EDMONTON — Brent Sutter won’t say if he’ll coach and Bob Nicholson wouldn’t divulge which games would be played where, but this much we know about an IIHF World Junior Championship in Northern Alberta: the tournament will have a slam-dunk, tap-in-putt, Connor McDavid-with-an-open-net certainty of success.
They’ll hold the world juniors in Edmonton and Red Deer in 2021, and if they don’t see every ticket sold it would be a miracle.
"This event will be second to none, and might be the best ever," declared Tom Renney, the president and CEO of Hockey Canada.
There is something about a world juniors in Western Canada that resonates, harkening back to 1991 when Canadian defenceman John Slaney capped an Arctic-cold, sold-out week in Saskatoon with the golden goal against Russia. That tournament was as organic as it could be, as prairie people embraced Team Canada by the thousands and the world juniors succeeded in Canada in a way it never had before.
"The first one I was involved with was that Saskatchewan one in 1991," said Nicholson, the former Hockey Canada CEO who now heads up the Oilers Entertainment Group. "I remember Murray Costello (then the head of Hockey Canada) saying, ‘They’re giving us a million dollars! They said this is what they’ll give us if they host it there!’ In those days, that was huge to Hockey Canada.
"I look back, what it is today is a Christmas tradition, from coast to coast in this country."
And, a million bucks doesn’t buy you a world juniors anymore. Not with more than 18,000 people paying NHL prices to see games at Rogers Place in 2021.
Somehow, a tournament founded on Canadian Hockey League players had outgrown major-junior rinks across Canada, which just seemed fundamentally wrong. This Christmas, with the tournament being shared between Vancouver and Victoria, they’ve found a formula that brings junior barns back into the fold.
Team Canada’s pool will play its games in Rogers Arena in Vancouver, maximizing revenues for Hockey Canada, the IIHF and the visiting federations. Meanwhile the other pool — perhaps the best pool, including the U.S., Finland and Sweden — will play its round-robin at the home of the Victoria Royals. All playoff games will take place in Vancouver.
"We like the fact there is a combination of a major-junior building, and the (NHL-sized) arena. Vancouver-Victoria looks to be a good combination," Renney said. "The bottom line is that we see some type of synergy between the big rink and that population, and the smaller rink and the rural area, so that a Red Deer can be effective in hosting this event as well."
He wouldn’t commit to the same scheduling scenario unfolding in Alberta in 2021 the way it has in B.C. in 2019, but did not hide the fact that it will likely end up identical, baring anything unforeseen.
"It looks like that would be the blueprint moving forward. I think there’s a good chance of that," Renney said. "The other federations and the IIHF will observe how the format works in B.C. before signing off on Alberta, but…"
"It went to some smaller centres, and kind of outgrew them," said three-time Canadian world juniors coach Brent Sutter. "Now, it’s kind of making the circle back, where you can have an area like the one here in Edmonton, and one like in Red Der where it really makes it work. A National Hockey League facility, and a good major-junior market."
Sutter has had a long life in the game. Still, his experiences behind the Canadian bench at the world juniors are near and dear.
"Right up there, man. I’ll tell ya," he said.
Sutter coached teams at two ends of the spectrum: the 2005 team in Grand Forks, N.D. — a lockout team regarded as the best roster ever iced at a world juniors — and then the team in Vancouver the next year, a complete turnaround when all the players from the year before went pro.
"Now it’s in your own country, and you’ve got 21 different players on your team," Sutter said. "We went undefeated in two tournaments."
Would he come back to coach in 2021?
"I don’t know," smiled the owner and head coach of the WHL’s Red Deer Rebels. "I’m lookin’ forward to coaching tomorrow night in Red Deer, and we’ll take it from there."