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Dowbiggin: Love affair with Canadian junior team began in Piestany

Today's World Junior Hockey championship opener against Germany in Ufa, Russia, sends Team Canada back to its roots.

Not Russian roots, of course. These roots are the ones that won Team Canada its stranglehold on Canada's hockey fans in distant, obscure cities such as Ufa or Ostrava or Pardubice. There, Team Canada first impressed our nation as hockey Innocents Abroad, teenagers missing the Christmas holidays while they battled referees, culture shock and time zones.

Nowadays, the tournament has taken almost a permanent residence in North America, and something magical has gone out of the event for Canada. Puckheads still obsess over under 20 year olds wearing the maple leaf and their chances. TV ratings soar. But the old "against-all-odds in a foreign land" was more compelling, more fun.

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Winning back home is like the pros, and who needs more of them these days?

Some say the Canadian WJC fix started with Wayne Gretzky's stunning performance in 1978 in Montreal. Others, the five consecutive golds for Canada's team in the '90s. All nice. But what truly cemented Team Canada to its fans were its campaigns overseas in the 1980s and '90s that fed Canada's underdog image.

In the years when the WJC was a foreign affair, played abroad more often than not, no single moment spoke more to that put-upon feeling than the famous 1987 brawl in Piestany, Czechoslovakia, when the dastardly Soviets suckered Canada into a brawl that cost the Canadians the gold.

When the IIHF officials turned off the lights in an effort to stop the fighting, it kindled a connection with Canadians that now has the annual WJC second only to the Stanley Cup Finals for TV ratings. Don Cherry piggybacked on the controversy as Canada was swindled of the championship. Neither he nor Team Canada Juniors have looked back from that moment.

The time-zone demands (Ufa is 10 hours away from ET) also played into the mystique of Canada's WJC niche. Games were always early in the day as Canadians awoke, demanding that fans on their Christmas break wake with a start if they wanted to catch the games.

Stranger in a foreign land

The WJC popularity can't be teenage hockey. You don't see similar ratings in May when the same players compete for the Memorial Cup. Fans in Toronto yawned when the tournament was held in Mississauga last year. Junior hockey on TV is a BBM flatline. No, it's teenagers daring like Indiana Jones in a foreign land that works for Canadians.

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The next 10 days should provide plenty to scratch that itch, even if it is a little early.

Don't be a Jenner

In keeping with another old Canadian tradition of the WJC, Oshawa forward Boone Jenner has been sent to the sidelines for a three-game suspension for injuring Swedish defenceman Jesper Pettersson. Jenner delivered a check on Pettersson that was oh, about a month late, leaving the young Swede with a broken wrist and a dislocated shoulder.

What's most remarkable about Jenner's boneheaded play is how far Canada has gotten from the Piestany era when it was "good old Canadian boys" defending the flag by separating opponents from their faculties. Canada is now in remission from its bad old days. The Americans seem happier to wear the black hat lately.

But Jenner apparently still saw merit in reminding those cheese-eating foreigners that there are still some red-blooded guys unafraid to nail a guy two seconds after he's let go of the puck. Let's hope that impression doesn't require more reinforcement from one of Jenner's teammates during the tourney.

Do not adjust your set

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Not that the NHL has anything to learn from another sport Pt. 259 (because hockey's so unique, so distinctive). Looking to make their Christmas schedule look unique, the NBA went with dazzling monochrome uniforms for all the teams that played Xmas day games. The L.A. Lakers wore pure white, the New York Knick shocking orange, the Denver Nuggests went all blue. It was murder on broadcasters who had to see names and numbers, but for viewers it added to the guilty pleasure of catching pro sports on Xmas Day. Many still think it a travesty to play on Christmas, but the NBA not only plays, they flaunt it.

Which the NHL will do next year in one of its many grovelling moves to placate fans they've ignored during the lockout.

dowbboy@shaw.ca / @dowbboy

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