Aside from spring when the NHL playoffs take place, this is the best time of year to be a hockey fan. In fact, it's the best time of the season to be involved in hockey in any way. Always was. Youth tournaments take place across the continent from Nashville, TN to Nanaimo, BC. NCAA events include the Great Lakes Invitational in Detroit and the Florida College Classic in Estero, FL.
The GLI dates back to 1965, and it has been a staple for college hockey fans since 1976 when Michigan Tech hosted it, with games at Detroit's old Olympia Stadium. The event moved to Joe Louis Arena in 1979 and Michigan became a co-host, with Michigan State as a regular third team. The fourth team is a different entry each season. Last year, Michigan State defeated RPI in the final. This year, Colorado College is the fourth team in and will kick things off in the opening game on Wednesday against last year's champs.
The Florida College Classic doesn't have nearly the history the GLI does, having begun in 2000. Cornell and Maine have attended every year and this December is no exception. Cornell opens with St. Cloud, and Maine squares off with Miami of Ohio on Dec. 29. This two-day event has become popular because the location (Germain Arena in Naples) is a desired winter destination where people combine a little vacation with watching some college hockey. The FCC is also a unique opportunity for fans in the southeast to see NCAA Division I hockey up close. Typically, youth tournaments wrap around the "big boys," giving the college game great exposure to the kids who are participating.
What has been rewarding to witness over the past five years or so is how that rite of youth hockey -- the annual Christmas tournament -- has seemingly moved up the ranks and caught on in the consciousness of decision-makers in the NHL offices. The obvious example is the NHL's Winter Classic on New Year's Day that has become the centerpiece of the regular season. Adding the outdoor element to the holiday hockey tradition has been an exposure boon for the league and the sport. With Heinz Field in Pittsburgh hosting the 2011 spectacle as the Penguins take on the Washington Capitals, the build-up itself has become an interest generator, as HBO's cameras have been documenting the two teams behind the scenes in the exceptional 24/7 series.
Meanwhile, the World Junior Championship is going strong in Buffalo, NY. Team USA won gold on Canadian turf last year -- only its second gold medal ever, having beaten host Canada in 2005 -- and that heightens expectations as the American side tries to repeat on home soil. Team USA went in as the favorite with nearly half its roster bolstered by returnees, which is perfect timing due to increased interest and attention.
The WJC has been a hugely popular event in Canada since the event began in 1977, selling out and garnering huge television ratings when played there. With NHL Network providing expanded coverage in the U.S. this time around, the WJC will continue to grow in popularity south of the border as well, especially if Team USA brings home gold again. So, no matter where you are or what your orientation, hockey and the holidays go together. That's true from the highest levels right down to the roots of the game.