts all the Canadian Hockey League teams, also goes down to the NCAA and scouts all of those players, so that's a huge area that he has to look at. We have a summer camp where we bring in 44 players, and then we brought in 42 players here just a week ago and then selected our team. So it was a real tough task. I think Kevin Prendergast and Don Hay, the head coach, did an excellent job."
Schwartz was a key component of Canada's entry in last year's WJC before suffering a broken ankle in the second game, sidelining him for the remainder of the tournament. A first-round pick by the Blues in the 2010 NHL Draft, he's already dealt with the adversity of losing his sister Mandi to leukemia earlier this year, and when St. Louis general manager John Davidson
looks at Schwartz he sees not only a talented hockey player, but a solid young man.
"He's a natural leader, he's a terrific hockey player," said Davidson, who also appeared Thursday on "NHL Hour." He related a story from the draft about how Schwartz came back for the second day, when rounds 2-7 are selected, still wearing his suit and tie and sat at the Blues' table because he wanted to see how it worked.
"He's a very intelligent player," Davidson continued. "He plays with a lot of heart, a lot of smarts. He's got a quick computer, and by that I mean when he gets the puck, especially in the offensive zone, his mind is so quick he can make plays as you blink. He's really sharp that way. I think Canada made a really good choice because I know his leadership skills are exceptional. I'm really happy for him. I'm happy for the Blues, but I'm more happy for him and his family."
Nicholson has high hopes for what Schwartz might potentially accomplish as captain and spoke about what went into the decision to name him.
"We've had great captains in the past with our World Junior team, and today was a special announcement to a very special individual, who JD was talking about," Nicholson said. "Every player on this team and in this dressing room thought he should be the captain, and I look forward to his leadership here in the World Juniors and as he moves on to his NHL career. He really has great character and will do a great job with this team."
Nicholson also applauded the partnership between Edmonton and Calgary -- a pair of fierce Alberta rivals -- in setting up this WJC to be a record-breaking event and giving Hockey Canada the opportunity to expand in the process.
"Both organizations, through the leadership of (Oilers president) Pat LaForge and (Flames president) Ken King, their staff has worked with Hockey Canada and that's why it's going to be the biggest and best we've ever held," Nicholson said.
"We have the Hockey Canada staff and two NHL staff that have sold this tournament out a year in advance, which has given us an opportunity -- we've invited every player that's played on a World Junior team back, we're going to have over 100 of them in attendance. We're going to do special events with young kids on skill development, recruitment and retention, to try to get new Canadians in. It's going to be a tournament to find out who is the world champion, but we're going to really try to do a lot of other initiatives to grow the game in this province and throughout Canada."