Canadian National Junior Hockey

By Ben Hamill - January 06 2015

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Congratulations to the Canadian National Junior Hockey Team that defeated the Russian team to win the International Junior Championship at Air Canada Centre on Monday.  It was the first time the Canadian juniors had won the championship since 2009 and the victory didn’t come easily.

The Canadian juniors, led by forwards Max Domi, Nic Petan, Sam Reinhart, Connor McDavid, and Curtis Lazar plus goalie Zach Fucale, built a seemingly insurmountable 5-1 lead only to see the Russians come storming back and pull to within one goal late in the second period.  The final score of 5-4 remained unchanged for the last twenty minutes.  At first glance it might indicate a close game with great skating, passing, and shooting.  The skills were all there but it was really three different games in one.  The Canadians dominated early and the Russians dominated in the second half of the second period.  The teams played evenly in the third period with both teams having scoring chances and both goalies making big saves.

The Canadians scored twice in the first two and a half minutes.  The Russians replaced their goalie after the second goal and the Russians fought back with a goal of their own midway through the period.  Once again, the Canadians scored early in the second period and added two more goals for the 5-1 lead.   But Russia fought back again, scoring three goals in little over three minutes.  Few thought the score would remain 5-4 throughout the third period.

Lessons of the Competition

There are a few things we can learn amidst the joy we feel at our national triumph.

There was a time when a long drought between championships would have been considered a national embarrassment.  We now realize that our national sport, ice hockey, has been exported quite well to many European countries.  There is certainly no shame in losing to a country with far more young hockey players than Canada has.

Junior hockey players, both stars and role players, often go on to have successful, even illustrious, careers in the NHL, still the premier league in the world.

The juniors play a highly-skilled variety of hockey.  The game can only get better as the physicality, meaning the checking, is controlled and the players’ skills are allowed to shine.  Hockey is a far better game for having eliminated the goon mentality that threatened to ruin the game in the 1970’s and 80’s.

Junior hockey has a storied history in Canada as many players leave their homes at young ages to play in the juniors in the larger cities.  It has been said that of all the professional team-sport players, hockey players are the most accessible to both fans and reporters.  The players seem to grow up far faster as unpampered juniors, as opposed to American basketball and football stars who may never learn the humility Canadian youngsters learn as junior hockey players.

The Importance of Billet Families

Junior league players, still kids by any measure, who leave home to play junior hockey at a higher level than is available to them in their small hometowns, live with a surrogate family during their time away from home.  This family is called the “billet” family.  The institution of the billet family and its relationship with the athlete is a culture that has long existed in junior hockey.  Canada is a vast country and many excellent athletes grow up in mining towns or farming villages far from any large urban centre.  The young athletes look for much more than housing from their billet families. The billet family tries, as best they can, to replicate the family environment that the player left.  The players are considered part of the family and participate in family events.  The players are also expected to be big brothers to the younger children in the billet family.  This gives the players a sense of responsibility that they take with them throughout their lives.

The parents in a billet family are surrogate parents in every real sense.  Often the relationship between billet parent and player lasts long after the player has left the billet home.  The parents impose reasonable discipline, act as role models, and help the young player, often frightened to be away from home, become accustomed to his new community.  In this way, billet families have a great deal of influence on the young men who have left home to play hockey.   A healthy and supportive billet family enhances the player’s self-confidence, and is often cited as a big factor in the player’s improvement in school.  Players who come from very small, isolated towns become acculturated into the modern urban society they will have to function in successfully to play professional hockey.

The unique bond billet families form with their players often last a lifetime. It is not uncommon for players to keep in close contact with their former billet family years after playing junior hockey.

Once again, great congratulations are in order to our talented National Junior Hockey players and their coaches for a nerve-wracking yet chest-thumping victory in the International Junior Championships.