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Cam Cole, Vancouver Sun
Published: Thursday, January 04, 2007

It's a paragraph in most American newspapers. A digest item, just below bowling and above luge. Published as a community service in about 45 states to keep that handful of wacko ice-hockey fanatics from organizing a phone-in campaign to complain about the lack of coverage.

The U.S. national junior team, with an amazing performance 18 hours after its quarter-final victory over Finland, came within a hair -- maybe even a video review -- of upsetting Team Canada in the semifinal of the 2007 IIHF world junior hockey championship Wednesday in Leksand, Sweden.

Canada won on the seventh round of a shootout only after it had taken the lead, and the Americans had equalized, four times in the penalty-shot contest at the end of overtime.

Critics of the shootout, and there are many among self-styled hockey purists, argue that it is a skills contest, unrelated to team play, and that the IIHF's own special variation on the theme -- allowing a coach to keep sending out the same player, over and over, after the obligatory first three shooters -- merely emphasizes the individual nature of the penalty-shot contest, soccer's contribution to the world's sporting culture.

But you've heard all that before, and tell me it wasn't exciting anyway, that queasy feeling of sudden-death/sudden-life that accompanied each shot: Canada kept applying the thumbscrews by scoring, and the gritty Americans kept shrugging off the pressure to answer with a goal of their own, until Carey Price's save on U.S. sniper Peter Mueller finally made Jonathan Toews' third goal of the shootout -- a penalty-shot hat trick, for heaven's sake -- stand up for the win.

It was wonderful theatre, complete with an unbearably nervy, thrilling finish.

So okay, if the Yanks had won, it might have got two paragraphs back home. The winning goal might have been squeezed in at the end of ESPN's SportsCenter. In any of the snow-belt cities with college hockey teams, maybe it would have garnered a little more ink, heavily weighted toward the local kid on the team.

But any attempt to compare the excitement level of this semifinal to, say, that of Boise State's overtime victory against mighty Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl -- which we Canadians would argue, in a heartbeat -- would have been laughed off the sports pages and talk shows.

(Mind you, Boise State's fabulous series of gadget plays at the end of regulation and into overtime did produce one of the greatest college football games ever played.)

So where does that leave us, we the ever-faithful, ever-credulous hosers from the Great White North, the only people on the entire planet who actually care, in great numbers, whether our juniors win, lose or don't play? How can we not be reminded, every Christmas season, that the World Junior is substantially a Canadian phenomenon, not to be confused with a battle for global supremacy in a sport that most of the globe could actually distinguish from hurling, curling or jai alai?

Yeah, we care deeply, but maybe we give this thing far too much weight. We think it's exciting, but evidently we're about the only ones. If the games are in the U.S., close enough for Canadians to pile into their minivans and SUVs and drive, the tournament may be moderately successful, as it was in Grand Forks, N.D., two years ago, when Winnipeggers flooded south to the games, filled up Ralph Engelstad Arena on the North Dakota campus and created the illusion that Americans gave a damn.

But among the Euros, it's about as popular as a ban on smoking.

Canada's razor-thin 2-1 victory Wednesday in the game that would send the winner on to Friday's gold medal final drew 2,376 spectators, according to the IIHF's website, which also listed the attendance for last Friday's Canada-Germany game as 1,284 even though television showed what seemed to be about 100 people in the stands.

There were 7,650 fans, officially, for Sweden-Canada on the tournament's first day, and that was pretty much the extent of the populace's commitment to Our Game. When the Swedes played the Russians in Wednesday's other semifinal, the announced crowd was 5,354. You may surmise that the missing 2,300 were Canadians, and if you caught the singing of O Canada when the flag was raised after the shootout thriller, you can be pretty certain all 2,300 were among the 2,376 fans in the Canada-U.S. crowd. Do the math.

Should it bother us that we alone invest so much pride in this annual, vicarious quest to become the tallest midgets?

Nope. We are who we are and there is little we can do about the fact that hockey is, apparently, an acquired taste for those not born to it.

The Canadian kids, clearly uptight and a little rusty from three days off, were outplayed for most of the game, badly so in overtime, but were saved by Price, the Montreal Canadiens draft pick from Anahim Lake, B.C. He was beaten four times in the shootout, and may have slid back across the goal line making a save on a shot by Patrick Kane that would have given the U.S. the win (though the IIHF says it reviewed the play later and couldn't find the puck) -- but he made the only save that mattered, the last one.

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