Monday, December 24, 2007

The Ghost of World Juniors Past

With the World Juniors just days away - less than 2 days, in fact - I thought I'd share some stories that I found on TSN.ca from past WJC. The TSN crew that normally covers the WJC - Bob McKenzie, Gord Miller and Pierre McGuire - all answered a series of questions about past Championships that they have covered, and there were some good stories.

Here's the cream of the crop (and all in their words, from TSN.ca):

What was the best or worst place you ever spent the holidays while covering the World Juniors?

McKenzie
: It is difficult to rate the best or worst but I can say this: There is perhaps nothing quite like a New Year's Eve in Helsinki, which is to suggest the level of imbibing there probably exceeds anything I have seen anywhere in my life, but in terms of a "you had to be there to believe it" Christmas or New Year's Even moment it was in Ostrava in the Czech Republic at the 1994 WJC.

We were staying in a nice hotel in Ostrava, which is a mid-sized industrial type city, and it was New Year's Eve and TSN had purchased tickets for all of us for a New Year' Eve dinner/dance in the hotel ballroom. The dinner was quite nice, a band, sort of an Eagles knock-off, was playing and the place was packed with a big cross-section of people. There were obviously some local people, as well as a bunch of NHL scouts and management types, many of whom had their families in tow, as well as a rather large TSN group.

Late in the evening, an hour or so before midnight, the band took a break and some sort of "show" began. If I recall, the first act was a pair of flamenco dancers or something like that, followed by a magician of sorts. The next act involved a woman, in what can best be described as an I Dream of Jeannie outfit, doing some sort of impressionistic dance. Adorned in many chiffon scarves and such, one by one they seemed to be disappearing. At one point, I said to the guys at our table, "Is it possible this woman is doing a striptease?" No, everyone said, because as we looked around we could see that there were many families in the ballroom and some teenage children. No way.

Uh, yes way. One thing to led to another and suddenly this woman was prancing around the dance floor entirely naked and if that weren't enough of a shock, she pulled out a large wicker basket and unleashed a very large and long live snake onto the floor. This being a family website and all, what happened after that is left to your imagination.

Eventually, the "show" ended and the traveling troupe exited the hotel into the Ostrava night. It goes without saying that the entire place was in a state of shock, almost as surprised as when much later that evening, while in the local "disco," the same flamenco dancers showed up there, only to be followed the same "show" that was put on at the hotel.

Ask anyone who was there at the 1994 WJC in Ostrava and chances are they have a story about the "Snake Lady."

As for one of the more memorable "forgettable" moments, if there is such a thing, was at the 2000 WJC in Skelleftea, Sweden.

New Year's Eve of a new Millenium was, of course, greeted with great fanfare worldwide. Skelleftea is located in northern Sweden, not too far from the Arctic Circle and is subjected to about 20 hours of darkness each day. Gord Miller and I plus some others were doing our best to ring in the New Year and the new Millenium.

Just after the stroke of midnight, Gord turned to me and said, "You know, Bobby, all my life I wondered where I would be when the year 2000 began and, with all due respect, I can assure it wasn't spending it with you in northern Sweden."

No argument there.

What is your favourite off-ice memory from the World Juniors?

McKenzie: I don't know that I would call it a favorite memory but I will not soon forget how cold it was in Saskatoon for the 1991 WJC. I have never been anywhere in the world - not Alaska, not northern Sweden near the Arctic Circle, not even Winnipeg -- where it was colder for longer than it was in Saskatoon that year.

Scouts still talk about that as "coldest ever." The warmest it got was minus-27 Celsius on one afternoon and most of the time it was minus-40, which is where Celsius and Farenheit meet. This wasn't a case of some thin-blooded Easterner not being able to handle prairie cold; it was cold for anyone. There was an outdoor rink across from the hotel and in the entire time we were there, some 12 days, I never saw a single kid skating on it. Their ears would have fallen off.

I remember on New Year's Eve, trying to walk three blocks downtown to go to dinner with my wife, son and nephew, and having to seek refuge in a building lobby after two blocks because the kids were almost crying it was so cold.

Other things that come to mind: the Great Alaskan Bush Company in Anchorage (don't ask); New Year's Eve in Helsinki; New Year's Eve in Gruyere, Switzerland (yes, where they make the cheese); New Year's Eve Y2K in northern Sweden; and, the LiquorDome in Halifax (Ed note: Ahhh, the Dome in H'fax...I've heard stories...haha). Are you sensing a pattern here?

What was the best individual performance by a Canadian player in the tournament?

Miller: Roberto Luongo had the best tournament I've ever seen from a Canadian player. The 1999 Canadian Junior team was goal-challenged (to say the least) and Luongo carried them to the gold medal game, which Canada lost in overtime to the Russians. Luongo was heroic in that game, and that tournament.

After the game, a reporter (not from TSN) asked Canadian coach Tom Renney if he thought Luongo was shaky on the OT goal. Renney almost jumped off the stage and strangled the guy.

What is your favourite off-ice memory from the World Juniors?

Miller
: There are so many great off-ice moments, many of them spent in far-flung places with Bob McKenzie and Pierre McGuire, but one of my favourites is from the 2005 tournament in North Dakota.

Thousands of Canadian fans from Manitoba and Saskatchewan drove down for the games, but one night the highway was closed due to a snowstorm, meaning the fans could not return home. Local officials opened the domed football stadium, and nearly 5,000 fans spent the night there.

The officials later reported two things: that the Canadians pitched in and cleaned up the next morning, leaving the stadium in immaculate condition, and that they sold more beer that night than they sold in an entire season of North Dakota football.

I'm not sure which of those two things makes me prouder.

What is your favourite on-ice memory from the World Juniors?

Miller
: My favourite on-ice memory is from the 1995 tournament, where the Canadians played the Czechs in front of a sellout crowd in Calgary.

After battling back to tie the game 5-5, Jamie Rivers - who had been driving the coaches crazy with his reckless decisions - decided to step up from the blue line and grab a loose puck. If he missed it, there were three Czechs, including Milan Hejduk, going the other way.

With coach Don Hay screaming "No!" from the bench, Rivers moved in and scored what turned out to be the game winning goal.

"Hero or zero," he said afterward.

What was the best or worst place you ever spent the holidays while covering the World Juniors?

McGuire
: Let's start with the positives. The best one would probably be between Halifax and Vancouver. Those were two spectacular places. The fan-base in Halifax was so energized and the response was so positive. And in Vancouver, it was just such a big league environment and a spectacular array of buildings with a team that most people didn't think had a chance to win the World Juniors. And with a bunch of 18-year olds they really stepped up. That was arguably Brent Sutter's best coaching job on the international stage. He was spectacular in Vancouver.

The worst place I've spent the holidays? Well, there probably isn't one. Even Grand Forks, North Dakota - as cold and as harsh as it was - it's where my father was from and I brought my Dad there. I learned a lot about my family's history that trip - my Dad even pointed out his family's homestead where they lived.

I remember we walked around one night with Gord Miller Bob McKenzie and it was probably -45 Fahrenheit. As we were walking across the bridge over the Red River, my Dad looked at me and said, "The last time I walked across this bridge was VJ Day in 1945." He had three brothers that were serving overseas at the time. They were shooting fireworks off (to celebrate). That was the last time he'd been on that bridge.

That floored me.

He also told me about an uncle of mine that drowned in the river below years before.

So as tough as it was in North Dakota, for me, it was an unbelievable learning experience, one that I'll never forget.

What was the best individual performance by a Canadian player in the tournament?

McGuire
: There's so many, that's really a tough one. I would say Dion Phaneuf and Shea Weber as the shut down pair for Canada at the World Juniors in Grand Forks. They just kept throwing them out there and throwing them out there. They were phenomenal, I mean, those guys were scary good. It was amazing to see how mature they were and how physical they were, especially when they had to face the Russians with Evgeni Malkin and Alexander Ovechkin. They just destroyed those guys.

So I would say the two of them in an unheralded way. Everyone focuses on the point-getters, but these guys were so good defensively, so mature defensively, you just knew they were going to be impact players in the NHL pretty quick.

For a non-Canadian performance, Ovechkin would probably be the best one. Ovechkin was phenomenal (seven goals in North Dakota, which made the performance by Phaneuf and Weber even more impressive).

Another guy who was great in terms of an individual performance was Zach Parise in Helsinki the year the Americans won the gold medal. He was the Player of the Tournament that year. That was amazingly impressive.

What is your favourite off-ice memory from the World Juniors?

McGuire: Before game one in Finland, producer Jon Hynes saying in my earpiece that the (production) truck had blown up, and that every replay we were going to do was going to be blind. So I had to pick the replay out and tell them exactly what I wanted to show. Then they had to tell me when the tape was rolling and I just had to fly blind - without using a video monitor - for about a period-and-a-half to two periods.

What I really remember was the composure level of the staff. I remember how composed Franklin Rubenstien (stats) was, and how composed Gord Miller was, and Jon Hynes (producer) and Paul Hemming (director) in the truck, and Jamie Brannigan in replay, Mike Mills (tape) and all those guys. I'll never forget that.

All Jon said was, "Pete, I've got bad news for you. The truck just blew up!" Nobody ever talked about it so I don't think anybody at home ever knew.

This is the important thing for me. It's such a privilege to do (the World Juniors), it's something you never take for granted. We've become an interesting little family that does a lot together. All the guys are all in it for the same reason - they love Canada, they love Team Canada and they love bringing the games back to Canada.

We've become each other's family, not by blood, but by work. We've had the same crew for a long time and we've seen a lot of different places - and nobody ever complains.

So with that, I wish you all a Merry Christmas. I'll be back on Boxing Day (December 26th) to keep you up to date on the WJC - and be sure to check out Faceoff-Factor.com for WJC coverage.

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