An introduction to the World Junior Hockey Championship
It’s Christmas time, which means it is time for the International Ice Hockey Federation World Under 20 Championship, also known as World Juniors. The tournament has only been around since the ’70s, but it has gradually become one of the most emotional tournaments in all of hockey.
The players are, of course, under 20 years of age, and therefore unlikely to have played in full capacity with an NHL team, so their futures are bright and their talents are on display for the whole world to see. Many are also undrafted and come to the tournament with a sparse scouting report, only to leave, win or lose, with new-found acclaim and tales of heroism that will be relived in TSN highlight reels on draft day.
The timing of the tournament, beginning in late December and culminating in early January, also lends it the magic of the holiday season and provides a built-in audience of diehard hockey fans and casual sporting nationalists. The post-Christmas doldrums are easily combated by sending a good team to the World Juniors.
Hockey could dubiously be referred to as “Canada’s sport”, and while Canada has the most medals, Canada’s World Junior Championship gold medal record is historically streaky. They win it in chunks, most recently ending a five-year reign over the title in 2009. Then, the United States won its second-ever title in an emotional overtime game against Canada in 2010. Russia also beat Canada in the gold medal game in 2011, scoring five goals in the final frame alone to secure the title–as if the overtime loss to the United States weren’t embarrassing enough.
In 2012’s WJC in Calgary and Edmonton, Sweden won its second-ever gold and first since 1981, and Canada only made it to the bronze medal game, winning handily over Finland with a 4-0 shutout.
The game of ice hockey is so ingrained into the culture of Canada that, in light of these losses, the newspaper quotes from young junior hockey players on their way to the next tourney read more like statements of men headed to bitter war.
Every team goes to the tournament with a mission. The competition is organized into four divisions, three of which are “lower divisions” and can only compete for a medal with the top divisional group based on exceptional performance. So, it’s unlikely that every team can rightly say they go to the tournament to win the gold. But the teams that medal are consistent presences in the top division–and they always come for the title.
Canada’s motto to this effect (“one reason”) comes right from the middle years of the Cold War, as told in a recent Calgary Sun article. The sentiment comes from a commitment to face up to the Soviets on an international stage. Today, Canadian junior team members face up to their with the same amount of built-in patriotism — though there are no missiles to worry about, no Berlin Wall, no communist threat. It’s a little less heated than the circumstances under which Phil Esposito inspired the “one reason” banner, but that doesn’t diminish the national desire of Canada to succeed in the WJC above all others.
The opponents, though, have their own cultural reasons for pursuing victory. The United States in particular has had a hockey renaissance as of late, from the Olympic level to the NHL entry draft to high school to rec league. It comes from players starting young and therefore growing the number of skilled and registered players at all levels. Numbers from 2011 show that USA Hockey grew in membership over 143 percent since 1991.
Russia, Sweden, Finland, and the Czech Republic are also prominent competitors in recent history. When the teams arrive in Ufa, Russia, the top division teams will contain all of the aforementioned nations as well as Slovakia, Germany, Latvia, and Switzerland. Even teams unlikely to medal will bring prodigious scorers to a world stage. Offense alone does not win championships, but it does play a bigger factor in the WJC’s age group, considering that defensive ability is widely considered a skill that takes longer to mature and cultivate.
As the teams complete their camps and finalize rosters, TSN’s World Juniors page will be the best place for news, as well as Canadian medal anxiety. Should the NHL lockout remain in court throughout the holidays, all but killing any hopes of a season, the World Juniors will definitively be the most thrilling, emotional hockey on television this winter.