World junior championships get attention, especially in Canada

Chuck Kobasew was, as he recalls, like a kid on Christmas morning.

Makes perfect sense, too, because he was a kid.

And it was Christmas morning, several of them actually.

For there was a stretch in which Kobasew could count on his Christmas gifts including a replica of whatever sweater Team Canada was to wear in that year's world junior championships.

No one, however, had to buy him one in December 2001.

Kobasew earned one of his own then.

"Very surreal," he said.

So is the attention that tournament, which begins every Dec. 26, receives in Canada.

Families there routinely arise in the middle of the night to watch games when they're being played in Europe, and even the selection of the national team's roster receives meticulous analysis.

"Every year, everyone knows that when Boxing Day comes around, everyone gets pretty excited for it," said Penguins center Brandon Sutter, who represented Canada at the world junior championships six years ago.

"It's very similar to, in the States, college football or bowl games.

"It's definitely a special tradition that it seems like only our country has. It's pretty cool, how much attention people pay to it and how much they watch it."

Sutter is one of 14 Penguins players who competed in the tournament. Kobasew, Sidney Crosby, Simon Despres, Marc-Andre Fleury, Kris Letang and James Neal also wore Canada's colors, while Brooks Orpik, Jeff Zatkoff, Matt Niskanen and Paul Martin played for the United States. Jussi Jokinen and Olli Maatta represented Finland and Evgeni Malkin competed for Russia.

This year, the event is being contested in Malmo, Sweden, and the host team is a popular choice to win it.

The defending champion U.S. team figures to be a force, and Russia looks to be a serious threat.

No team, however, is under more pressure to take home gold than Canada.

If the level in interest in the world juniors has any equal in that country, it's the expectations that accompany the team into the tournament every winter.

Canadian fans seem willing to accept wherever their team finishes, as long as all the other countries are behind it. And that puts severe pressure on the teenagers representing that country.

"You go to that tournament with one thing in mind, and that's to win gold," Kobasew said. "That's every single year.

"I wouldn't think that they've thought of it any other way."

Of course, it doesn't always work out that way, even though Canada has won more WJC titles than any nation. Koabasew's club, for example, lost to Russia in a gold-medal game.

Regardless of the success they have in a given year, teams perennially in the mix for a medal invariably have lineups studded with players who go on to have productive careers in the NHL.

Jokinen's teammates in his two appearances in the world juniors, for example, included Mikko Koivu, Joni Pitkanen, Tuomo Ruutu, Kari Lehtonen and Valtteri Filppula.

His clubs earned two bronze medals, and Jokinen burnished his reputation with a couple of strong performances.

"You play in your own league [in Finland]," he said, "but you want to be measured against the best players your own age."

NHL clubs are nearing the end of a three-day holiday break and, when teammates get together Friday, there will be plenty of lively debates between guys from competing countries.

"I think we all follow it," Zatkoff said. "[There's] not so much wagers, but a lot of talking, a lot of back and forth.

"It definitely makes the games more exciting, especially when the U.S. plays Canada. That seems to always be a big one."

Then again, every game is a big one for fans in Canada. Which seems to be most everybody in the country.

"For the Americans who go, they can compete really hard and they really want to win, but, for Canada, that's big," Niskanen said.

"That's up there with the Stanley Cup playoffs and the Olympics. Some people may think it's bigger than the Olympics. They take it seriously up there."

You can tell by the shirts on their backs. No matter how they get it.

Tournament schedule

Today: Play begins with four pool games, including Team USA vs. Czech Republic.

Jan. 2: Quarterfinals matching the top four teams from each of the two pools.

Jan. 4: Semifinals matching the winners of the four quarterfinal round games.

Jan. 5: Semifinal winners meet for the 2014 junior championship at Malmo Arena.

(Tournament in Malmo, Sweden)

Dave Molinari: or Twitter @MolinariPG

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