Blogging away in Saskatchewan

Welcome to the 2010 IIHF World Junior Championship blog. Throughout the tournament, you will be able to read about our impressions from in and around the rinks in Saskatoon and Regina, Canada.

Music for the medals?

January 5 / Lucas Aykroyd

What song will be played while the winning team celebrates its gold medals today? (Besides the national anthem, that is.) It could be a traditional standby like Queen's “We Are the Champions.” But based on what we've heard at the arenas in Regina and Saskatoon so far, it might be some homegrown product.

The tournament game production staff has consistently treated fans to a cornucopia of Canadian hard rock faves, mostly better known on this side of the Atlantic than in Europe. The mix has ranged from Helix's “Rock You” and Tom Cochrane's “Lunatic Fringe” to April Wine's “Oowatanite!” and Trooper's “Raise A Little Hell.” Both of the latter bands also performed live at Worldfest during the tournament.

Even in the media room, located on the bottom level of Credit Union Centre, journalists can hear the warm-up music pumped in directly from overhead speakers, which is a first in my experience. Nothing like running wild (Airbourne) and kickstarting your heart (Motley Crue) while you're looking over the Swiss roster.

So how about that closing song? My vote goes to “On the Road to Rock” by Kick Axe, an 1980's pop-metal quintet from Regina, even though I'm not holding my breath.

Eh! O’ Canada Go!

January 4 / Martin Merk

How to cheer for Canada? That’s what Hockey Canada and one of their sponsors have tried to teach the fans in Saskatoon. Because apparently “Go, Canada, Go!” and “Let’s go, Canada, let’s go!” weren't quite cutting it, a famous U.S.-based soft drink producer sponsored a "find a new cheer" competition around Canada.

The contest wasn't just to find a national cheer that could be used for the World Juniors, but also for the Vancouver Olympics. A challenging and ambitious mandate, indeed. It's hard to think of a prior precedent.

The winning slogan was “Eh! O’ Canada Go!”. A teacher from Ontario, helped by her students and colleagues, invented the slogan, which is omnipresent at the World Juniors. It's advertised on the boards, on the Jumbotron, on banners all around the arena, on towels given to fans and during live broadcasts on TSN.

Of course, the chant hasn't completely replaced the traditional Canadian chants mentioned above and was seldom heard during Canada’s semi-final game. Much like Finnish fans naturally chant “Suomi!”, Swiss fans “Hopp Schwiiz!”, French fans  “Allez les Bleus!”, and Russian fans “Rossiya!”

We'll have to wait and see which chants ring loudest through Credit Union Centre during the Canada-US gold medal game on Tuesday.

The Moose is loose

January 3 / Lucas Aykroyd

Legendary six-time Stanley Cup champion Mark Messier was caught on the Jumbotron at Credit Union Centre during yesterday's Russia-Switzerland quarterfinal, and got a rousing cheer from the Saskatoon fans.

As the GM of Canada's 2010 IIHF World Championship team, Messier has plenty of questions to ponder with just over four months to go until the tournament takes place in Germany (Cologne and Mannheim). Here are five examples.

1. Who should coach? An old Oilers friend like Wayne Gretzky (ex-Phoenix Coyotes) or Craig MacTavish (fresh off the Spengler Cup)? Mike Keenan, currently working in TV, but a Messier fave from the '87 Canada Cup and '94 Stanley Cup victory with the New York Rangers? Or perhaps Andy Murray, fired yesterday by St. Louis and the architect of three World Championship gold medals for Canada (1997, 2003, 2007)?

2. How soon is too soon to start phoning members of certain NHL teams based, say, in North Carolina and northern Alberta?

3. What kind of advice can Lanny McDonald and Ken Holland provide? Those two respected NHL figures served as Canada's Worlds GMs in the last two Olympic years (McDonald in 2002, Holland in 2006). McDonald had a tough time rustling up talent, as more than 60 Canadians turned down his invitation to go to Sweden, and the team lost to Slovakia in the quarterfinals. Holland fared a little better, recruiting such future 2010 Olympians as Sidney Crosby, Mike Richards, and Patrice Bergeron, plus veteran leader Brendan Shanahan. Canada finished fourth in Latvia in 2006.

4. What's the best way to exploit the Messier-Mannheim connection? Mark's older brother Paul played six seasons in Germany in the 1980's with Mannheim ERC, and can undoubtedly offer some insider tips for Team Canada, which will be based in that city.

5. Will Lay's potato chips be served at each Team Canada pre-game meal?

You know you're in a hockey town when...

January 2 / Lucas Aykroyd

The colourful mayor of Saskatoon is a former hockey player himself.

Don Atchison played 35 games in goal for the Saskatoon Blades in 1971-72, recording a 3.55 GAA.

Drafted 149th overall by Pittsburgh in 1972, he also went on to a career in pro hockey, albeit not at the NHL level. In 1974-75, he appeared between the pipes for the Johnstown Jets of the ECHL, which provided the inspiration for the 1977 Paul Newman comedy Slap Shot. Teammate Ned Dowd's sister Nancy penned the raunchy screenplay.

In the late 1980's and early 1990's, Atchison returned to the Blades organization and served as the goalie coach. Watch for the 66-year-old mayor in the Credit Union Centre crowd, cheering on Canada at the remaining games of the 2010 World Juniors.

New Swedish media trends

January 2 / Martin Merk

They brought us ABBA, ready-to-assemble furniture and some decent hockey players. And now, Swedish hockey journalists are bringing the newest interview strategy innovations to Canada at the 2010 World U20 Championship.

Apparently, gone are the days when you would simply stand in the interview zone with pens and pieces of paper. Or even with voice recorders, or their mobile-phone-camera-music-player-recorder-all-in-one brothers.

Why should you do it the old-fashioned way when you can just bring your laptop with you and type in what the players say? It seems the Swedish juniors have gotten used to the newest innovation from Tre-Kronor-Land’s journalists, and it looks like the latter enjoy the idea of having their quotes ready to publish as soon as the interviews are done.

Hopefully the Swedish journalists haven't forgotten how to get quotes in the good old way, as it'll get a little more crowded during post-game interviews at the semi-final and medal games in Saskatoon compared to the Preliminary Round in Regina.

It's a small world

December 31 / Martin Merk

The 2010 World Juniors have many unexpected connections, even to international women’s hockey.

Chelsa Heywood, a volunteer working in media relations at Regina’s Brandt Centre, was excited to talk to Czech journalists. Prague is one of her favourite cities – for good reason. In Saskatchewan, she used to star for the University of Regina Cougars, but is currently just playing recreational hockey. However, she played a professional season on the Slavia Prague women’s team in 2008-2009, along with her friend from Regina, Arielle Schade. They also competed in the IIHF’s European Women’s Champions Cup, a competition for European club teams that won their respective national leagues.

Although playing professional women’s hockey in Europe isn't the road to riches, it was a chance for both women to see a new country, experience a different culture, and play in a different hockey league.

Earlier this year, the two got the chance to go back to Prague when they emailed the Turkish Ice Hockey Association, asking if they needed reinforcements for the European Women’s Champions Cup. That wound up getting them an invitation to join the Milenyum Ankara team for the tournament in the Czech Republic, including an honorarium and airfare.

That was reason enough for both to join the club,which also featured two Americans. It was an interesting experience for Heywood and Schade, since the Turkish players, all coming from an ice-skating background, were eager to learn from their North American teammates.

Although Milenyum Ankara's best result in three games was a loss by a seven-goal margin, the Saskatchewaners enjoyed their trip, which they extended for a few days to catch up with some good old friends in Prague.

Creative, in every way

December 31 / Matthew Manor

In Regina, everyone involved with the event has been finding ways to add his or her own personal touch and contribute to making this an event to remember.

Some volunteers responsible for certain team services have even staged a contest amongst themselves: the goal is to see who can stack their practice pucks in the most unique, creative fashion for their team before each pre-game skate. Apparently, it's gotten to the point where some participants have been taking pucks home to practice and plan new strategies

No one's exactly sure who has claimed or will claim victory, but it's been interesting, to say the least.

Oowatanite!

December 30 / Lucas Aykroyd

Even if it's December, there's nothing like a taste of April Wine.

When your IIHF correspondents in Regina found out the classic Canadian rockers were playing WorldFest after last night's Sweden-Russia tilt, we weren't going to miss out.

Surrounded by enthusiastically boogeying fans in the cavernous hall, we swigged from our World Junior-branded cans of Molson Canadian as the quartet raucously cranked out 70's and 80's hits like "Sign of the Gypsy Queen," "Roller," and "I Like to Rock."

An ardent April Wine groupie even tossed a sizeable bra on stage, and narrowly avoided getting a two-minute minor for delay of game.

We speculated on which player would fit best into the Team Canada jersey draped behind the stage. Canada usually ices a big team, but not quite that big.

On a serious note, singer Myles Goodwin appealed to the audience to support the Juvenile Diabetes Foundation of Canada. The 61-year-old's son was diagnosed with diabetes in 2005.

When we headed out, the band was performing a cover version of “Satisfaction” by the Rolling Stones. We can't speak for anyone else, but we were satisfied.

This party's for everybody

December 29 / Martin Merk

It's not just the hockey stars of the future who are entertaining the fans in Saskatoon and Regina. The motto is, “Come for the hockey, stay for the party!”  There is no admission fee for day ticket holders at the WorldFest, this year's incarnation of the fan festival.

The WorldFest is located right next to both tournament venues. In Saskatoon, it's at the Saskatoon Training Centre, and in Regina, it's in the Agribition Building, which is connected with the arena. So fear of the cold is no excuse to stay away.

Games from both venues are broadcast live on big screens. There are plenty of drinks, and food ranges from popcorn to pizza. Live bands and quiz shows are there for the fans’ entertainment. An IIHF writer who shall remain anonymous correctly answered the question, “Who played the most consecutive NHL games, and how many?” For his feat, he won a souvenir pin. Since then, the IIHF has sworn to keep its writers away from the quiz shows so that everyone has a chance to win some souvenirs. So join the party and test your hockey knowledge!

While Saskatoon prides itself on displaying one of the largest private collections of hockey memorabilia found anywhere at the WorldFest, Regina also has a second hall for the Family Hockey Fest.

The first part showcases artifacts from the Hockey Hall of Fame, including the World Junior trophy the teams are fighting for. For two days earlier in the tournament, fans were lining up to get their photo taken with the Stanley Cup.

The second half of the area is a pure hockey playground, featuring all kinds of hockey games for kids and the young at heart to test their skills.

P.S. It was Doug Jarvis who played 964 consecutive NHL games between 1975 and 1987.

The Difficult Name All-Stars

December 29 / Lucas Aykroyd

The World Junior tournament all-star team won't be decided until January 5. But that doesn't prevent me from picking the Difficult Name All-Stars right now.

In other words, who are the players at this tournament whose names are most likely to be mangled (in spelling, pronunciation, or both)? A Russian or Swiss journalist would probably pick a different roster, but hey, you're reading this in English.

(And if you think I'm picking on these poor kids, please send your complaints to the IIHF care of Lukas Akroyd, Luca Ayckroyd, or Lucas Akyroid.)

Here are your 2010 Difficult Name All-Stars.

Goal: Matthias Mischler (SUI)

Defence: Andreas Untergaschnigg (AUT)
Defence: Gvido Kauss (LAT)

Forward: Matias Myttynen (FIN)
Forward: Samuel Mlynarovic (SVK)
Forward: Petr Khokhriakov (RUS)

It's an impressive multinational roster, to be sure, laden with potential.

But at the senior level, will they be able to compete with the likes of Tomasz Wawrzkiewicz (POL), Vadim Krasnoslobodtsev (KAZ), and Stepan Goryachevskikh (BLR)?

The cast of thousands

December 29 / Jenny Wiedeke

In the tradition of ‘it takes a village to raise a child’, we can say here in Saskatoon that it takes a city to put on World Juniors.

The outpouring of support from the community is truly overwhelming. Literally thousands of volunteers have given up their Christmas holidays to be a part of the tournament. We’re not talking glitter jobs either. Positions range from standing outside in sub-freezing weather for traffic duty to working security detail around the CUC corridors. It’s easy to spot the good-hearted folks, as they are always wearing their puffy green vests with pride.

On top of everything, the volunteers actually shelled out 50 dollars of their own money to be a volunteer. On behalf of those that are enjoying the World Junior Championship in Saskatoon and Regina – we thank all the volunteers.

Vancouver forever

December 28 / Lucas Aykroyd

The Olympics are just 46 days away, and everybody's thinking about Vancouver. A different kind of reminder of the 2010 host city popped up today at Regina's Brandt Centre.

Spotted chowing down on pizza at the same VIP Lounge table were three members of the Vancouver Canucks scouting staff: Thomas Gradin, Harold Snepsts, and Ron Delorme.

All three played big roles during Vancouver's 1982 march to the Stanley Cup finals. That was the year “Towel Power” hit the NHL, with Canucks fans wildly waving towels in mock surrender: the gesture was invented by coach Roger Neilson, who did it to signal his displeasure with calls by referee Bob Myers during the semi-finals versus Chicago. The Canucks ultimately lost in four straight to the New York Islanders, but the playoff run remains one of Vancouver's most cherished sporting memories.

Gradin finished fourth in '82 playoff scoring behind Bryan Trottier, Mike Bossy, and Denis Potvin. He also represented Sweden in two World Juniors, but both (1974, 1976) occurred before the IIHF officially sanctioned the tournament in 1977.

We always get our man

December 28 / Lucas Aykroyd

With the morning off in Regina, your IIHF correspondents wound up in the hands of the police. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), that is. Better known as the Mounties. Who actually don't wear those red jackets and big hats at all times.

Just for the record, no crimes were committed. We checked out the RCMP Heritage Centre (5907 Dewdney Ave.). This is a key attraction in the Saskatchewan capital, where future members of the force are trained. It opened in 2007.

We checked out modes of transportation the RCMP has used, from horses to snowmobiles, and learned through hands-on exhibits about the force's forensic work, involvement with Canadian native peoples and policing of the 19th-century Klondike Gold Rush.

The spectacular 6,500-square-metre (70,000-square-foot) building, made of concrete, glass, and Tyndall stone, even contained a few sporting touches.

According to a multimedia presentation in the SGC Canada Theatre, part of the RCMP's community policing strategy is to get kids involved in playing hockey. (Instead of robbing banks, becoming drug dealers, or other such nefarious activities.)

Vancouver 2010 Olympic T-shirts sat next to teddy bears in Mountie outfits and boxes of maple cream cookies in the gift shop.

It was a very Canadian morning.

Helmet head

December 28 / Matthew Manor

We've all seen TV footage from Europe during the World Juniors where photographers hang over the glass in the end zone, hoping to capture the decisive moment in the game.

What usually catches the attention of people is that typically the photographers have helmets on. A strange sight, no doubt. But it's quite common during these events. It's actually part of the safety protocol for areas of the rink where the photographers aren't behind protective glass.

That said, quite often, both here in Canada and abroad, many photographers enjoy the opportunity and access that the “suicide box” (an exposed location between the player benches) presents for creating pictures.

As a photographer at IIHF events, I particularly enjoy this position because you can get close to the game and capture unique moments from a perspective most people just don’t see. But it is called the “suicide box” for a reason. Although there is glass on three of the four sides, it's open to the ice surface, which poses a safety risk.

There's been a lot of talk about head injuries in hockey recently, and nobody wants to see photographers getting concussions. Fortunately, certain precautions can be taken to limit those risks. One of those is donning a hockey helmet for protection.

Other than the fact that it looks a little odd, it really doesn’t interfere much with shooting pictures. And it does offer my melon some protection against a rogue puck, stick or ther fast moving object that could exit the playing surface without warning and impair my ability to see, talk, walk, and chew food. Or simply live for that matter.

So, after a little debate with myself, I got myself a shiny new black helmet. Now I'm ready to get in on the action and shoot at close range – safely.

I'm sure my brain thanks me.

Green with envy

December 28 / Jenny Wiedeke

When walking around the arena in Saskatoon you can’t help but think that you’ve entered some kind of bizarre forest as you find yourself surrounded by the colour green. The volunteers wear green vests, the merchandise is in green and there is even a special edition Hockey Canada jersey that is, what else, but green.

So what gives?

After talking to several green experts it was explained that green is the official colour of the province of Saskatchewan and this is the way to pay tribute to the host. But it turns out that there is a deeper reason for all the green.

People in this region love their Canadian football – a lot. The heart of their sports world is the Saskatchewan Roughriders. The Roughriders wear, you guessed it, green jerseys. Just how big are these Roughriders? According to one source, the three biggest selling sports jerseys in all of Canada are: 1) Toronto Maple Leafs, 2) Montreal Canadiens and 3) Saskatchewan Roughriders.

What better way to merge the two biggest passions in the province than to make a green Hockey Canada jersey? Today Team Canada will wear the Green jerseys in its game against Switzerland. Around the arena the jerseys are hard to come by – the first shipment sold out before the championship began and thousands more are being produced to sate the fans’ hunger for green. Kermit would be proud.

The aliens are coming!

December 27 / Lucas Aykroyd

Hockey fans in Canada suspected something was up when two mysterious faceless creatures, clad entirely in green, appeared next to the Nashville Predators penalty box during a 4-1 Vancouver Canucks win on December 22 at GM Place (to be known as Canada Hockey Place for the Olympics).

Now we know it was only the beginning.

At the Austria-Sweden game, three more mysterious creatures, this time sporting blue skin from head to toe with yellow toques, gloves and shorts, were spotted on the concourse at the Brandt Centre. Rumor has it they came from another planet (perhaps Hoth, the ice planet in The Empire Strikes Back, given the chilly local temperatures) to cheer on the Swedes.

Yes, the aliens are coming! The aliens are coming!

Forget about making a sequel to Avatar; surely this will provide the inspiration for Canadian-born director James Cameron's next epic film. (Apologies to Orson Welles and Tom Cruise.)

50-50 Mania in Saskatoon

December 27 / Jenny Wiedeke

There's a great tradition around most Canadian rinks that has yet to hit Europe – the 50-50 Jackpot. It's a happy marriage between charity and bingo-esque gambling.

The premise: When fans enter the arena they can buy a 50-50 ticket (in Saskatoon, one ticket costs five dollars.) As fans buy tickets, the jackpot grows throughout the game until sales are stopped late in the third period and the winning ticket number is announced. The lucky winner gets half of the jackpot, while the other half of the money normally goes to junior hockey or another community charity.

It's a win-win for everybody, especially so here in Saskatoon. Normally, 50-50 jackpots have modest sums, but with World Junior Hockey fever, the 50-50 numbers are enormous. During yesterday's Canada game, the total jackpot was nearly 70,000 dollars – meaning one lucky fan had a very Happy Boxing Day walking away with 35,000 dollars.

What to do after a 10-1 loss?

December 26 / Martin Merk

The Czech press and fans at the Brandt Centre in Regina were anything but satisfied after Day One. Their team did not only fall to Sweden, it lost by the disappointing score of 10-1

What can coach Jaromir Sindel do to bring his team back to the right path before a crucial game versus Finland?

Will he punish the team with long video analyses of the Tre Kronor thrashing? Will he bawl his players out so loudly that everybody at the hotel where they're staying will know his game strategy?

We know one thing for sure: with a roster three players short, Sindel can also look to improve things by adding fresh players. The reason he didn’t fill the roster on Saturday was that some players were sick or had day-to-day injuries.

However, his answer to the obligatory question about which players are injured leaves some room for speculation.

“I don’t know yet which players are injured,” he told IIHF.com with a grin.

Let’s hope there won’t be too many injured players versus Finland.

Nineteen years later

December 26 / Lucas Aykroyd

In 1937, Canadian humourist Stephen Leacock wrote: “The Lord said, 'Let there be wheat,' and Saskatchewan was born.” In 1991, Canada's love affair with the IIHF World Junior Championship began to flourish when the Prairie province staged the U20 holiday classic for the first time ever. And  as we get underway with the 2010 edition, well, this tournament is all grown up.

1991 was the first year that TSN televised the World Juniors Canada-wide, and John Slaney's slapshot winner against the Soviets is still revered as a great hockey moment.

Nineteen years later, the network's World Junior ratings have grown exponentially. Last year in Ottawa, the final between Canada and Sweden attracted a record 3.7 million viewers, pitting John Tavares versus Victor Hedman in a battle of prospective #1 overall NHL picks. By comparison, CBC got an audience of 3.5 million for Game Seven of the Stanley Cup finals between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Detroit Red Wings, featuring a host of established superstars like Evgeni Malkin, Sidney Crosby, and Nicklas Lidström.

The passion that Canada shows for this tournament is unbelievable. And with all due respect to recent Canadian host cities such as Vancouver, Kamloops and Kelowna (2006) and Ottawa (2009), there's no reason to believe that Saskatoon and Regina won't take the excitement to yet another level.

Seeing the endless snow-covered fields in the flat Canadian heartland reveals why Saskatchewaners flock to hockey arenas at this time of year. Who wouldn't want to be inside cheering when temperatures dip below -20 Celsius? The lifeblood, the social epicentre, the main event – call it what you will, hockey is everything to the friendly, folksy residents. There's certainly no more desirable way to spend the holiday season than watching the world's top juniors going at it full-tilt.

Both host cities proudly support junior teams in the Western Hockey League (WHL): the Saskatoon Blades and the Regina Pats. While Saskatoon is vying for top spot in the league this year, it's never won a Memorial Cup, its best outing coming as the 1989 runner-up. Regina's last national junior title came in 1974. So fans are hungry for another golden run like '91.

With Saskatchewan-born talents like Jordan Eberle (Regina Pats), Jared Cowen (Spokane Chiefs), and Brayden Schenn (Brandon Wheat Kings) in the lineup, plus a head coach in Willie Desjardins who hails from tiny Climax, Saskatchewan, Canada has legitimately high hopes of making this a homegrown success story.

Locally, a Canadian victory would also do much to allay the lingering disappointment over the last-minute defeat of the Saskatchewan Roughriders in November's Grey Cup, the championship game of the Canadian Football League (CFL). Winning would taste as sweet as the massive gingerbread house village in the lobby of Regina's Radisson Plaza Hotel Saskatchewan.

Yet of course, as Canada's narrow margins of victory in key elimination-round games in recent years have shown, this tournament isn't merely a coronation for the favourites. Much like the journey that has seen the IIHF World Junior Championship mature into a premier annual sports event, the journey toward gold for the 10 competing teams will have its ups and downs. Nineteen years later, that's one thing that hasn't changed.

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