“Christmas time is about Santa Claus, being around family and people you love and World Junior time, it truly is.”
That was long-time Red Deer Rebels bench boss Brent Sutter Thursday and he was among many who expressed a similar relationship between the World Junior Hockey Championships and the holidays.
You know you are around a hockey-obsessed crowd when jolly Ol’ Saint Nick is on even footing with a hockey tournament.
Yet to many Canadians, there is a memory of the World Junior Hockey Championships that not only stands out but is etched in our collective identity.
That is what hockey in this country seems to do in one way or another and especially when you are together with family, friends around the holidays.
My earliest memory of watching the tournament was with my late grandpa, waking up at an ungodly hour to watch his favourite player, Joe Thornton play in the 1997 World Juniors in Switzerland.
Thornton was a Sault St. Marie Greyhounds player, the team my grandpa had season tickets for. He spent the entire tournament telling me how great Thornton was and what it was like watching him live. At that point, hockey was my life and I wanted to be just like Joe.
Unfortunately, I never was.
Walking around the Centrium or playing pickup hockey in Red Deer, without fail someone mentions the 1995 World Juniors and how full the building was. twenty-six years later, people still remember it like it was yesterday.
I’m sure kids in Sylvan Lake have their own moment when local product Tyler Steenbergen played hero with the gold medal game-winning goal. He scored with just a minute and 40 seconds remaining in the game. There is no doubt kids are on the outdoor rink or in their driveway pretending to be Steenbergen in that moment.
Hockey just tugs at our heartstrings in Canada– whether we want it to or not. We love to show the world that at this one game, we’re the best. It doesn’t happen often in many sports, so we take the World Junior Championships as a point of pride.
The emotional connection is all well and good and most hockey fans feel it. Still, the IIHF World Junior Hockey Championships coming to Red Deer and Edmonton in 2021 is about one thing: money.
Early indications predict the tournament will bring in as much as $50 million into the local economy. That’s huge money.
While the Hlinka Gretzky Cup wasn’t a complete home run in terms of attendance, the world juniors are a different beast altogether. Most people are off work from the day the tournament starts on boxing day, until it ends just a few days after new year’s day.
Whether it’s money or a hockey legacy that tickles your fancy, the announcement of the world juniors coming to Red Deer in 2021 is a jolt to an already busy list of upcoming sports events in Central Alberta.