This is not a Leafs column, so let’s put the sorrow and hope and impossibility of faith aside for a moment. Let’s take a breath, let’s launder that blood and mustard-splotched Boimstruck sweater. Let’s set aside the schedule and the standings and forget that Luke Schenn was ever born, for in a few weeks, NHL teams won’t matter. Pro hockey won’t matter. What will matter is what happens in Calgary and Edmonton, and even there, the Oilers and Flames won’t matter. Soon, it will be Christmas and New Year’s: junior hockey time. Players you don’t yet know yet will fill your screens and busy your papers and crowd your radio dial. Canada will be playing. Canada is always playing. And they better win. They better.
That our country—or rather, the dominant hockey-loving pie slice of our country—will bend routine and design days and evenings around games is a given. What’s not a given is whether this is necessarily, unequivocally, a good thing. A few questions: Are we putting too much pressure on kids to carry on Canada’s obsessive desire to succeed at all things blade and skate? Does that obsession mean that we unconsciously absolve the trappings of the junior game: young men playing for peanuts while owners get rich off their dreams; the dirty secret of hazing and alcohol and drug abuse; youth fight culture; and a citizenry that emerges from the pro hockey derby having learned nothing through their formative years except how to take a pass and throw a hit? Lots about junior hockey is good—giving identity and economy to small places; allowing kids, in the best case scenario, to absorb lessons about leadership and courage—but there’s a certain obscenity in blanket coverage of awkward kids posing for TSN promos like the gladitorial men they are not. And if discussions about the failings of the NHL to make the ice friendlier and more concussion-free—consider wider rinks and small equipment—then shouldn’t that be part of the junior hockey discussion, too?
When James Reimer’s mom confessed to Dave Feschuk that her son had suffered a handful of brain injuries while playing in Red Deer, it spoke to a larger issue, which is: were players like Sidney Crosby and Claude Giroux and Mike Richards—all currently out with head woes—damaged goods after emerging from a league and a culture that is only examined while forced into the limelight of the World Junior Championship? If the NHL ice is too small to be safe for the flying pros, is it not the same in the CHL? Players are bigger and faster there, too, with an even greater disparity of size and skill. Jeff Skinner and Luke Schenn and a record number of kids didn’t make the NHL at 18 because they were less physically secure than the generation before. The junior game has been allowed to evolve—or not evolve—almost in private even though, for two weeks, it has the ability to hold the nation’s attention unlike any tournament outside of the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs.
Pro hockey dominates the Canadian hockey media while, most times, the CHL is allowed to snake along at its own pace, absorbed by its own shadows. I’m not trying to throw water on the party. I’m not trying to be a killjoy. I’m just pointing out that our affection for young stars shouldn’t begin and end with whether or not they emerge having won gold in Alberta. Still, they better get gold. They better. Lose a few more tournaments and there might be a nation-wide enquiry. Really, that couldn’t be a bad thing.