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Playing at home adds pressure, excitement

by Adam Kimelman / NHL.com

"You know the fans are going to be there. You're going to see 10,000, 15,000 people with Team Canada jerseys on. You feel like you're a god when you're going out there."
-- Simon Gagne

For Canadians, the World Junior Championship has become as much of a national staple as poutine, Molson and curling.

"Going back to when I was 10-years-old, 8-years-old, right from after Christmas to right after New Year's, it's going to be the World Juniors," Flyers forward Simon Gagne, a native of Ste. Foy, Quebec, told NHL.com. "You have all the games on TV, you've got no school at that time. I remember watching every game. It's a big, big thing for a Canadian to watch the World Juniors."

It's even bigger when the event is held in Canada, which it will be when the 2009 World Junior Championship is held in Ottawa, from Dec. 26-Jan. 5.

The WJC has been held in Canada seven times, with the home nation winning three golds, three silvers and a bronze.

But with the tournament in Canada's capital city, plus the chance to win a fifth straight gold medal -- something accomplished only by Canada from 1993-97 -- the expectations have been ratcheted up to a Spinal Tap-like 11.

"There's always pressure for Team Canada, especially in the World Juniors," Gagne said. "Everybody is expecting Canada to win the gold medal all the time -- they're going for a fifth one again. It's a disaster if Team Canada is not winning the gold medal. That's the way it is -- there's high expectations from the people in Canada to see their team winning."

And as much pressure as the players put on themselves to win, they feel it from the crowds.

"You know the fans are going to be there," Gagne said. "You're going to see 10,000, 15,000 people with Team Canada jerseys on. You feel like you're a god when you're going out there."

Gagne knows the feeling intimately, as he was part of the Canadian team that won the silver medal at the 1999 WJC in Winnipeg.

So does Shayne Corson. Prior to starting his 18-year NHL career, he played in the last World Juniors held in the province of Ontario, the 1986 WJC, which was held in Hamilton, with games at the just-opened Copps Coliseum. As much pressure as there is for a Canadian playing in Canada, it was double for Corson, who then played for the Ontario Hockey League's Hamilton Steelhawks, who played their home games at Copps.

"A lot of us at that point hadn't experienced playing in front of that many people," Corson, a Barrie, Ontario, native who now owns a restaurant in Toronto, told NHL.com. "It adds a lot of pressure to the team and the players, for sure. Having family and friends on top of you constantly; sometimes your focus isn't as good as it could be because you have a lot of things going on."

While Corson said having all the fans on your side can be distracting, others found it be an advantage when they played.

"Personally I'm not sure it's more pressure," said Luc Robitaille, one of Corson's teammates on the '86 team. "It's fun. The crowds are crazy, the buildings are sold out. I remember I played in Hamilton and it was so loud. It was an amazing experience.

"It's the crowd that makes it more exciting because they go nuts. … The crowd makes it fun and exciting."

They also can make it hard on the home team if they lose.

"I think anytime we don't win the gold medal, we're disappointed," Corson said. "It was a little bit added to it that we're playing in Canada in front of our fans. It's a little disappointing. We might have been a more talented team in '86 than we were the year before (when Canada won gold in Finland). The year before we seemed to jell together better as a team. Maybe that was a plus for us, to get away and spend time together.

"Playing in your own country and in front of your own fans, you put a little pressure on yourself, having family and friends around. We were disappointed. We felt we had a team that should have won it. We lost to the Russians and won the silver medal. We were devastated.

"We put a lot of pressure on ourselves as Canadian hockey players to win those type of things."

Flyers forward Joffrey Lupul understands Corson's pain. The Fort Saskatchewan, Alberta, native played for the 2003 WJC team that settled for silver in Halifax and Sydney, Nova Scotia.

"For sure there's added pressure playing for Team Canada because it's kind of gold medal or bust," he told NHL.com. "… It was a blast but a little bittersweet because we didn't win the gold and that's kind of what Canadians expect in that tournament now."

 
As disappointing as it might be to come up short on home soil, for those that win, the celebration and experience is that much more memorable.

Avalanche forward Ryan Smyth was part of the 1995 WJC team that took home the gold from Red Deer, Alberta. While Smyth was born in the resort town of Banff, his parents had since moved to Red Deer, and were on hand to see Ryan and teammates take home the title.

"Winning is winning," Smyth told NHL.com, "but being around your peers and your fellow countrymen is extra special."

Now the 2009 Canadian team has a chance to make its own mark in front of the home fans. They'll step into the crucible, with all the good and bad, all the sky-high expectations that go with it.

"To me, when you play for Team Canada, you need to win the gold every single time," Robitaille said. "It's irrelevant where you play. There's only one goal and that's the gold. There's only one medal and that's the gold one. You need to be the champions, irrelevant of where you play. In Canada it's louder and it's more fun, but when you play for Team Canada, you have to win the gold."

Contact Adam Kimelman at akimelman@nhl.com.
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