Can Classic and world juniors capture Americans' hearts?
Editor's note: In our "Friday Faceoff," ESPN.com NHL writer Scott Burnside (based in Atlanta) and Toronto Star columnist and frequent ESPN.com contributor Damien Cox (based in Toronto) duke it out over any given hockey topic. Let the games begin!
This week's topic: Will events like the Winter Classic and World Junior Championship make hockey more popular in the United States?
Scott: Hello, Damien. Happy New Year. I have a toque from the Winter Classic for you. Before we move on to our discussion of the cross-border clash between the Canadian and American juniors, what did you make of the great shinny shindig in Buffalo?
Damien: Whoa, whoa, whoa! You bought me a present?
Scott: Of course. I knew you secretly wanted to be at the game, and so I knew you'd want a memento. Actually, the NHL handed out the toques in the press box; and, you know, if it's free, it's a good thing for sportswriters. Plus, you live in Canada; a toque is second nature to you. Not so much here in Atlanta. So, what did you think?
Damien: Watched the game on TV with my lovely daughter Meghann cooking up a great fire and the rest of the rug rats scurrying about, causing confusion. In short, I was a bit distracted. But, in general, there seemed to be more smiles than at your garden variety NHL regular-season game. I was amazed nobody seemed to leave early, and it was a treat to watch the players, coaches and ice men deal with the flurries. All in all, definitely unique, and the league certainly got a lot of publicity out of it.
Scott: Absolutely, and I think perhaps one of the most significant elements of this is that it was in the United States. We know there are terrific hockey markets in the U.S. and few better than Buffalo; but it's nice to see the NHL pull off a terrific larger-than-life event with the added bonus it was made in America as opposed to in Canada, where it might have been simply passed off as "Oh, those wacky Canadians and their quaint little game."
Damien: Of course, in Albuquerque and Des Moines, they were wondering what in the world those strange people in Buffalo were up to, and that's the challenge of making this game work as a commercial venture in the U.S., isn't it? In such a large country with such varying regions, what appeals in Buffalo may have nothing to do with what the folks in Seattle or Jacksonville want. I think the Winter Classic garnered lots of attention, but I have my doubts as to whether it won over a single new fan for the NHL.
Scott: Well, I read the television numbers actually appeared to draw in non-hockey markets. Now, you may be right that their hands just froze on the remote when they saw the snow and the rink and the wildly happy fans; but it sure was a refreshingly different story in terms of television ratings, which always seem to entice hockey writers. But let's jump from the efforts of the league to draw in American fans to a different kind of clash, that between the Canadian and American juniors in the semifinals at the World Junior Championship in the Czech Republic. In Canada, of course, this is the story of the day. Here in America, not so much.
Damien: You're darn tootin' it's a big deal up here. In fact, this tournament only really plays in Canada. The second-best country at hosting the event is Finland, and while the U.S. did a good job in North Dakota a couple of years ago, that's because a whole bunch of Manitobans flooded the state. So, yeah, it matters up here how Canada does in this event. In fact, because it's become a Christmas-time tradition, I've argued that it is as much a staple of the Canadian sporting culture now as the Grey Cup. You remember the Grey Cup, don't you?
Scott: Yes, it's the trophy that no one can identify. "What is that? I know it's not the Stanley Cup, but it's something." I know this because I once took the Grey Cup to a bunch of places in Toronto, including the Wheat Sheaf Tavern for a story. But I digress. Being Canadian, I am fully versed in the cult-like following of the World Junior Championship. Gare Joyce, a frequent contributor to ESPN properties, actually wrote an entire book about one of the more famous tournaments. I'm also keenly aware of just how negligible the interest in the tournament is here in the U.S. Which is why I'm curious to see how things turn out if the Americans, undefeated heading into Friday's game, knock off the mighty Canadians and whether they can parlay a gold medal into some traction given the tournament returns to North America for the next four years.
Damien: That Joyce book, by the way, is one of the finest hockey books ever written. Anybody who loves the game should pick it up [the book is called "When the Lights Went Out"]. I think if the Americans win, or win the whole thing, it won't mean much in terms of "traction." Less face it, the Frozen Four or the Beanpot are the non-pro hockey events in the U.S. that have tradition and get attention. That said, the NHL and its local broadcasts do a very poor job of promoting the world juniors, which I think is a major error. Just look at last year's thrilling game at this tournament in which Canada beat the U.S. in an extended shootout. The main characters in that drama -- Carey Price, Jonathan Toews, Jack Johnson, Peter Mueller -- are all in the NHL now. The NHL would do well to help build interest in this event south of the border.
Scott: I disagree -- not on Gare's book, by the way -- but on the notion the tournament can't gain some traction here. And part of the reason is the players you pointed out. Because so many young players are making an impact in the NHL, the gap between the WJC (invisible) and the NHL (visible) isn't so great. The other player in last year's nail-biting U.S.-Canada tilt was Patrick Kane, who is on his way to becoming the rookie of the year. This year, there are top draft picks like James vanRiemsdyk (why do you think he spells his name that way?), who will likely be playing for the Flyers next season, and Kyle Okposo, who may be in the Islanders' lineup by the end of the month.
Damien: You are forever wishful, my friend, which is why you and Barry Melrose have equally large legions of admirers. You wish the Winter Classic will lure new fans to the NHL with little or no proof. You wish the world juniors would be accepted in the U.S., but the fact is they've been trying to sell hockey in the U.S. for four decades and the progress has been minimal.
Scott: Am I wishful or wistful? Hmm. Once again, I disagree. I'm not saying it will be easy, but there are already baby steps being taken. The NHL Network is now widely available in American homes and is a godsend to hockey fans looking for highlights and the network is broadcasting the medal rounds of the WJC, which means Americans will, for the first time, be able to tune into the tournament. That's something. Then, with the tournament returning to Canada next year and in 2010, and then in the U.S. in 2011, I think there will be more opportunities for fans. Now, all of this is predicated on the Americans continuing to ice strong squads, which is why, heretical as it may sound, it'd be good for all concerned if the Americans knocked off the three-time defending champs from the land of the north.
Damien: Yes, I know, I know; what's good for Americans is good for hockey. Right. By the by, where exactly will they be hosting the tournament in 2011? Grand Forks again? Somewhere there's a prayer of fans coming out to watch?
Scott: The U.S. site is TBA. I think that's near Johnstown. I didn't say the next U.S.-based tournament would be a hockey love-in, just that the opportunities for the tournament to catch on in the U.S. are better now than in the past. Certainly the U.S. developmental program in Ann Arbor, Mich., seems to show no slow down in producing elite young players. Plus, aren't you just a little sick of watching the Canadians mop up the tournament? They lose their first game in four years at the tournament to Sweden and it was nigh on a national catastrophe. Come on, admit it, you're silently rooting for the U.S. just as you secretly wished you were in the stands in Buffalo with your lips frostbitten to a can of beer.
Damien: I do remember rooting for the U.S. against the Russians back in 1980 ... nothing recent, though. Sweden, from what I've seen, is the best team in the tournament.
Scott: Oh sure, bring in the Swedes just when the going gets tough. Well, we'll see how it comes out in the wash. As for your toque, I'll keep it safe until next we meet. Over and out.
Damien: Sounds good. But feel free to wear the toque around Atlanta. It'll getcha as much attention as the Winter Classic.
Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com. Damien Cox, a columnist for The Toronto Star, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He is the author of "Brodeur: Beyond The Crease" and "'67: The Maple Leafs, Their Sensational Victory, and the End of an Empire."
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