The appetite for World Junior hockey action has grown even more insatiable with the elimination rounds under way and Canada's first do-or-die test looming Tuesday night.
Overall ticket sales in host cities Edmonton and Calgary could approach 600,000 by the time the tournament wraps on Jan. 5. Fans have been so fervent that 10,000 of them turned up at 11 a.m. on Monday to watch Switzerland edge Denmark in a relegation game. Some have even helped clean up Calgary's Scotiabank Saddledome after arena staff and volunteers struggled with the short turnaround between games.
"Tell me, what is that?" said tournament co-chair Jim Peplinski. "It's about all of the good things that come from [seeing]a sport performed properly. That translates into picking friggin' garbage up."
To Mr. Peplinski, the infectious enthusiasm suggests Canadians have embraced the tournament not only as an exercise in national pride, but as a purer expression of high-level hockey played by athletes with a measure of innocence still intact.
Canada's coming showdown against the winner of Russia and the Czech Republic, who faced off in Monday's late quarterfinal, already has anticipation nearing its boiling point in Calgary. The Canadian players would relish a shot at avenging last year's gold-medal-game collapse against the Russians, who have impressed again this year. And while the Canadian squad thumped the Czechs 5-0 in the preliminary round, the Czechs proved they can raise their game in beating the U.S. two days later.
TSN built the fan phenomenon in Canada, which has developed a unique fixation on the junior tournament. The sports network has combined smart marketing with passionate broadcasters – most notably Gord Miller and Pierre McGuire – to help create a contagion for this junior brand of hockey that now lives up to the network's hype.
"What they've brought to Canada and the world is the pureness of this sport – it's about getting up when you fall down, hard work, character; it's about learning how to win and learning how to lose," Mr. Peplinski said.
That isn't to say the interest isn't generating major dollars for TSN, the tournament organizers and the host cities. Estimates suggest the tournament will pump at least $80-million into the provincial economy.
Even the 50-50 draw, a staple at hockey arenas across the country, is proving increasingly popular, especially with the proceeds going to furnish underprivileged children with gear and the chance to play minor hockey. At Canada's New Year's Eve victory over the U.S., the lucky winner's half of the pot totalled $146,140, and by New Year's Day, Hockey Canada had raked in $1.43-million in 50-50 sales, well on track to set a tournament record.
Jeremy Vander Maaten won one of the tournament's earlier 50-50 draws, but he could be counted among the most feverish fans even before he pocketed the $21,000 prize. The 35-year-old warehouseman from Okotoks, Alta., took a week off work and forked out more than $3,000 for tickets to every game in Calgary – including the gold-medal match. A Team Canada fan with an uncommon soft spot for Russia, he outfitted his family in jerseys and accessories and has taken his daughters – aged five, seven and 10 – to various games.
His grandfather, Herbert Cross, who turns 87 next week, was his seatmate to watch Finland best Slovakia, and Mr. Vander Maaten is so taken with the experience he would travel abroad to do it again.
"I'm an avid, rabid fan," he said. "It's a showcase of the up-and-coming talent."
That's the lure for Calgary teacher Lisa Walpole, who has tickets with friends for every game in the city and prefers the tournament to NHL hockey. "It's a whole different game," she said. "It's fun to watch kids who aren't being paid to play."
Mr. Peplinski unabashedly wants to see Canada win gold, but regardless he is convinced Canadians have discovered something enduring in the World Junior experience that will keep them coming back.
"[Fans]see themselves on the outdoor rink," he said. "And when you give them that conduit to have those emotions percolate, and remember, 'Yeah, I was there with my grandfather,' that just ties it all together."