Five Key Thoughts From the World Junior Championship of Hockey

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I realize many sports fans don’t understand hockey’s World Junior Championship. There’s a good chance you’ve never heard of most of the players. Depending on your level of fandom, it’s possible you’ve never heard of any of the players. It’s a single-elimination tournament in a sport that really needs long series to get any kind of fair outcome, so the odds of the whole thing being won by the legitimately best team are marginal.1 The very best players in the age group, the ones you’d really want to see in this kind of event, are almost all missing because they’re already in the big leagues. And, of course, these are just kids, so the level of play isn’t exactly pro level, and there are some brutal mismatches.

You know what that sounds a lot like to me? March Madness! You like March Madness, right? Good. Think of the WJC as hockey’s version of March Madness,2 except instead of everyone’s rooting interests being driven by some tenuous former ties to some school and/or gambling, it’s based on strident nationalism.

You’re onboard with that, right, America? I knew you would be. Here’s the bad news: Team USA went home early, and we’ll get to that in a few sections. But we still wound up with a pretty decent matchup for last night’s gold-medal game, so let’s start there as we run down five key thoughts from the last two weeks of teenage spirit.

1. We got a big rivalry game for the gold …

Canada vs. Russia was international hockey’s original rivalry — the two nations were trying to pulverize each other years before the Miracle on Ice — and it has provided some of the sport’s most memorable moments in the decades since. That’s especially true at the WJC, where Canada and Russia have met for the gold eight times since 1999 (not to mention this infamous debacle back in the Soviet Union days.)

So last night’s gold-medal matchup between Canada and Russia was a worthy one. And it delivered on what we’ve come to expect between the two teams: bad blood, plenty of skill, and an almost unbearably dramatic game.

That last bit seemed like it would get the night off midway through the second period. After Canada jumped out to an early 2-0 lead just a few minutes into the game, Russia fought back to even the flow of play and closed the gap to 2-1 by the end of the first. But Canada took a 5-1 lead on second-period goals by Sam Reinhart, Connor McDavid — more on him in a moment — and Max Domi,3 shifting the game firmly into blowout territory.

Apparently somebody forgot to translate that memo into Russian, because the visitors stormed back with three goals in a four-minute span to close the gap to 5-4 by the end of the second. It was an admirable comeback from the Russians, and the first real adversity Canada had faced in the tournament. It also brought back memories of the 2011 gold-medal game in Buffalo, played exactly four years ago. That was the final that saw Russia storm back from a 3-0 third-period deficit with five unanswered goals, a loss that still stings Canadian hockey fans.

There’d be no third-period collapse this year, or any third-period goals for that matter. The teams played a furious period with plenty of chances, but Canada held on for the 5-4 win to take home the gold, the country’s first in six years. It was an enormously entertaining game, if you can ignore that anyone with a rooting interest hated every second of it, and put a nice exclamation point on a fun tournament.

2. … but we didn’t get the big rivalry game

While Canada and Russia will always be the old favorite, there’s no better international hockey rivalry right now than Canada vs. Team USA. And that’s especially true at the junior level, where the American program has very nearly caught up with its northern neighbors, winning gold in 2010 and 2013. Games between the two countries tend to be emotional affairs, as the two sides don’t seem to like each other very much.

We did get a Canada/USA matchup to close out the round-robin, with Team Canada earning an entertaining 5-3 win on New Year’s Eve. But there would be no rematch in the elimination round, with the Americans dropping a 3-2 decision to the Russians after drawing a tough matchup in the quarterfinals.4 That loss sent Team USA home without a medal for the second straight year.

So has the American development program taken a step back? Hardly. While it’s always disappointing to go home empty-handed, the WJC format basically ensures that at least one top team will be out early. That American loss to Canada dropped them down to second place in their group and led to a tough matchup with the Russians, and an undisciplined effort combined with running into a hot goaltender spelled doom.

The loss hurts, but in the big picture the Americans are on the right track. They came into this year’s tournament as one of the favorites and will head into next year’s event the same way. Other than Canada,5 no nation is producing as much high-end offensive talent as the Americans are these days. Assuming they don’t panic based on a few years of tough matchups and bad luck, they’ll be just fine.

3. The big McDavid vs. Eichel showdown was kind of a bust

One key subtext to this year’s Canada/USA rivalry was the battle between Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel, the players expected to be taken with the top two picks in the upcoming NHL entry draft. Both are considered elite prospects, and the presence of both in this year’s draft has led to speculation on teams tanking in an effort to land one.

McDavid has been on the radar as Canada’s next great superstar since he was 15, drawing comparisons to Sidney Crosby and Mario Lemieux. He’s been the consensus top pick for years, but Eichel has emerged as a legitimate candidate for the honor while starring with the U.S. development program and at Boston University. This year’s WJC presented the two stars with an opportunity to show their stuff and potentially cement their status heading into the draft. Could Eichel steal the spotlight from his heavily hyped Canadian competition?

Well … no. Eichel had a disappointing tournament, recording just a goal and four points. That’s certainly not bad — remember, Eichel just turned 18 and is a full year younger than most of the players in the tournament — but it’s not the sort of effort he needed to move past McDavid into a serious conversation for the first overall pick. And, of course, Team USA’s early exit won’t help matters among those who love to assign team results to individual players.

McDavid, meanwhile, looked great, finishing tied for first in tournament scoring with 11 points while often looking like a man playing against boys. Granted, plenty of those points came against overmatched opposition, but he made sure we heard from him during the gold-medal game. When a long pass sprung him for a breakaway early in the second period of a one-goal game, the result felt like a formality. McDavid buried it, because that’s what guys like McDavid do.

Like after any short tournament, it’s easy to overreact to a player’s performance at the WJC and let the narratives get out of control. That shouldn’t happen here — Eichel is still a top prospect and some team will be thrilled to get him with the second overall pick. But he needed to dominate if he was going to push past McDavid, and he didn’t come close.

4. The tournament’s feel-good stories included a team getting crushed 8-0

One of the WJC’s unspoken secrets is that it’s a 10-team tournament that’s really, at best, a six-team tournament. You’ve got Canada, Russia, the United States, Sweden, and (most years) Finland and the Czech Republic contending for the medals, and that’s about it. Those are the only six teams that have ever won gold in the tournament’s history,6 and heading into this year’s tournament, a team outside the modern “big six” has won a medal only twice, none since 1999.7

But every once in a while, a team makes an unexpected run. The tournament’s short one-and-done format, combined with the fact that these are basically kids playing, usually produces a memorable upset or two, or at least a few near-misses. This year was no exception, with a pair of feel-good teams emerging.

The most impressive underdog turned out to be the Slovaks, who earned an upset win over Finland in the round-robin and then beat the Czechs in the quarterfinals. They were eliminated by Canada in the semis but still got to make an appearance in the bronze-medal game, where they upset the Swedes to earn the second medal in their history. Goaltender Denis Godla even took home the tournament MVP.

But with all due respect to the Slovaks, the tournament’s best underdog run may have belonged to Denmark. The nation was making just its third appearance in the tournament’s top tier and was expected to lose out in the round-robin before facing fellow weakling Germany in the relegation round. Instead, the Danes hung tough, nearly upsetting the Russians on the tournament’s opening day and then earning a win against the Swiss. That lone win was enough to send the Danes through to the playoff round and a matchup against Canada.

That game ended up just about the way you’d expect — the Danes got crushed 8-0. But in one of those great moments that occasionally comes along in this sort of tournament, they were rewarded with a loud ovation from the Toronto crowd.8 Call it sportsmanship or call it a Toronto crowd that knows how to appreciate a losing hockey team, but it was a nice ending to one of the tournament’s best stories.9

5. The WJC really is a ton of fun

The World Junior Championship is a horribly flawed tournament. The format is all wrong, split between a round-robin that’s largely meaningless and a single-elimination playoff that can never really tell us much about who the best teams were. It’s played under the International Ice Hockey Federation’s weird rules, featuring shaky officiating and bizarre single-player shootouts.10 And if we’re being honest, the whole thing is basically a niche event that few sports fans outside of Canada really care about.

It’s also a ridiculous amount of fun, and if you never pay attention, then you’re missing out. A big part of that fun comes from what, on the surface, should be one of the tournament’s biggest flaws: These guys are basically children. Sure, that means we all sound like jerks for criticizing them like they’re professionals. But it also means that the intensity is off the charts, with every goal celebrated like it’s the biggest one of that player’s life, because it probably is.

And more importantly, the kids make mistakes. Hockey has evolved over the last few decades into a horribly overcoached sport where defense comes first, second, and third and every assignment is mapped out to the inch. By the time most players make the pros, they’ve been so beaten down by defense-first coaching that any spark of creativity has long been snuffed out.

But not at the junior level. Oh, these kids know how to play defense. But they haven’t yet had the microchip implanted in their brain that causes them to stare zombie-eyed while repeatedly muttering “play the system.” They get out of position. They occasionally try to make something happen instead of automatically defaulting to the low-risk option. Every once in a while, they actually seem to be — gasp — enjoying themselves out there.

Mix that in with suffocating pressure and the normal teenage belief that every moment of your life is the most important thing that’s ever happened, and you’ve got a great formula for two weeks of sports madness. All of that — the mistakes, the emotion, and the drama — was on display last night.

Next year’s tournament is in Helsinki, Finland, and will get started in late December. (Except in Canada, where we already started debating the roster this morning.) Eichel and McDavid will be in the NHL, many of their teammates will be too old to return, and the Danes and Slovaks will probably be back to getting pounded.

But someone will emerge to make the whole thing worthwhile. They always do. You’ll probably want to be watching.

Filed Under: NHL, World Junior Championships

Sean McIndoe ’s work can be found at Down Goes Brown. When he's not writing, he makes hockey jokes on Twitter at @downgoesbrown.

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