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Junior hockey is more than a holiday diversion in Canada

World Junior Championship has created a craze in Canada, and the TV ratings prove it

Once a small tournament considered a diversion during the Christmas and New Year's holidays, the World Junior Championship has become an obsession in hockey-obsessed Canada.

According to the National Post newspaper, nearly a half-million people tuned in to TSN to watch an exhibition between Canada and Russia last week. Nine of the top 15 specialty TV programs TSN has aired are World Junior Championship games, and 6.1 million people tuned in to see Russia beat Canada for the gold medal in the 2011 tournament at Buffalo.

This year's tournament began Friday, on the Boxing Day holiday. Games will be played at Montreal's Bell Centre and Toronto's Air Canada Centre, and the gold medal game is set for Monday in Toronto.

Whether the tournament has boomed because of good timing or smart promotion by TSN, there's no denying the appeal of watching future stars emerge on the world stage. Thanks to the NHL Network, American fans have been able to share the fun. They'll get a good matchup Wednesday, when potential 2015 NHL No. 1 draft pick Connor McDavid and Canada will face potential top pick Jack Eichel and the U.S.

"World juniors is huge in Canada," said Kings defenseman Drew Doughty, who won a gold medal for his homeland in the 2008 tournament and was voted the top defenseman. "Even as a kid, I remember every Boxing Day I'd watch the opening game of the tournament for Canada, and I'd always watch the gold medal game."

Kings forward Mike Richards won a silver medal with Canada in 2004 and gold in 2005 as the captain. The 2005 team was extraordinary. With NHL players locked out during a labor dispute, eligible kids who might have been in the NHL were able to play in the tournament.

Canada's roster featured other future impact players: Kings forward Jeff Carter, Pittsburgh's Sidney Crosby, Boston's Patrice Bergeron, Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf of the Ducks and defensemen Brent Seabrook of Chicago, Dion Phaneuf of Toronto and Shea Weber of Nashville. They won Canada's first gold medal since 1997.

"It's amazing to look back and see the different players and how well everyone has done so far in their careers," Richards said. "It's one of the highlights of my career. I had so much fun at that tournament with those guys."

Although the fan interest can exert stifling pressure on these teenagers, Richards said his experience was purely positive. "The expectation is to win, and you definitely learn how to win," he said. "When you have that much pressure on you, I think you learn to deal with it early."

He's not the only member of the Kings who's keeping up with this year's tournament. Carter and Slovakian winger Marian Gaborik kidded each other on Twitter over the Canada-Slovakia game, a rout for Team Canada.

"Even though you're 10, 11 years gone from it, you're still Canadian," Richards said. "I grew up watching that tournament. I remember waking up with my dad and my brothers at 4 or 5 a.m. when it was overseas to watch the tournament, so I think it's in your bloodline that you want them to win and have success."

New trend: GMs behind bench

Last week, New Jersey's Lou Lamoriello became the second NHL general manager to take a coaching role, firing Peter DeBoer the day after Christmas and recruiting Scott Stevens and Adam Oates to join him in trying to salvage something from his many mistakes.

Lamoriello followed the example of Edmonton's Craig MacTavish, who fired Dallas Eakins on Dec. 15 and appointed himself co-coach until minor league coach Todd Nelson could get acclimated to the NHL and the mess MacTavish helped make of the Oilers, who have lost 20 of their last 21 games.

Lamoriello put on a slightly different spin, delegating Oates to oversee the forwards and Stevens to oversee the defense. According to Elias Sports Bureau, the Devils have made the most coaching changes (13) in the NHL over the past 15 seasons, and this one isn't likely to keep them from missing the playoffs for the third straight season.

If they're honest and not merely protecting their jobs, MacTavish and Lamoriello should see how badly their teams are structured. The Devils' defense is too young and their forwards are too old; losing Zach Parise, Ilya Kovalchuk and David Clarkson with no return drained their talent. New Jersey hasn't drafted well lately, leading Lamoriello to sign aging, unproductive free agents. The Oilers haven't drafted well after the first round and haven't nurtured their young talent well.

Neither move is likely to accomplish much beyond keeping Lamoriello and MacTavish employed past their shelf life.

Slap shots

•If this is the end of the road for goaltender Martin Brodeur, he's leaving in style, with a 16-save shutout against Colorado on Monday. Brodeur, 42, was signed by St. Louis after Brian Elliott sprained his knee, but Elliott has been cleared to play; the Blues plan to keep Brodeur, Elliot and Jake Allen only until they're sure Elliott is fit. Brodeur, who had been struggling before Monday, extended his NHL record to 691 wins and 125 shutouts.

•The weather forecast for Thursday in Washington, site of the Winter Classic between the Capitals and Chicago Blackhawks at Nationals Park, calls for sun with a high of 42, low of 28 and no rain. The game will be broadcast on NBC at 10 a.m. PST.

helene.elliott@latimes.com

Twitter: @helenenothelen

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