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There are really only two Canadian winter rituals - despite what the calendar says.

Canadians start their year at Labour Day, not New Year's, and Groundhog Day is much closer to the beginning of winter than the end for most of the country.

That leaves the Christmas Break - no matter what your religion - and the world junior hockey championship, which begins on Boxing Day and runs through to Jan. 5, an 11-day festival that allows the usually sedate and humble Canadian to dress and act outrageously and scream out to the rest of the world, whether that world is listening or not, that We Are No. 1 .

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Which we usually are, come the first week of January and the curious world of teenage hockey.

If Canada wins gold in Saskatoon, it will mark a record sixth successive victory in the world juniors, as the championship is commonly known. That would surpass the record five in a row that Canada set in the 1990s and matched last year. In the past 12 championships, Canada has taken to the podium for five gold, four tarnished silver and three humiliating bronze.

The two lesser medals are purposely, if unfairly, slighted, for only in hockey does Canada embrace that insulting Nike ad campaign that "You don't win silver, you lose gold."

"When you pull on a world junior jersey," says Team Canada forward Jordan Eberle, "you're expected to win gold. That's just how it is. We're going for six in a row."

Eberle was the player most responsible for reaching five in a row last year in Ottawa, when he tied the game against Russia with only 5.4 seconds left to force overtime. He then scored the shootout winner to give Canada a 6-5 victory in a game the Russians had won but for a careless icing when one player foolishly tried to hit the empty Canadian net from the other side of centre ice. Eberle, a 19-year-old Regina native, will also be playing in his home province, where the fanatical Saskatchewan sports fans are expected to bring the verve they showed in this year's Grey Cup final, which Saskatchewan lost on the final play, to the hockey rink.

"People find it fun to watch," Eberle says. "For me and for every kid on this team, we grew up watching this tournament. It's a special event. Kids grow up dreaming of playing in it."

Willie Desjardins, the Saskatchewan-born coach of the Canadian team, says the increasing popularity of this tournament is no surprise: "It has such a great tradition and it's just caught on. Junior hockey's so big in Canada because it's your first chance to see the young stars."

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"And you're wondering 'How they're going to be?' 'Who's there?' 'How's this guy going to be?' It's your first look at them," Desjardins continues.

"The other thing is, it's more unpredictable. Once you get to the pro game, they're more predictable because they're so well-schooled. With us, because they just haven't been through it, they'll do some things that normally wouldn't happen with high-profile pro teams.

"So it's a little bit of the unknown and a little bit of the unexpected."

What is expected, of course, is that Canada goes in as the favourite and the country fully expects its team to play for the gold medal. Sweden, however, which lost 5-1 to Canada in last year's final, will be strong again, but so, too, will be the Russians and the Americans.

Canada has already had one lucky bounce in that it heads the relatively weak Group A (Canada, United States, Slovakia, Switzerland and Latvia, which Canada plays on Boxing Day) while Group B includes powerful Sweden and Russia, Finland, Czech Republic and Austria.

Beyond national interests, however, lie the individual curiosities. What sort of captain will gregarious Patrice Cormier of Cap-Pelé, N.B., be? If little Ryan Ellis of Freelton, Ont., was so dominant on the power play last year at 18, how good will he be at 19? Canada's Taylor Hall - described as "Mark Messier-like" by TSN analyst Pierre McGuire - will be closely watched by more than just the fans, as the Kingston native is expected to be one of the top picks in the NHL's entry draft next June. Russian sensation Nikita Filatov, who didn't shine quite as expected last year, may prove his doubters wrong this year. And Swedish goaltender Jacob Markstrom, the property of the Florida Panthers, is considered the world's top goaltending prospect.

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"These kids are all prospects for the NHL," says Hall, who currently plays for the Windsor Spitfires of the OHL, "and I think fans have an interest in watching that."

But there is more to it than that, some of it inexplicable as to how this teenage hockey tournament, largely ignored by the other nations involved, has over the years risen to near-Grey Cup status when it comes to the country coming to a halt until the results are known.

"When I was a little kid," Hall says, "there was nothing better than watching the world juniors with my buddies on Boxing Day. It's something special to Canadians. It's a combination of hockey, for sure, and holidays. I find it attracts even non-hockey fans."

"You think of the holidays and you think of the world juniors," says Hall's Windsor teammate Greg Nemisz. "That's kind of how it is. Canada loves their hockey. Everyone's pretty much off work, so they've got nothing else to do but focus on some junior hockey and have some fun watching the games."

"It's the time of year," Desjardins adds. "Everybody's home with their families and it's something they do together.

"It's hockey and it's Canada."

With reports from Eric Duhatschek in Calgary

Prospects among the Canadian six

Calgary C Greg Nemisz, Canada (2008 1st) D Tim Erixon, Sweden (2009 1st) G Joni Ortio, Finland (2009 6th)

Edmonton RW Jordan Eberle, Canada (2008 1st) C Teemu Hartikainen, Finland (2008 6th) LW Magnus Paajarvi-Svensson, Sweden (2009 1st) C Anton Lander, Sweden (2009 2nd) RW Toni Rajala, Finland (2009 4th)

Montreal RW Danny Kristo, United States (2008 2nd) F Maxim Trunev, Russia (2008 5th) C Joonas Nattinen, Finland (2009 3rd) G Petteri Simila, Finland (2009 7th)

Ottawa LW Andre Petersson, Sweden (2008 4th) D Jared Cowen, Canada (2009 1st) RW Jakob Silfverberg, Sweden (2009 2nd)

Toronto F Nazem Kadri, Canada (2009 1st) RW Jerry D'Amigo, United States (2009 6th)

Vancouver C/W Jordan Schroeder, United States (2009 1st) LW Anton Rodin, Sweden (2009 2nd)

By Matthew Sekeres

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About the Author

Roy MacGregor was born in the small village of Whitney, Ont., in 1948. Before joining The Globe and Mail in 2002, he worked for the National Post, the Ottawa Citizen, Maclean's magazine (three separate times), the Toronto Star and The Canadian Magazine. More

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