Of all the world's micro-economies, this might well be the strangest of all.
There is no definitive tally for the amounts involved in the world junior hockey championship – can never be, in fact, as scalpers don't file year-enders – but it reaches into the many tens of millions of dollars.
The numbers we do have are jaw-dropping. The television audience for the gold-medal game two years ago reached 12.3 million Canadians tuning in for all or part of the broadcast. The 16,839-seat Rexall Place in Edmonton and the 19,289-seat Scotiabank Saddledome in Calgary are sold out for this year's games and projections are that the 2012 WJC will set a tournament record with more than 475,000 tickets sold. A pair of gold-medal tickets was briefly listed on eBay for $798 (U.S. ) but went quickly to the highest bidder. A lottery established to sell 17,000 ticket packages caused the website to crash and then sold out within days – a full year ahead of the tournament.
Giddy scalpers are already laying out their long underwear.
But tickets and television are only a part of it. There are jersey and souvenir sales, beer and hot dogs, a gorgeous coffee table book, parking, hotels – organizers promised a $42-million benefit to the province of Alberta – and such spending madness that, at the 2010 WJC held in Regina and Saskatoon, $1,789,000 was spent on 50/50 tickets alone – with the winner at the gold-medal game between Canada and the United States taking home $149,700.
It is an economy built on skinny, awkward teenagers who not only would play their child's game for free – but in this case do play for free.
Well, that's not quite true. They get neat track suits and sweatshirts and ball caps. They get instant fame or blame, depending on the outcome. They will break down in tears, guaranteed, no matter what lies around their necks at the end, albatross or gold – Canadians absurdly and unfairly dismissing any other medal in hockey, though they cheer it in all other sports.
The odd little secret about the world juniors is that the tournament isn't nearly as good as one country, Canada, believes it to be. Most other countries involved barely notice the existence of the tournament. Many of the games are lopsided as roughly half the 10 teams involved – defending champion Russia, 2010 champion United States, 2005-09 champion Canada, Sweden, Finland, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Switzerland, Denmark and Latvia – are very good and roughly half will not be able to keep up.
There will also be mistakes – mistakes in play, mistakes in coaching – and panic as the good teams, Canada invariably one of them, come down to the medal round.
And yet this very unpredictability, at times pure chaos, is what makes the tournament so compelling to Canadians, most of whom believe they could have played at that level but for weak eyes, poor equipment, bad luck, wrong sex, unsupportive parents, blind coaches ... and all of whom believe they could coach at that level.
It is impossible to pick a world junior championship that does not have at least one tale of the improbable: the Russians storming back to score five successive goals in Buffalo last year while Team Canada went into total meltdown; the Russians screwing up on an icing in Ottawa in 2009 that led to Canada's Jordan Eberle scoring with 5.4 seconds remaining to force overtime and a shootout that gave Canada its fifth consecutive gold medal; Jonathan Toews taking shootout after shootout in Leksand, Sweden, in 2007, scoring three times against Team USA's Jeff Frazee to put Canada into the final ...
No tournament could possibly produce such highs and lows, such glory, such shame: when Canada and Russia met at the 1987 championship in Piestany, Czechoslovakia, with Canada an excellent chance at gold – both teams ended up disqualified following a bench-clearing brawl that stopped the game barely halfway through.
For a variety of reasons – Christmas and New Year's down time, TSN promotion, dog days in the NHL, slow sports news, guaranteed excitement – the tournament has long since taken on a life of its own in Canada. It has become as much a ritual as the exchange of gifts at this time of year.
It matters so much to so many that already the hockey equivalent of the dog-ate-my-homework excuses are doing the rounds. Canada, it turns out, will be missing several young stars the likes of the Edmonton Oilers' Ryan Nugent-Hopkins thanks to a combination of their good play and NHL salary cap situations. But, so, too, will other countries be missing potential stars: some because they stuck with their NHL clubs, while two Russian players are unable to defend their gold medals because they went down in the Sept. 7 plane crash that wiped out the Lokomotiv Yaroslavl hockey team.
There will be much concentration on individuals – Russia's highly touted draft prospect, Nail Yakupov, Canadian goaltender Mark Visentin, who paid the price for his team's meltdown a year ago, U.S. college centre Nick Bjugstad – because the world junior championship has always featured tomorrow's stars. Wayne Gretzky, Peter Forsberg and Alexander Ovechkin were all chosen "best forward" in their championships. Viacheslav Fetisov and Dion Phaneuf were "best defenceman." Dominik Hasek and Carey Price starred as goaltenders.
But, when that final anthem is played, it will be for a team, not a single player – with the only guarantee that the gold medal will come with tears.
And the only question in Canada – twice in a row coming up just short in the gold-medal game – being whether those tears hurt or heal.