It’s the most wonderful time of the hockey year. This year-concluding week is a special one for our sport. With some subtlety but unmistakably NHL games are taking on greater importance, as the standings begin to reflect less of a pack mentality — a win at home tonight against Toronto and the Caps would enjoy some double-digit separation from the rest of the Southeast. And once again the NHL appears to have outclassed itself and organized another special, highly appealing outdoor game for New Years Day, at Wrigley Field. But best of all is the arrival of the Under-20 World Junior Championships, being contested in Ottawa this year.
For some years now I’ve been of the opinion that the World Juniors represent the very best in tournament hockey. There’s so much passion to it. There’s so much intrigue in roster formation. Most years, we really don’t know who among the tournament’s goalies is going to stand on his head, making for annual medal round madness. One of the television commentators over the weekend called the World Juniors Canada’s version of March Madness, and with good reason.
Hosted by the IIHF, wholly free of IOC crassness and corruption, the World Juniors are, nutritionally speaking, the Whole Foods of hockey. It’s the most heavily scouted event in all of hockey. It’s a passion pageant undiluted by any competing event.
What I like best of all about the tournament is that every year there is always at least one breakout performance with which a pre-draft talent announces his arrival on the world hockey scene — 16-year-old Alexander Ovechkin, 16-year-old Phil Kessel, 17-year-old Patrick Kane. And perhaps you’ve noticed during the tournament’s opening two days: the NHL Network is very much acknowledging this special event, bringing hours and hours of live game coverage of it every day. Meaningless college football bowl games are a thing of our TV recreating away from the holiday family gathering past.
This week is one big Christmas present from hockey to its fans, and the World Juniors are its brightest bow.
The World Juniors are very much a Canadian party. The Canucks have won Under-20 gold four straight years, and they’ve been in the gold medal game every year since 2002. In a real sense, this tournament highlights the developmental strength of Canadian Major Juniors; just about each year it’s the case that the Canadians could field at least two gold medal contending rosters comprised exclusively of CHLers.
But they always get great battles from the Americans, who tap mostly into the U.S. National Team Development Program to assemble their roster. It’s a real contrast with the CHL in national player development, and it adds luster to the tourney. The Canadians and Americans compete in the same pool, and the IIHF now regularly schedules a game between them on New Years Eve. It’s got to be one heck of a party, and I’ve got to have one seriously cute date for it to drag me away from the TV then.
There are some terrific storylines for this year’s tourney:
- Played on North America’s smaller ice sheet, do the Canadians and Americans enjoy an advantage?
- Canada’s roster is conspicuous for who it’s missing: eight elite teenage talents who’ve fast-tracked their careers into the NHL, among them Steve Stamkos, Drew Doughty, Luke Schenn, Josh Bailey, Kyle Turris, and Sam Gagner. Still, the Canadians are strong contenders for gold for the 5th straight year, and they’re playing at home.
- Sweden typically doesn’t much figure in the medal contender talk most years at the World Juniors, but this year the Swedes are bringing a roster of elite skill, headlined by 2009 no.1 overall contender Victor Hedman (brother of Oscar), whom some draftgeekss have tabbed Chara II. The L.A. Kings have loaned out Oscar Moller to the Swedish cause, and up front he’s joined by Mikael Backlund and Mattias Tedenby. They will be fun to watch.
- The Americans at last year’s Worlds boasted one of the tournament’s best lines: James van Riemsdyk, Colin Wilson, and 2009 sure-bet top 10 pick Jordan Schroeder. That entire line is back for this year’s tourney, and the Americans again will be aided by a gaudy array of talent on the blueline: four first-round talents in Jonathon Blum, Ian Cole, Ryan McDonagh, and Kevin Shattenkirk.
- At the end of this tournament, odds are we’ll likely have a much better sense of who’s going no. 1 in the draft next June, Hedman or Canada’s Jonathon Tavares.