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The ads have started on TV to promote it, The Hockey News just arrived in my mailbox focusing on the whole tournament, and, this year for the World Juniors, there's a fresh new book from Sportsnet's Mark Spector that looks back on the hows and whys of the tournament.
It's titled Road to Gold: The Untold Story of Canada at the World Juniors and it's an entertaining read that helps explain how the annual event grew from relative obscurity to must-see TV every Christmas season.
Before detailing how the World Juniors came about, let's detail how Road to Gold came about.
Spector, who had had plenty of success with 2015's The Battle of Alberta: The Historic Rivalry Between the Edmonton Oilers and the Calgary Flames, and who has been covering Canadian sport for 30 years, was pitched the idea by Simon & Schuster. From there, he got to work. “I thought it through, and thought, 'Here's the things we should know.' You almost work backwards on this one. We know what the World Juniors are today, but the question is, How did it get here? How did it become such a part of our Canadian sports watching fabric? How did it become to Canadians what football is to Americans at Thanksgiving?” said Spector over the phone from Vancouver, where he was sitting in the media lounge at the Rogers Arena, a day before the Canucks faced the Maple Leafs.
The book does not work chronologically, but rather focuses on a number of themes, from the origins of the tournament, to 16-year-olds playing, to the challenges of goaltending under pressure, to coaching and managing, to the famed Punch-up in Piestany. If you want the year-to-year results and statistics, this is not that book. (There's Gare Joyce's Hockey Canada: Thirty Years Of Going For Gold At The World Juniors from 2012 for that.) Instead, it's richly filled with tons of interviews from some of today's top NHL stars and retired players, all with the focus on the Canadian aspect of things.
Given all things World Juniors that Canadians celebrate from Boxing Day until early in the new year, Spector notes that was not always the case. “What we neglect to realize, or fail to know, is that no one really knew that much about the World Juniors before '91 when TSN started showing all the games on TV,” he said. “In the '80s, there was only a gold medal game on. Or the fight in Piestany was the last game of the tournament and that's the one we get to see. But we didn't get to see preliminary games, we didn't see all the tournament games. CBC never would show you Sweden against the USA or Russia-Finland; that was unheard of. Looking back now, a lot of the conversations I had with guys on those teams in the '80s, we didn't know a lot of that stuff, because it was covered in newspapers, it wasn't sent abroad on the television the way it is today.”
And all the players were happy to talk about their experiences, mostly good.
“One thing you will know as a sportswriter is guys love talking about the good old days. Very, very few negative experiences,” he said. “Connor McDavid was in two of these things, and the first one, he fell under [coach] Brent Sutter, and he ended up being the 13th forward, and he did confide, he said, 'You know, that first one wasn't a great experience. I don't look back on that fondly.' But his second, Toronto-Montreal, they won a gold medal, he played in those big rinks.”
Another big name, with a bad moment, was Roberto Luongo, whose who let in the overtime goal that lost the gold medal to Russia in Wininpeg in 1999. “In the big picture, he remembers it fondly, that was acutely painful, that goal, but loved talking about it, and really gave some real good insight into what it's like to be the guy in goal when that puck goes by and the tournament's over and you didn't win.”
For all the stars who took the time to talk (though Wayne Gretzky was the one that got away), Spector is most appreciative of two executives. Murray Costello and Dennis McDonald were the key figures who saw what the World Juniors could be, and convinced the heads of the WHL, OHL and QMJHL to buy into The Program of Excellence, and allow their brightest stars to participate. Costello, in particular, was a source that Spector found himself going back to again and again.
“I know that Murray didn't realize that it would come to support Hockey Canada the way it has, but they were visionaries, and they looked ahead and said, 'I think this thing can be a lot bigger than it is.' You know what? It turned out they were right,” said Spector.
With the pitch to the Powers That Be at the Canadian Hockey League as a starting point, Spector looks at how it all grew. “Murray Costello was a great place to start, and thank goodness for his immense cooperation. TSN's involvement was clearly a seminal moment. They've built the World Juniors into something, the same way that the CFL wouldn't be where it is without that network. It's just a couple of things they've really put their brand onto,” said Spector, who writes daily for the rival Sportsnet.ca. “I wanted to know how that happened and why it happened. We know that has happened, but I think as as a journalist and an author, that's what you want to know—I know what's happened, but how come? And what were the small steps along the way?”
He doesn't shy away from the missteps too, like talking to Maxime Comtois about his penalty shot in Vancouver in 2019 that didn't go Canada's way. Talk about pressure on young men.
As for the pressure on Spector, he found the “longform” of a second book freeing from the daily routine. (Visit https://www.sportsnet.ca/insiders/mark-spector/ for his columns.)
“I write every single day for Sportsnet.ca, and it's a new idea and a new day every day, and I very seldom start a piece today that I don't finish and file today. I very seldom have a two-day, or a week-long, I'm not a magazine-type guy that works two weeks on piece, that's just not what my job is,” he said. “So I enjoy the book process, because it takes a lot of time, and you gather up all your stuff, and you get time, you write a chapter, and then you get to walk away from it, then you get to come back and look at it yourself, instead of reading it online as a finished product. I like the process. It's vastly removed from what I do day-to-day.”
Putting the big puzzle together was fun and a challenge, and what he initially envisioned with Road to Gold isn't exactly what he ended up with in the end. “You always discover some things that make you re-prioritize what you're going to write and how you're going to write—and that's part of the process. I can't imagine a process where you have it all figured out when you start. I'm not a traveller like that, I don't travel with my itinerary set, I like to discover stuff as I go, and I think that's the same for the process for when you're writing a book.”
Spector is not ready to start on another book quite yet, though. “I'm about an every three, four year guy. It's a lot of work, man,” he chuckled. “It's a bear. You're giving away a summer a little bit when you do it; I kind of like my summers, I don't want to give them all away.”
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