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JONES: World juniors preparing for Christmas Day ho-ho-hockey

Team Canada jerseys hang in the Edmonton Oilers Hall-of-Fame room at Rogers Place during a press conference to announce that the 2021 IIHF world junior championships in Edmonton and Red Deer, in this file photo from Dec. 6, 2018.
Team Canada jerseys hang in the Edmonton Oilers Hall-of-Fame room at Rogers Place during a press conference to announce that the 2021 IIHF world junior championships in Edmonton and Red Deer, in this file photo from Dec. 6, 2018.

Back in the beginning, at the first International Ice Hockey Federation world junior championships, it was Wayne Gretzky versus the Russians at the Montreal Forum on Christmas Day.

But on Canadian ice, it was the only time.

Back when Bob Nicholson basically invented the IIHF world junior as we know it in Canada today, with the games telecast by TSN, they came close to opening the tournament on Christmas Day again and again. Every year, they decided against it.
Not this year. Ho, ho, ho and away we go.

The IIHF and Hockey Canada Monday revealed details of the Edmonton 2021 world junior championships on TSN, and it goes without saying it will be like no world juniors before.

Three Christmas Day opening games at Rogers Place is the first dramatic difference from regular editions, and one that Nicholson predicts will be repeated for the 2022 Edmonton-Red Deer IIHF world juniors the following year, and be the first in Canada held with fans in the stands.

Once they’ve opened on Christmas Day in Canada, Nicholson figures there will be no going back.

For the first time since Sidney Crosby in 2005 in Grand Forks, N.D., the world junior holiday hockey tradition will get underway on Christmas Day. Canada will begin its gold-medal defence versus Germany on Boxing Day.

In the days of the NHL’s Original Six, Christmas Day hockey was a staple on the schedule that the NHL Players Association eventually eliminated in collective bargaining. Today in the NBA, it remains a focus day featuring marquis match-ups for national TV.

This year, TSN will have a sports programming schedule free of competition to make a major impact.

“We considered starting on Christmas Day in the past but just didn’t do it,” said Nicholson, the former head of Hockey Canada, now vice-chairman and CEO of the Oilers and vice-president of the IIHF.

“I think this is a great decision to do it. It’ll be the start of a new world-junior tradition in Canada on the 25th. We’ll see what we do from here a year from now.”

There’s not likely to be much negative reaction this year. There will be no fans in the stands and Canada is scheduled on Boxing Day.

“It’s all about TV, for sure. This will be huge for TSN,” said Nicholson. “Paul Graham of TSN is going to have such great TV numbers, he’ll look like a genius again.”

Graham, vice-president and executive producer of TSN, who spent three days in his hometown of Edmonton last week, is intending to make the most of it.

“We really want to own hockey in December and early January,” said Graham who will have Canada-Russia and Canada-Sweden games to telecast prior to Christmas from Rogers Place as well. “It started with the schedule announcement show and we will lead up to the tournament with world-junior specials and plenty of coverage from Team Canada’s camp.

“We want Canadians to know that TSN will have non-stop coverage of the greatest next-generation star players in the world and hopefully the ratings numbers will follow.”

Normally, a four-paragraph press release, the Monday schedule announcement was turned into more.

“This will be the first time in world-junior tournament history that every game, including every pre-tournament game, will be televised,” he said. “We are excited to cover all 38 games being played in Edmonton for a lot of reasons, including the reach it will have internationally this year as well.

“Most people in Canada think this tournament is just loved by Canadians, but I can tell you that several European countries have adopted the world juniors as their holiday traditions as well. Our coverage will be seen in over a dozen countries with Russia, Sweden, Finland and the USA airing every game.

Christmas Day, said Graham, is a big part of it.

“Getting the schedule adjusted to allow for a Christmas Day start was key for our coverage plans.

“It enables all the games to be played in the big arena. The community rink would otherwise have had some games. We didn’t think that would be a good fit for TV.”

The 10-team tournament will be held entirely in Edmonton’s Ice District bubble, with the teams all staying in the J.W. Marriott and playing before empty seats in Rogers Place across the pedway.

The tournament features Canada in Group A with round-robin games against Slovakia on Dec. 27, Switzerland Dec. 29 and Finland on New Year’s Eve.

Group B teams Russia, Sweden, Austria, the Czech Republic and the United States were originally scheduled to play round-robin games in Red Deer, but will share Rogers Place and the bubble with the Group A teams.

As a result of transforming the Edmonton-Red Deer 2021 IIHF world juniors into a one-city coronavirus pandemic bubble, the Edmonton-Red Deer combination that sold out within hours, has been rescheduled for 2022.

It’s worked out to three games a day most days, with four on Jan. 2 for the quarter-finals. There was also the matter of accommodating the 10 teams with pre-tournament games. Normally, they’d be scheduled in arenas around the province but they’ll also be held at Rogers Place.

E-mail: [email protected]

On Twitter: @byterryjones

Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2020

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