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World Junior fever leaves Canadians delirious

by Adam Kimelman
Trying to explain the World Junior Championship to most people in America is like trying to explain the tax code to a teenager. A few bright souls might get it; the rest respond with blank stares.

As Art Berglund of USA Hockey told me, "In Canada, junior hockey means one step from the pros. Down here, junior hockey means junior high."

The World Juniors has become in Canada what March Madness is in the United States.

Studies have shown that work productivity plummets during the opening Thursday and Friday of the NCAA men's basketball tournament. It's the same in Canada during the World Juniors. One fan proudly held up a sign Monday night that said "I skipped school to be here tonight." When the sign went up on the Jumbotron scoreboard, the response was a standing ovation.

Truancy never seemed so much fun.

The game was also a hit with Canadian TV viewers.

TSN's telecast made ratings history for the network as its most-watched broadcast of all time. The game attracted 3.7 million viewers, surpassing the previous high of 3.5 million who watched the gold-medal game at the 2003 World Junior Championships in Halifax.

It was the most-watched program ever on a Canadian specialty channel and the most-watched program across all Canadian television this broadcast season.

Audience levels peaked at 4.7 million viewers at 9:58 p.m. ET as the Canadian players celebrated their fifth consecutive victory in the tournament.

RDS also had a record audience for the gold-medal game with 602,000 viewers, boosting the total of TSN and RDS viewership to a record 4.3 million.

The WJC annually starts the day after Christmas and runs through the first week of January. While it doesn't generate the avalanche of office pools or gambling that goes along with the college basketball tournament in the United States, there is far more passion and national pride in the WJC in Canada.

Want to see how far some fans take the World Juniors? Here's a little vignette from Monday's gold-medal game.

Just before the game, a 20ish male stood outside a Scoltiabank Place room reserved for NHL executives for close to 45 minutes while a friend painted a red-and-white maple leaf on his bare chest, and EBERLE 14 on his back in honor of Team Canada's Jordan Eberle. The NHL executives all chuckled as they passed the young man on their way out to watch the game.

Doug Wilson, the Sharks GM, said he was considering asking someone to paint a maple leaf right on his forehead.

Almost to a man, everyone associated with Team Canada talked about how much of an advantage the home crowd gave them during their run to a fifth straight gold medal, which climaxed with Monday's 5-1 victory against Sweden.

"Going up 3-0 and then Sweden scored, everyone was a little down on the bench, but the crowd pumped us up," Canada forward Patrice Cormier said after the gold-medal game. "I knew they weren't going to let us go. We were down 3-0 to the U.S. and they were still cheering.

"The last minute we were on the bench (Monday), with about 39 seconds left, I realized how noisy everyone was. Everyone was so happy. You can't really explain it, but it was a good (feeling)."

Team Canada repaid those fans with a monumental, memorable tournament.

The 2009 World Juniors didn't start off well, though. Eleven of the first 18 games featured teams winning by five or more goals, including Canada and the U.S. handing out 15-0 and 12-0 beatings, respectively, to Kazakhstan. As a point of comparison, there were only 11 games in the previous three tournaments -- 93 games -- that had a five-goal spread.

But starting on New Year's Eve, fans at Scotiabank Place got hockey they'll never forget. It all started with a simple play, really.

The Americans were up 3-0 just 12:35 into the first period of the final preliminary-round game against Canada. Then, right after U.S. forward Matt Rust jumped out of the penalty box, defenseman Blake Kessel replaced him after he flipped the puck over the glass, drawing a delay-of-game penalty.

Just like that, it became the John Tavares show, as the tournament MVP scored twice in a 48-second span and ended the night with a hat trick as Canada revived its fading hopes with a 7-4 victory.

Two nights later came the miracle Slovaks.

While the U.S.-Canada game drew all the attention on New Year's Eve, Slovakia had saved its tournament by tying their game with Finland midway through the third period and then winning in a shootout to advance to the quarterfinals. Two days later, the Slovaks were supposed to be a speed bump on the U.S. path to the medal round.

Funny how things work out.

An unknown, mullet-sporting goalie named Jaroslav Janus stole the World Junior spotlight and single-handedly stole the game for his team. Janus was the Roman god of doors, and on this night, this god was not on the American side as Slovakia won 5-3.

Next up was a Super Saturday possibly unmatched in international hockey history.

Janus nearly pulled another miracle out of his blocker against Sweden, helping his team take a 2-1 lead into the third period of their semifinal, but three goals in a 4:38 span midway through the third propelled Sweden into its second straight gold-medal game.

A main event, unrivaled in drama, followed. The Canada-Russia hockey rivalry goes back two generations, and Saturday night's semifinal stands alongside any other game in its storied history.

This night was more than  60 minutes of punch-counterpunch. Every time Canada scored, Russia answered with a goal of its own.

It seemed like the knockout punch was thrown when Dmitri Klopov scored his second of the game from in close with 2:20 left to play. The Drive for Five had fallen through the ice in the Rideau Canal.

But whether it was divine intervention, dumb luck or a simple bounce of the puck, Canada was rescued.

Klopov, seeing a hat trick in the empty Canada net as time ticked down, shot the puck the length of the ice, inches wide of the blue paint. The officials called icing and brought the puck back into the Russian end.

Then Canada's youngest and smallest player, defenseman Ryan Ellis, held a puck in at the blue line. Tavares then blindly flipped a backhand into the stomach of defenseman Dmitri Kulikov. Eberle, the smallest forward, pulled out the loose puck and scored the biggest goal of his life with 5.4 seconds left to force overtime.

The Canada players screamed and cheered, and then made the ice look like a sporting-goods store hit by a tornado after Dustin Tokarski made a pair of saves to clinch the shootout win for Canada. Meanwhile, an entire hockey-loving nation exhaled.

The Russian players sat slumped on the ice, looking like the May Day tank procession had rolled right over their feet.

Russia captain Nikita Filatov said afterward, "God was on Canada's side tonight."

The wait then lasted two days -- until Canada finally, triumphantly, took home the gold medal. And if the storybook ending couldn't get any better, it was Angelo Esposito -- cut three times from national junior evaluation camps, on the fringe of being cut an unprecedented fourth time -- who scored the game-winning goal.

It wasn't just the players in the red-and-white sweaters, or the fans in Ottawa who cheered. It was an entire nation.

The same 20,000-plus fans who passed an 1,800-square foot Canadian flag around Scotiabank Place -- everyone from the suits in the suites to the shot-and-a-beer fans grabbed some flag -- stood and scream-sang O' Canada after the home team won.

The U.S. might have March Madness.

In Canada they can call it January Jubilation. Or , more simply, the World Junior Championship.

Contact Adam Kimelman at
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