World Junior Hockey Championship: Why Do We Care So Much?

BUFFALO NY - JANUARY 05: Brayden Schenn #10 of Canada celebrates scoring Canada's third goal against Russia during the 2011 IIHF World U20 Championship Gold medal game between Canada and Russia at the HSBC Arena on January 5 2011 in Buffalo New York. (Photo by Rick Stewart/Getty Images)

The World Junior Hockey Championship is must-see television for diehard hockey fans in North America, but how did that happen? In Canada, the popularity of the WJHC dates back decades. In the United States, it's a little more recent.

The World Junior Hockey Championship is unlike any other youth tournament in the world, as far as I'm concerned. The tournament has taken on a life of its own in recent years among the North American hockey audience -- in particular Canada, of course, but it's rapidly growing in the United States as well.

It's turned into must-see television during that week between Christmas and New Year's, an event that puts you on the map as a diehard hockey fan. If you're not watching the WJHC, you're not in the club. It's kind of the way it works at this point.

It's easy to understand why Canadians are crazy about the tournament. Not only is it hockey in December and January, and thus automatically a huge deal, the nation has also completely dominated play over the last decade. From 2005 to 2009, Canada won gold at the tournament every year, and they've won silver the last two years. Everybody wants on board with the winners, especially when those winners are a national team.

That's not to say the WJHC wasn't a big deal in Canada before 2005. The real popularity of the tournament there dates back to 1987 in Piestany, Czechoslovakia, when the Soviets brawled with the Canadians and both teams were disqualified from the tournament.

The "Punch-up in Piestany" went down in Canadian hockey lore, and not only did it take place in the heat of the Cold War, a time when the two hockey nations despised each other on and off the ice, but it marked the turn around of Canada's fortunes in the WJHC.

Until that point, Canada had won two gold medals in the first 10 years of the tournament's existence, compared to seven for the Soviets. Canada won gold in 1988, the first year after the brawl in Piestany, the first of 13 gold medals won by the nation since. In short, a brawl with the Soviets made Canada care about the previously little-known tournament, and typically speaking, when Canada cares about hockey, they're good at it.

As for south of the border, the WJHC has never really been a big deal. A minor blip on the radar. But when Americans beat Canadians at their own game -- or any nation, for that matter -- people take notice. That's exactly what happened in 2010, when on Canadian soil in Saskatoon, the United States topped Canada in overtime of the gold medal game.

That's the kind of thing that makes people watch the next year. And the next year. And the next year.

This wasn't the first time the U.S. beat Canada for the gold, but that first time was in 2004, just before the NHL lockout. By the 2005 tournament, as the Americans set out to defend their title, the hockey world was completely dormant in the States, and a victory over Canada never had the chance to gain any traction.

Now, however, people are watching. The World Junior Championships are still driven by Canadian dollars -- even last year in Buffalo, the tournament was largely a Canadian affair -- but American interest continues to grow.

NHL Network U.S. and USA Hockey have agreed to a long-term extension of their media contract that will keep the Network as the exclusive television and streaming home for the International Ice Hockey Federation World Junior Championship in the United States through the 2018 event.

A television deal. For a junior hockey tournament. In the United States.

The World Junior Hockey Championship is a big deal these days all across North America, and while it's the Russians setting out to defend their title this time around, nothing will help grow the allure of the tournament like another Canada vs. United States gold medal game.

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