Blogging away in Alberta

Welcome to the 2012 IIHF World Junior Championship blog. Throughout the tournament, you will be able to read about our impressions from in and around the rinks in Calgary and Edmonton, Canada.

From Riga to Nashville to team host in Calgary

January 5 / Calgary / Martin Merk

A huge number of volunteers have helped to make sure that the biggest IIHF World Junior Championship would run smoothly in Calgary and Edmonton.

While most of them came from Alberta, the organizers went the extra mile to guarantee the Latvian team host would be able to communicate in the Latvian language. They went as far as...Nashville, Tennessee.

Karlis Zirnis is the volunteer who came from furthest away. And he’s even familiar with the IIHF’s World Junior competitions, as he once wore a Latvian jersey as a player himself.

“I played twice with the U20 national team in the B-Pool – it was in Ukraine and Poland, and U18 in Ukraine,” Zirnis recalled. “These were great experiences and great competitions. You can’t get any of these experiences anywhere else in the world.”

Zirnis was a teenager when Latvia regained its independence.

“I grew up under the Soviet regime and the Soviet style of hockey. It was more kind of military-run,” Zirnis said. “When the country became independent, I had the opportunity to leave the country, to come to the States and play there.”

Despite the language barrier, he went over to the United States to play junior hockey before moving into college hockey at the University of Alabama-Huntsville, where he also met his future wife.

After graduating, Zirnis enjoyed a high-scoring career in the minor leagues of the southern United states, including the CHL (Central Hockey League) and SPHL (Southern Professional Hockey League). There, he notched up to 66 points a season before ending his career in 2009.

Now Zirnis wants to support junior hockey players in Tennessee – and in Calgary, ones from his native Latvia.

“I’m coaching 15-, 16-year-olds in southern Nashville to prepare them for junior and college level,” Zirnis said.

When the 2012 IIHF World Junior Championship organizers were looking for volunteers, he was contacted through friends. He also got in touch with the Latvian Hockey Federation, and ended up as a team host for three weeks in Alberta.

“I’ve been doing lots of different things, from cutting videos to helping the team in any way I can,” Zirnis said.

“There were funny moments. I had great laughs with the staff and boys. Now I just hope it will end well for the team,” he said after the first period of the crucial Latvia-Denmark game that would determine who stayed in the  top division and who went back to Division I.

It was a happy ending for Zirnis and the Latvians juniors, who scored a 2-1 overtime win over the Danes, and will go to Ufa next winter.

Doughnuts on gold medal day

January 5 / Calgary / Lucas Aykroyd

Really, is there any better way to prepare for a major international hockey game than by eating doughnuts?

Prior to today’s Russia-Sweden final, I acquired a batch of World Junior-themed doughnuts from Jelly Modern Doughnuts, a gourmet bakery located a few blocks from my downtown hotel.

That’s right – in Canada, even the local, organic, handcrafted pastries reflect hockey on special occasions.

Since neither Don Koharski nor Jim Schoenfeld was around to help me out, I just started eating when I got back to my room.

Like a doughnut-loving fool, showing poor discipline in a key situation, I devoured both doughnuts emblazoned with a hockey puck and stick before I realized this would make a fine blog entry. (According to the accompanying literature, apparently the puck-and-stick version was a "Bismark style three bite yeast doughnut hand filled with maple pastry creme and finished with madagascar bourbon vanilla glaze tinted red." Yum.)

At least I left one with a red Maple Leaf, showing respect for the host country.

There may or may not have been players in World Junior history who enjoyed doughnuts a tad too much. But you can do your own Googling to figure that one out, just like with Don and Jim.

Here at IIHF.com, we’re trying to stay focused on the task at hand. Granted, we can’t personally win gold medals, but there are still some medal-worthy doughnuts left to finish off with my colleagues, from classic jelly to hand-filled coconut.

A local hero plays for gold

January 4 / Calgary / Martin Merk

Most hockey fans in Calgary might be sad about the fact that Canada just plays for bronze, but many of them have a local hero to cheer on.

Swedish forward Victor Rask will play for the first Swedish U20 gold medal since 1981 tomorrow against reigning champion Russia. It will be a re-match of the New Year’s Eve game the Swedes won 4-3 in overtime.

Born in 1993, Rask may not get that much ice time and registered just one assist in five games, but he certainly enjoys the experience and might be back stronger next year in Ufa.

“It was a huge win for us,” Rask told IIHF.com after the shootout win against Finland in the semi-finals. “We had patience the whole time. In our last preliminary-round game against Russia we also came back late, so we know what we can do in the third period.”

Rask even draws parallels to Russia’s team last year that had comeback wins in all three stages of the final round, including the unforgettable gold medal game against Canada one year ago in Buffalo.

“Maybe we can do the same thing,” he said with a smile.

Rask spent his whole career in his hometown of Leksand until 2011, an idyllic hockey town almost in the middle of the country at Lake Siljan, famous for the wooden Dalarna horses and one of the oldest knäckebröd (crispy Swedish bread) factories of the country. New Jersey Devils goalkeeper Johan Hedberg is one of the best-known sons of the town and Oliver Ekman-Larsson played for the club just before joining the Phoenix Coyotes.

Last summer Rask transferred from Sweden, where he spent a season with Leksand’s pro team in the second-tier Allsvenskan, to the WHL’s Calgary Hitmen.

“I’m feeling really good here. It’s a lot bigger here than in my hometown in Sweden,” Rask said. “It’s really cool to play here [with Sweden]. I’m down here all the time during the season.”

In his rookie season the 18-year-old has collected 29 points (16+13) in 34 WHL games.

“I have had a good season so far. I think right now it’s been the right decision to play here.”

But now the full focus is on gold, and defeating Russia again to write history.

“It was definitely our goal to win gold when we came here. Now we have a really good chance to do it,” Rask said. “Our strength is that everybody is really working for everybody. Nobody on the team is selfish. Everybody is working hard.”

We swear we’re keeping it clean

January 2 / Calgary / Lucas Aykroyd

In a distinctive touch throughout the Saddledome, signs are displayed that encourage fans not to use coarse language while attending hockey games.

Similarly, on IIHF.com, we also avoid swearing. As any hockey journalist can attest, it’s sometimes challenging to find a suitable substitution when a player expresses his joy or frustration in colourful terms in a post-game interview. However, that’s what [square brackets] are for.

The signs illustrate interesting cultural differences.

“In Europe we don’t see these signs,” said a Swiss-based journalist. “In Switzerland, people need to be reminded not to smoke inside the arena.”

It may be difficult for fans at the sold-out arena to live up to the spirit of the sign if Canada loses its late semi-final matchup versus the winner of Russia-Czech Republic on Tuesday. However, the odds are quite good that proper linguistic decorum will be preserved in the end, since Canada has advanced to play in the last 10 World Junior finals.

What a way to start the new year

January 1 / Calgary / Lucas Aykroyd

U2 once sang, “All is quiet on New Year’s Day.” But at the Calgary Olympic Plaza, site of the 1988 medal ceremonies, things were hopping on January 1. A celebration of the IIHF World Junior Championship took place from 11 am to 2 pm, attended by hundreds of happy Calgary-area fans.

Jim Peplinski, co-chair of the 2012 tournament, and Bob Nicholson, president of Hockey Canada, were among the dignitaries who made speeches welcoming everyone to the festivities.

With temperatures slightly below freezing, kids happily skated and played hockey on outdoor rinks set up in front of the stage.

Alumni of Canada’s national junior team, dating back to the 1982 establishment of the Program of Excellence, posed for a group photo with Calgary minor hockey players. Names in attendance included Todd Harvey, Mike Moller, Garth Butcher, Frank Caprice, Sheldon Kennedy, Pat Elynuik, Jason Podollan, Rob Brown, and Scott McCrady, among others.

Inside the nearby Calgary Municipal Building, art lovers feasted their eyes on mural-sized hockey paintings created by six artists from the the artsASTRAY collective. Depicting scenes from this year’s World Juniors, the 19 paintings done over 10 days will also be available for viewing at the World Junior Fan Zone at the Big Four Building on the Calgary Stampede grounds next to the Saddledome.

Another unique piece of artwork was the art installation put together by Matthew Bourree with hockey sticks. Viewers were invited to submit their own suggestions for what it should be named, while two-time World Junior participant (1998, 1999) and ex-Calgary Flame Daniel Tkaczuk did an interview in front of it.

Hockey Calgary also had a booth promoting its local minor hockey programs. Overall, the event was a great testament to the love Albertans have for this game.

Mask art in Alberta

January 1 / Calgary / Martin Merk

If you’re into combining hockey and art, goalie masks are a natural fit. While some netminders might have rather unspectacular masks, others like it to keep it stylish in the modern era of the sport. Designing masks has become a business in its own right, with mask artists all around the world of hockey.

At the World Juniors, most goaltenders have special masks featuring the colours of their countries. Sami Aittokallio seems to feel perfectly comfortable with his blue-and-white Finland mask, posting a tournament-best 98.67 save percentage.

Andrei Vasilevski has a Russian flag in the middle of his mask, while Petr Mrazek’s is totally Czech-themed. Jack Campbell’s mask is designed with Stars and Stripes, naturally, and Denmark’s Sebastian Feuk’s mask is painted red and white.

Others don’t change anything, like Slovakia’s Juraj Simboch, who has a white-dressed man on his mask. Switzerland’s Lukas Meili and Latvia’s Kristers Gudlevskis sport their club team logos on their masks.

And then there are the Canadians. Needless to say, it’s unlikely that any of the goalies would go out with a normal mask not featuring the red Maple Leaf while representing their country in front of roughly 17,000 spectators.

The layout of the masks, however, was not chosen by the goalies, but selected through the Bauer Design-A-Mask contest for the ninth consecutive year. Over 1,000 teenagers and kids worked on their entries this year before a jury picked the winners.

Justin Ross of Lucan, Ontario, was the winner in the 13-to-18 category, and sees his design on the mask of Scott Wedgewood.

Mark Visentin is wearing a design by Curtis Abernethy of Cambridge, Ontario, who won in the U12 contest.

Both young men who won the contest won’t just see their designs worn during the 2012 IIHF World Junior Championship, but will also receive their own masks autographed by the Team Canada players.

Bits & stats after U20 prelims

January 28 / Calgary / Szymon Szemberg

The Preliminary Round is over, the Playoffs and the Relegation Round are about to start. Now that all teams have played four games, let’s take a look at some numbers and facts which indicate why some teams are doing better than others.

  • Three players are on top of individual scoring with nine points each; Mark Stone (CAN), 7+2, Nikita Gusev (RUS), 3+6 and Yevgeni Kuznetsov (RUS), 3+6.
     
  • Interesting: Gusev, 19, is undrafted (this will surely change next June when one of 30 NHL teams snaps him up) while Kuznetsov got all his points so far Russia’s 14-0 win against Latvia. He has been held pointless against Slovakia, Switzerland and Sweden. Put it into scouting report: Kuznetsov struggles against teams which start with an "s".
     
  • Stone and Sweden’s Max Friberg have the most goals, seven. Interesting: Friberg has only one assist to go with his seven goals. But that helper led to Joakim Nordström’s OT winner against Russia on New Year’s Eve.
     
  • Highly touted 17-year old Russian Nail Yakupov has still no goals but has chipped in with five assists.
     
  • Sensational Russian 17-year old goalie Andrei Vasilevski has slipped to second place in the save-percentage category, after conceding his four first goals of the event, all in the game against Sweden. But Vasilevski’s percentage is still an excellent 96.80.
     
  • Finn Sami Aittokallio tops all goalies with 98.67 SVS%. Czech Petr Mrazek, who has taken goaltender’s celebrations to a new level, is the only netminder in the tournament who has played every minute (240) of every game for his team. Mrazek is fifth with 91.67 save percentage.
     
  • Russia has still not conceded a power-play goal. The penalty kill is 100% after having killed off all 20 short-handed situations. Canada is almost as good – only one PP-goal against, for a success rate of 95.24 percent.
     
  • Russia has also the best power-play, 45.45 per cent (5-for-11), and Canada is second here as well with 42.86 per cent (6-for-14).
     
  • The Czechs are the most penalized team with 20.25 penalty minutes in average per game. Finland takes the least penalties, 6.00 PIM in average.

Fans used to stampede to the Corral

December 31 / Calgary / Lucas Aykroyd

There’s a charm to old hockey rinks that modern multipurpose entertainment facilities can’t always match, even if the newer ones can hold more spectators.

The 2012 IIHF World Junior Championship is expected to set a new all-time attendance record, and that’s because for the first time, this tournament is using two NHL arenas: Edmonton’s 16,839-capacity Rexall Place and Calgary’s 19,289-capacity Scotiabank Saddledome.

The Saddledome is the NHL’s sixth-largest building, but watching an NHL game prior to that arena’s 1983 opening was a very different experience for fans in Calgary.

From 1980 to 1983, stars like Kent Nilsson and Lanny MacDonald had to strut their stuff in the old Stampede Corral (also known as the Calgary Corral), which opened in 1950 and accommodates just 6,745. That might be a normal capacity for a European pro team, but by NHL standards – even in the 1980s – it was miniscule.

To put it in perspective, the Save-on-Foods Memorial Centre in Victoria, Canada – where the WHL’s Victoria Royals play – can fit in 7,400 for hockey. And even if the NHL decided to expand to 40 teams and relocate a bunch of faltering franchises at the same time, the chances of Victoria getting an NHL club are about as good as the Beatles reuniting in Antarctica.

However, back in the day, the Flames were able to sell some 10,000 full and half-season ticket packages at the Corral, and the team rewarded its fans with moderate success. There was a run to the 1981 Campbell Conference final, where Calgary fell in six games to the Minnesota North Stars. Two years later, the Flames bowed out in five in the opening round to their archrival, the Wayne Gretzky-led Edmonton Oilers.

An entire book could be dedicated to the Corral’s history.

There was the first big hockey championship in 1954, when the Calgary Stampeders (not to be confused with the Canadian Football League franchise) won the Lester Patrick Cup, emblematic of supremacy in the Western Hockey League (an old pro circuit, not to be confused with today’s major junior league). There were more pro and junior teams that graced the building, including the WHA’s Calgary Cowboys (1975-77), the WCHL’s Calgary Centennials (1966-77), the WHL’s Calgary Wranglers (1977-87), and the WHL’s Calgary Hitmen (1995-96), who still play at the Saddledome. And there have been rock concerts (Blue Oyster Cult, Rush, Stone Temple Pilots) and pro wrestlers (Bret “The Hitman” Hart, Jake “The Snake” Roberts, “Lethal” Larry Cameron) aplenty.

This year, the Corral is serving as the media centre for the World Juniors. Come back in July to experience it as part of the Calgary Stampede, the world’s largest annual outdoor rodeo.

50-50 moitié-moitié

December 31 / Edmonton / Andrew Podnieks

I don’t go to casinos. I don’t play online poker. I don’t buy lottery tickets or play Pro Line or gamble in any way. I just don’t. There’s no thrill or excitement in those sorts of money-tossing, time-wasting activities. And yet, during yesterday’s Czech-U.S. game, when a 50-50 seller named Lisa wandered through the press box selling her wares, I bit.

“One for five, three for ten, ten for twenty” was the extent of her pitch. I went three for ten. Much to my disappointment, she merely printed off a receipt-like piece of paper for me. I had been expecting those little tickets you get from those incredibly annoying places that make you lineup to buy the voucher and then line up again to use the voucher for food and drink. “It’s all automated,” Lisa explained, “so they can keep a running count.”

Actually, I think the main reason I bought a ticket was because I laughed every time the French p.a. voice referred to the 50-50 as “moitié-moitié.” His tinny accent and the use of the word moitié just always made me laugh. The word means half, but to me it’s an awkward translation for something as mathematical as splitting a pot 50-50. Why not use the obvious “cinquante-cinquante”?

Indeed, the scoreboard periodically flashes an update of how much the 50-50 pot is, and it gets bigger before our eyes as sales are recorded. During the U20, the prize money has been ridiculously high, often over $80,000 (or so it seems, to me. I have no idea what a standard pot is, really).

Much to my incredible annoyance, a few days ago one of the winners was Mike Futa. Know that name? Geez, I met him a thousand years ago when he was with the St. Mike’s Buzzers. I talked to him at St. Mike’s Arena, corner of St. Clair and Bathurst in Toronto. We’re like 50-50 bros, I thought. He’ll win, then me (whatever). By the by, he has been a scout for the L.A. Kings for the last few years.

Tickets are sold until early in the third period, and then a random – I hope it’s random – draw takes place in some mysterious locale deep in the underbelly of Rexall Place late in the third. As it turns out, the pot for my game was $63,000, and because I am writing this and still in Edmonton, you know I didn’t win.

Now I’m thinking of buying again for the Canada-U.S. exhibition game tonight, which I hope doesn’t get too chippy. They’re expecting the pot to go over 100K, which would shatter the record. But I just tossed a sawbuck out the window for an ugly piece of receipt paper. Naw. Sorry, Lisa, I think I’m a one-time customer.

Sulin presents men’s Worlds

December 30 / Edmonton / Martin Merk

Prior to the Finland-Denmark game Mika Sulin, the General Secretary of the Organizing Committee for the 2012 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship, addressed the media at Rexall Place in Edmonton.

He was certainly at the right spot for speaking to journalists knowledgeable about international hockey from Canada, the U.S. and some European countries.

The 2012 edition in four months will be the first time that two countries will join forces. Originally Finland was supposed to host it alone and Sweden the year after before the national ice hockey associations came together to ask the IIHF Congress for co-hosting the Worlds in Helsinki and Stockholm in two consecutive years.

“Two rivals in hockey organize for the first time in history the IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship together,” Sulin said. “It will be played in to great capital cities in Helsinki and Stockholm. It’s only a 55-minute flight between the two cities, or an overnight ferry journey.”

He also draws parallels with the ongoing World Juniors, where two rival cities in Alberta have put up a great event so far.

“We have two great and full arenas here in Edmonton and Calgary, and we try to do the same in Helsinki and Stockholm,” Sulin said.

The Finns and Swedes hope to break the attendance record of 552,097 set 2004 in the Czech Republic. The target is 650,000 fans who will visit the games in Helsinki and Stockholm in 2012, and again in 2013.

For 2013 there’s even hope that the new national football stadium beside the Globen Arena will be open. The venue with a retractable roof is currently under construction and could possibly host games with a capacity for 40,000 spectators.

“It’s the biggest annual winter sport event before Sochi 2014,” Sulin said before presenting the new format with two teams of eight teams each that play a preliminary round and quarter-finals in Helsinki and Stockholm, before the semis and medal games will take place in Helsinki for 2012 (and Stockholm in 2013).

“The new format helps us that two teams can play in their home countries. And all fans know where their seven preliminary-round games will be played,” Sulin said. “Our ticket sales are very fan-friendly. We will also have follow-your-team packages for visiting fans.”

Currently, tickets are sold in packages that include tickets for two to four games. Those for the final weekend are almost sold out already. Single-game tickets will be released at the latest four weeks before the start of the event.

The crew from Europe also had some souvenirs with them for the media crowd.

“As Santa Claus comes from Lapland, Finland, we brought some presents,” he said. It was some HockeyBird memorabilia. The mascot was developed by the Finnish makers of the successful mobile-phone game Angry Birds. And it will likely be a top seller in the fan shops in Helsinki, Stockholm and on the internet.

Follow the press conference in the video below. For more information on the event, visit www.iihfworlds2012.com.


 

Add Pepper for Successful World Juniors Recipe

December 30/ Calgary / Szymon Szemberg

As his grand-grandfather immigrated to Canada from the Polish Kaszuby region in the mid-1800s, the co-chair of the 2012 World Juniors and Your Designated Blogger share the same roots. We also share another bond. We were both in the exact same place inside the Montreal Forum on May 25, 1989.

But while the Calgary Flames co-captain Jim Peplinski (the other was Lanny MacDonald) was posing for photos with the Stanley Cup and drinking champagne amidst the craziness that was the Flames’ dressing room after the game-six victory against the home Montreal Canadiens, Your Designated Blogger had to do a reporting job, while somewhat irked.

After all, had the Canadiens won, they would today have 25 Stanley Cups, not only 24. Furthermore, in the 72 years that the Montreal Forum existed, only one team other than the Canadiens won the Cup on the revered arena’s ice – Peplinski’s Flames.

More than 22 years after that day, Your Designated Blogger was introduced to Jim Peplinski prior to the start of our common project, the 2012 IIHF World Junior Championship. And you know what? The co-chair of the 36th World Juniors is the nicest guy, although he doesn’t speak a word of the language of his Polish ancestors. (His mother has Irish roots).

Eleven years into retirement from the NHL, Jim is a successful businessman, a highly respected fixture in Calgary, and very much entrenched in its social fabric. He owns an automotive leasing company with branches in Edmonton, Toronto, and Montreal and is involved in real estate business in Toronto, where he played his junior hockey with the Marlboros.

Peplinski’s career – which also included representing Canada at the 1988 Olympics in Calgary – lasted a relatively modest ten seasons given his skills. He could easily have played longer, but at 30 he felt it was time to prepare for real life.

“Immediately after we won the cup in 1989, I knew I wanted to do something else,” said Jim during a chat between World Junior games. “And I was fortunate to live in the right place, where if you try hard, make an honest effort and have some luck, you can have a measure of success.”

Apart from his corporate interests outside of hockey, Jim has been associated with the Calgary Flames’ off-ice operations since 2001, but he points out that his involvement with the club has nothing to do with the sports side. He is the vice-president of the club’s business development, and it was this way he became involved with Calgary’s bid for the World Juniors five years ago and eventually with the event itself.

“Once the event starts, it goes so fast that you sometimes forget to enjoy the experience,” he said. “This tournament is so great and you must take the time to enjoy it, not losing sight of the things which are the most important ones, the spirit, all the people coming together and the memories. Sometimes we talk too much about financial issues and forget the human experience.”

When we take the picture outside of the Flames dressing room, with the photo of the 1989 Cup team and all the names on the wall, Peplinski says with a measure of regret: “We should have also won the 1986 finals [against the Canadiens, too]. We won game one at home and game two went into overtime…”

And that’s where the hockey gods took over. Montreal’s Brian Skrudland scored the fastest goal in Stanley Cup history after nine seconds and after that momentum swing the Canadiens went on to win the Cup in five games against the Peplinski-captained Flames.

Jim, you can’t win them all. But thanks for a great World Juniors tournament and a wonderful stay in Calgary.

World Juniors in your shopping bag

December 30 / Edmonton / Martin Merk

Canada wouldn’t be Canada if the 2012 IIHF World Junior Championship were not visible throughout their host cities. Huge billboards hang from skyscrapers, but also the West Edmonton Mall, the biggest shopping mall in North America and one of the biggest of its kind in the world, just a few kilometres from downtown.

Founded by brothers who immigrated to North America from Iran in the ‘40s, the concept was inspired by traditional urban bazaars of Persia, where shopping and entertainment were plentiful and operated in tandem. The result is a shopping and entertainment Mecca on almost 500,000 square metres (5.3m sq ft) and the reputation of being one of the main tourist attractions in the province of Alberta.

Stroll among the 800 shops to the dining area at Bourbon Street and you won’t miss a giant jersey of Team Canada hanging from the roof – the same one the U20 national junior team wears at the World Juniors. It is accompanied by a man-high World Juniors puck and a disc-shape fountain that’s surrounded with photos from current or former junior national team players from the participating nations.

TVs tuned to TSN are located in the area and in some of the restaurants so you won’t miss the hockey action in Edmonton, Calgary and elsewhere in the world.

Go a bit further to see the other attractions, and apart from a water park and amusement park you will certainly not overlook the Ice Palace surrounded by shops and juice bars.

The Ice Palace, right now with World Juniors boards, is an NHL-size ice rink according to the owner – frankly spoken, it might be a not too much downscaled version of it – mainly used for recreational skating from 11am to 9pm.

However, since the opening in the ‘80s, the Edmonton Oilers have had several practices there. It’s self-explanatory that it drew huge crowds to the mall when Wayne Gretzky and his teammates used to practise there.

Shopping without hockey? Not in Edmonton!

Eating like Backlund, then feeding the mind

December 29 / Calgary / Lucas Aykroyd

As much as I’ve been enjoying my steady diet of chicken wings, samosas, and popcorn at the Saddledome during the 2012 IIHF World Junior Championship, I felt it might be wise to try out a new nutrition program for lunch on Thursday. One that would make me hockey-fit – just in case a Group A team requires an emergency replacement under extraordinary circumstances and is willing to overlook small matters like my passport, birth certificate, and skating backwards fast.

So off I went to Calgary’s Bridgeland district, home to The Main Dish. Specializing in fresh, healthy sandwiches, salads, hot dishes, and so on, this casual restaurant offers sit-down and take-out fare that appeals to athletes. The clientele has included two-time Olympic gold medalist and Calgary Flames captain Jarome Iginla, plus other notable Flames names like Brendan Morrison, Mark Giordano, and Theoren Fleury.

One of the regular patrons here is former World Junior star (2008, 2009) and current Calgary forward Mikael Backlund. The 22-year-old Swedish centre, who lives in a nearby condo, regularly chows down on sun-dried buckwheat and blueberry pancakes, smoked turkey sandwiches with no mayonnaise or cheese, specialty soups, and the Vital Greens Salad with spinach, cranberries, cashew nuts, and so on.

Naturally, to be more like Mikael, it was important that I sample all these dishes at once for lunch.

After getting the necessary fuel for me to cover the Latvia-Russia showdown, I could understand why The Main Dish even recently got to cater a Thanksgiving dinner for Sidney Crosby and his trainer, Andy O’Brien of The Edge School for Athletes.

With some spare time before I had to head off to the arena, I decided to check out the brand-new TELUS Spark science centre, which opened in late October. The futuristic-looking, 14,214-metre (153,000-square-foot) facility with four interactive galleries, a demonstration theatre, and a “creative kids museum” is a great place for parents to take a time-out with their children.

But most importantly, does TELUS Spark enable Calgary youngsters to learn about physics, human anatomy, and creative self-expression through the power of hockey? I wanted to find out. And guess who I met when I entered the airy, central atrium? Pat Quinn!

Okay, it wasn’t actually the 2002 Olympic gold medal-winning coach who also led Canada’s 2009 World Junior entry to a home ice title in Ottawa. But his name was Pat Quinn, which is cool in itself. Pat Quinn gave me some tips on how to track down the hockey nuggets at TELUS Spark.

In the Open Studio, dedicated to hands-on activities for kids, I discovered a “toy mashup” where some ingenious individual had assembled a tiny bionic robot hockey player.

Amid contraptions that let visitors measure their heart rate, check their reaction times, and create strange musical sounds, I found a hockey puck in an exhibit that assessed people’s compatibility in relationships. Never before had I realized that I was meant to be with a Calgary Flames fan. Hmm.

The wacky “Chain Reaction” display in the Energy & Innovation gallery, with balls rolling along metal passageways, reminded me of the Jollyball machine that graced the Swiss pavilion at EXPO 86, the 1986 World’s Fair in Vancouver. It charmingly incorporated Micron Mascot skates and Sher-Wood PMP 6087 hockey sticks.

It was an afternoon that epitomized the words of the Roman poet Juvenal, “A sound mind in a sound body.” (At least in theory.) Thanks, Calgary.

One game is nothing, two is a trend

December 29/ Calgary / Szymon Szemberg

It’s still early. The ten World Junior teams have all played two games each, but you can see some trends emerging. Here are some interesting facts & figures prior to Thursday's games.

  • Sweden’s power play works at 60-percent's efficiency. The Swedes have scored on six out of ten opportunities. Max Friberg has three out of those six. 
  • Some things never change; the Swiss have difficulty scoring goals. Despite the spirited late comeback against Sweden on Wednesday, they are last in scoring efficiency with 4.48%. This is the number you get when you score three goals on 67 shots.
  • Canada, Russia and Slovakia are the teams who have not conceded a power-play goal. Canada’s PK is most impressive. They have killed off ten short-handed situations for a total SH time of 20:32.
  • Only one short-handed goal has been scored in the ten games so far. Czech Jiri Riha potted one against the Danes in the 7-0 rout on Tuesday.
  • Finn Alexander Ruuttu is the best face-off man so far, winning 80 percent of his draws.
  • Andrei Vasilevski (RUS) and Scott Wedgewood (CAN) are the two goalies who remain with clean sheets. Both earned shut-outs in their respective starts, but Vasilevski had to make 40 saves against the Swiss, while Wedgewood took 26 shots against the Czech Republic. 

All that matters - to be part

December 27 / Calgary / Szymon Szemberg

When Chris Reynolds, the General Manager of the 2012 IIHF World Junior Championship’s Calgary venue, is asked to describe the passion Canadians have for hockey, he pulls out a five-dollar bill.

The reverse side depicts children engaged in winter sports, including sledding, ice skating, and hockey; this is accompanied by a quotation from Roch Carrier's famous short story, "The Hockey Sweater" which reads:

“The winters of my childhood were long, long seasons. We lived in three places - the school, the church and the skating rink - but our real life was on the skating rink.”

As hockey today is played in 70 countries, it is still fair to say that nowhere runs the passion for the game as high as in this country which invented the game in the mid-1800s. One way this shows is the recruitment of volunteers, the men and women of all ages, who help out with everything from transportation to getting quotes from players for reporters.

They are easily identified by their Alberta-wheat-coloured vests. Nowadays, you can’t run a major sporting event without volunteers, and in many countries organizers struggle to find people who have to give up their free time, very often taking unpaid vacations to serve others for two weeks for free.

But again, this is Canada. So not only are there 1,200 volunteers working the 2012 World Juniors, but the organizing committee had to turn down 1,300 applicants. More incredibly, the 1,200 who were finally recruited had to pay a $50 “commitment fee”. Yes, you read it correctly. In Canada you pay to be a volunteer at a hockey event!

“On the first day of the tournament, the 700 volunteers in Calgary logged 2,000 hours,” Reynolds said. “It’s all about passion, and this province is incredibly passionate about the game and everybody wants to be part of it. How else can you explain 13,000 fans in the arena for the Slovakia-Latvia game on Tuesday?”

The explanation is simple. It’s Canada, and it’s hockey.

Footnote: Below links for those who want to read about, watch or listen to the short story “The Hockey Sweater”. Enjoyment enhanced if you like the Montreal Canadiens and have heard about “Rocket” Richard.

http://archives.cbc.ca/sports/hockey/clips/10372/
http://www.nfb.ca/film/sweater/
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Hockey_Sweater

Ice magic at Canada Olympic Park

December 27 / Calgary/ Lucas Aykroyd

Canada Olympic Park, the sliding sports and ski jumping venue for the 1988 Winter Olympics, has become a hockey mecca this year. Operated by WinSport Canada, it’s home to Hockey Canada’s glistening new headquarters, including four ice sheets where this year’s World Junior teams are practising in Calgary. And another must-see for hockey fans is the brand-new location of Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame, which opened its door back on Canada Day (July 1).

Featuring a Grand Hall that branches off into 11 different galleries, this spacious museum covers more than 60 sports, and naturally, hockey’s front and centre.

A stylized statue of Wayne Gretzky in his 1987 Canada Cup jersey welcomes visitors.

A special World Junior exhibit, running through May 2012, commemorates the history of the IIHF’s showcase U20 event with artifacts like Marc Habscheid’s 1982 gold medal with Team Canada as a player. (Habscheid, a 1988 Olympian, would later coach Canada to silver at the 2002 and 2003 World Juniors, plus Worlds gold (2004) and silver (2005), among many other international feats.)

Jerseys from each of the participating teams are accompanied by stories about historic moments in each nation’s World Junior history.

In the permanent hockey exhibits (keeping in mind that with the Hall’s collection of 95,000 artifacts, things rotate and there’s always a reason to come back), you’ll discover everything from the sweater of Ab Renaud of the 1948 RCAF Flyers to Cassie Campbell’s 2002 women’s Olympic jersey, from Ken Dryden’s rookie card to collectibles from the historic 1972 Summit Series between Canada and the Soviet Union.

Don’t miss the chance to take computer-driven shooting lessons from Calgary Flames captain and two-time Olympic gold medalist Jarome Iginla (according to Jarome, my slapshot is a little wild). Play the role of broadcaster and call the play-by-play for Bobby Orr’s 1970 Stanley Cup-winning goal, or do your best Hockey Night in Canada impression on camera in front of a Canadian NHL rink.

And if your adrenalin is absolutely on overdrive after visiting Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame, you can take it to the edge by experiencing another winter sport: four-man bobsleigh.

IIHF.com took this wild $169 ride down the official ‘88 Olympic track, piloted by 2010 Olympic silver medalist Helen Upperton. When you’re experiencing extreme G-forces through 14 turns, covering 1,450 metres in approximately 60 seconds, it’s nice to have someone in charge who knows what she’s doing. With all due respect to the amusement parks of Southern California, which we recently experienced, this perilous plunge is even more intense than 95 percent of the roller coasters out there. (Let’s put it this way: it’s right up there with overtime in a World Junior gold medal game!)

Call me Al, I have seen it all

December 27 / Calgary / Szymon Szemberg

Al Coates is the Executive Director of the 2012 IIHF World Junior Championship. The IIHF, Hockey Canada and the Host Organizing Committee are fortunate to have a championship boss with nearly four decades of pro hockey front-office experience in charge of the prestigious tournament.

Coates, originally from the Kitchener-Waterloo area in Ontario, has been involved with NHL clubs Detroit, Calgary, Anaheim and Toronto. He was the GM of the Flames for five years, 1995-2000, and of the Ducks for the 2004-2005 season. He was part of the two clubs’ Stanley Cup winning organizations in 1989 (Calgary) and 2007 (Anaheim). His last NHL position before assuming the World Junior assignment was Director of Player Personnel with the Leafs in 2008-2009.

But from the international perspective, it is his pioneer days with Detroit’s European farm club London Lions that are the most intriguing. You see, the 1973-74 edition of the classic British team (the original Lions existed 1924-33) was unique in the history of hockey. Can you name any other team that played 72 exhibition games during a “season” and then folded?

Background: Detroit owner Bruce Norris wanted to create a European pro hockey league in the early 1970s, and he had the London Lions tour the continent as promotion for those ambitions. For European NHL fans the London Lions were as close as you could get to watching a real NHL team on a regular basis. Apart from Swedes Ulf Sterner, Tord Lundström and goalie Leif “Honken” Holmqvist (all IIHF Hall of Famers), all players were North Americans, the jerseys almost a replica of the Red Wings’ and the logo a winged lion.

In the early ‘70s, when it could take two days to get NHL scores – and week-old old grainy game footage a couple of times a month was the only visual proof that the league really existed – the London Lions had almost a religious following in Europe. The Lions won 52 of their 72 games, touring as hockey’s version of the Harlem Globetrotters in 11 European countries.

Some of the barn-storming stories Al told this blogger the other day are not fit to print, but these are facts.

“We lived in hotels for seven months and had a three-month road trip during the season. I was trainer, part-time interpreter, road secretary, and equipment man. One night, as we stood five hours at the Czechoslovak border and the guards wouldn’t let us in, I finally bribed our way in. We had a game in Prague the next day.”

"We were a travelling road show. We had wives and kids with us. And the way we got through is that everyone just pitched in. We got billed as either the Canadian national team or a real NHL club, so everywhere we went everyone was geared up to beat us."

In 1974, when Bruce Norris realized that the European resistance against his pro league was too strong, the London Lions were dissolved. But among young European fans of North American hockey, never to be forgotten.

For more on the legendary London Lions: http://www.angelfire.com/space/u_line/london.htm

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