Canada versus USA in an outdoor match at the 2018 World Junior Championships. (Hockey Canada/Instagram)

Just before the calendar strikes 2019, Save-On-Foods Memorial Centre (SOFMC) will be swapping its usual cast of under-20 stars for a taste of international hockey’s best and brightest junior aged players.

Gone will be the familiar black and blue of our Royals, and in its place will be the national colours and flags of Finland, Kazakhstan, Slovakia, Sweden, and the United States of America.

Though the uniforms change along with the faces beneath the helmets, one key factor will not: the fact that just like our Royals, these kids competing in the Barn on Blanshard will be playing for a single reason we can all relate to. The love of hockey.

Tom Renney, Chief Executive Officer of Hockey Canada has had the opportunity to represent Canada as head coach at both the 1999 World Juniors and the 1994 Olympics, and has an intimate understanding of what these tournaments mean to the players.

“All that these kids want to do is make their country proud,” he said, recalling his 1999 run as coach that resulted in a silver medal. “It’s so pure; it’s uncontaminated by the allure of the National Hockey League and the paycheck of the NHL.”

“It’s a very pristine opportunity for a coach; it doesn’t come along very often as you navigate your coaching career.”

Every Victoria Royals game this year can serve as a reminder of the raw, competitive nature of under-20 amateur hockey. The love of the game, the drive to compete, and a chance to represent your country is as undiluted as hockey and competitive sport can get. And while the games inside SOFMC are loaded with great matchups, the 2019 World Juniors will be about far more than just what goes inside that building.

Fans from around the world will be treated not only to one of hockey’s most exciting annual tournaments, but to the incredible landscape and scenery our beautiful province has to offer.

“Everything is unique and there are so many beautiful spots,” said Renney, who lived in Victoria for two years and played for the UVic Vikes in 1974. “I don’t know of a better combination in my world travels.”

Given that Renney also served as head coach of the Vancouver Canucks from 1996-98, he is acutely aware of the experience awaiting travelling World Junior enthusiasts. “You factor in the sea to sky in Vancouver, the ferry ride, the harbour to harbour float plane, the beauty of all that,” Renney said. “Then you can look at Victoria and its size and beauty, the housing style and BC parliament buildings, and I’d be hard pressed to think of a combination that’s more appealing.”

For Renney, the big event in a smaller location reminds him of coaching the Canadian Olympic Men’s hockey team in Lillehammer, Norway for the 1994 Olympics, where he earned a silver medal in a heartbreaking shootout loss to Sweden. Smaller communities don’t get international events too often, resulting in an appreciative, infectious vibe.

“Lillehammer is a lot like any place you could find in BC, honestly,” he reminisced. “It’s a beautiful community with great people and it was a great event.”

Contributing to the vast potential of the World Juniors in Victoria is the fact that Group B – the group preparing for battle at the Barn on Blanshard – is a jackpot of matchups that any hockey fan will appreciate. Sweden and Finland offer fans a built-in rivalry that has been ongoing for decades – if not centuries – while the smorgasbord of elite talent USA brings north will be entertaining and easy to cheer against. With Slovakia offering their usual dark horse status, and Kazakhstan returning to the world stage for the first time in a decade, Victoria hockey fans will be served a spectacle of quality hockey.

“It’s a real treat for the true hockey fan to see that type of hockey in Victoria,” Renney said. “You can just imagine the talent that will be on the ice… if that doesn’t get a person fired up about the games, I don’t know what will.”

Six of the last nine World Junior Championships have been claimed by Group B participants, with USA claiming three, Finland two, and Sweden one. It’s a testament to the fact that these countries have completely increased the quality of their national programs, and recent results show it.

Local fans of Canadian hockey teams will also be in for a treat, with a number of top NHL prospects playing in Victoria. Canucks fans will be treated to the spectacle of smooth skating defenseman Quinn Hughes, while Maple Leafs supporters can observe recent first round picks Rasmus Sandin and Timothy Liljegren, both Swedes. Ottawa’s 2018 first rounder Joshua Norris will suit up for the Americans, while Jacob Olofsson will look to impress Montreal fans should he crack Sweden’s roster. Factor in Finnish power forward Kristian Vesalainen of the Winnipeg Jets, and there is an incredible range of elite players coming to town who will likely one day suit up for a Canadian franchise.

The cherry on top is projected 2019 first overall pick Jack Hughes will anchor a strong American team, posing an opportunity for fans to witness his talent and skill first hand. “He’s just an outstanding player with tremendous vision and great poise with the puck,” Renney said. “[He can] deliver a pass with both sides of the stick and do it in situations or circumstances where you are left shaking your head.”

There will be plenty of skill to appreciate.

Built into hosting an event of this magnitude is the community of volunteers and coordinators coming together to welcome the world into our city and country, and puts into perspective just how woven hockey is into the fabric of being a Canadian.

So many of us have that iconic hockey memory of our childhoods. Whether it’s shooting pucks in the great Canadian wilderness, or watching your child skate hard on a back check, there’s something we all can look back upon fondly.

For me, it’s a stark memory of playing one-on-one road hockey on the frozen street until 11pm, freezing cold and the score locked at 8-8 – and my dad bringing hot chocolate out to power us toward that first-to-ten victory. For Tom Renney, his childhood was built upon a love and passion for hockey, and has a strong recollection of skating on Elizabeth Lake near Cranbrook, BC as a boy, likely ignoring his mother’s calls for dinner as he tried to rescue a frozen duck.

Whether you’re playing road hockey under the foggy street lamps and a star-laden sky, or skating alongside the mountains on a frozen Canadian lake, there are hockey memories to be made.

One hundred teenagers will suit up for their country in Victoria during this year’s Christmas break. And while a portion will go on to lift Lord Stanley’s Cup or score a series clinching goal, many of these player’s most incredible hockey memories will be that time their country’s flag rest upon on their chest at Save-On-Foods Memorial Centre.

All we have to do is get out and share it with them.

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