The IIHF World Junior Championships begin in just a few days in Edmonton and Calgary, and I have been asked by Justin Bourne, editor of the Backhand Shelf hockey blog, to walk those who may not be familiar with the tournament through some of the basics they’ll need to know.
How it works:
There are always 10 teams in the tournament, which is a nice way for Russia, Canada, the U.S., Sweden and the Slovaks to pretend like anyone else has the slightest chance of medaling.
This year, Group A consists of Russia, Sweden, Switzerland, Slovakia and Latvia. Group B features Canada, the U.S., Finland, the Czechs and Denmark. If you watch any Group A games at all, that would be a fairly big mistake.
The tournament kicks off the day after Christmas, which is known as Boxing Day in Canada. This is a holiday made up specifically so Canadians could watch their beloved team lose every year.
What to watch for:
There are a slew of high-quality young players in the tournament every year, many of whom are draft-eligible, meaning this is a great opportunity to see who the Blue Jackets will take first overall in June.
Russia has easily the tournament’s two most dynamic offensive players in Nail Yakupov and Mikhail Grigorenko, who are lighting up the CHL and seem likely go first and second overall in this year’s coming NHL Entry Draft. The team also has goaltending good enough to give Russia a chance to win every game 16-15.
Then there’s the host country. With only 12 players who have been picked in the first round, and two more players projected to go about that high in this year’s draft, this might be the scrappiest, underdoggest, lunchpailest Team Canada of all time, TSN reports.
(Incidentally, when discussing the tournament with a Canadian, please don’t bring up that the USA and Russia have won the last two World Junior gold medals unless you really want to hear about the time Canada won it in 1988 as though anyone cares what happened several years before any of the current players in the tournament were born.)
However, experts — or, more accurately, Canadian media types intentionally sandbagging their own team so that they can act like the team’s inevitable fourth-place finish wasn’t a total disappointment — say Team USA’s long list of returning players makes them the favorites. And that’s probably true, as they will be better equipped to handle being pelted with rotten fruit thrown by jealous Canadians and victimized by a series of phantom calls from corrupt IIHF officials.
But just because these three teams are expected to repeat as the medalists once again this year doesn’t mean that there won’t be reasons to keep the other games on in the background while you nap.
For example, if you get the chance, you might want check out a Finland game and watch the work of dynamic brothers Markus and Mikael Granlund, two of hockey’s most successful lacrosse players.
And apparently, rumors that the Czech Republic and Slovakia could only afford a small number of letters for their players’ jerseys were proven false, meaning Martin Frk and Marek Tvrdon actually spell their names that way.
That just about covers the world’s top hockey nations. There are also the doormats that get to play Washington Generals to the Big Six’s Globetrotters.
Players like Latvia’s Zemgus Girgensons and Denmark’s Niklas Jensen will give fans big-time thrills when they get the puck, at least until their teams are mathematically eliminated from the tournament during round robin play, which could happen as often as twice five minutes into their first games.
And because many of this year’s games will be played in Calgary, home fans will have an excellent opportunity to get an eyeful of Flames top prospect Sven Baertschi before Jay Feaster trades him to Carolina for a fourth-round pick next season.
Fun facts for North American fans:
- If you see a little red light go off behind Canada goaltender Mark Visentin every four minutes or so, don’t worry. That’s totally normal.
- You’ll probably notice that Team USA is missing WJC-eligible defenseman Justin Faulk of the Carolina Hurricanes, but that’s only because he’s too good to waste his time with a tournament only Canada really cares about but still can’t win for some reason.
- Yes, Boone Jenner is a real person’s name. And yes, “Boone goes the dynamite” is a real thing they say on Canadian sports broadcasts.
- Canada head coach Don Hay has yet to name a captain because every player on his team is too bad to merit consideration.
- It’s too bad Canada cut 17-year-old scoring sensation Matthew Dumba because I had a lot of really funny jokes about that kid’s name.
- The U.S. will rely heavily on goaltender Jack Campbell, who was outstanding in last year’s tournament, to not fall asleep during the lengthy bouts of play in which his team holds its opponents without a shot.
- Canada will likely feel it has a good chance to win this year because it has home ice advantage. John Carlson would like a word with them on the subject.
- American-born Pierre McGuire might come off as a big-time Canada homer on broadcasts but that’s only because he feels bad for how terribly they’re bound to do.
- Canada’s best player is arguably Jaden Schwartz who, because he’s the team’s only NCAA player and therefore actually attends classes, will have to play through the wedgies his teammates give him for being nerd. Along those same lines, Team Canada discourages anyone from asking its players to spell “IIHF.”
- America is going to win this in a walk, so you can probably just go ahead and clear your schedule for 10 p.m. on Jan. 5, when the U.S. will be awarded its anticlimactic gold medals.
Enjoy the games, everyone!
[Author's note: I am American.]