The Olympics are great, the playoffs are fun and the new World Cup format looks promising, but when it comes to watching hockey, it’s the World Junior Championship that reigns supreme.
The International Ice Hockey Federation’s (IIHF) under-20 world championships have become an annual holiday tradition for me that is just as, if not more, important than decorating a tree, spending time with family or anything else that I do in December.
A roster of 22 of the top 19-and-younger hockey players from across the country get chosen to disrupt their respective junior seasons for two weeks to spend their holidays thrilling a nation.
Whether it’s the gold medal won at the tournament by an underdog Team Canada in ’82, the infamous lights-out brawl in Russia in ’87, or guys like Jonathan Toews and Jordan Eberle becoming household names before ever hearing their name called in the NHL draft, this is a tournament that has produced some of the best moments in the history of Canadian international hockey.
One of the main reasons so many great Canadian moments have happened at the tournament is because of the perfect balance in talent and unpredictability that the age limit forces on the teams. With the top teenaged players in the world getting together to do battle for their countries, you get a sneak peek at the future stars of the NHL. This shows in the high quality of hockey that is played throughout the tournament as the all-star teams put together by Hockey Canada and the other top hockey federations can feature NHL quality depth throughout the team.
The other thing that youth brings to the tournament is the idea that absolutely anything can happen.
By the time players are old enough to crack an NHL roster most of them have been so moulded and formed from all of the coaching they have received that they are interchangeable keys in a cog, making the smart play ten times out of ten as well as speaking and acting mainly in platitudes.
That is definitely not the case with this tournament. Despite the insane amount of talent that is out there on the ice, these players are still just teenagers and make all the mistakes to prove it. This leads to games played at a frenetic pace, in which it seems like the teams fear that making a high percentage play like safely dumping the puck in the corner would somehow be the biggest mistake they could ever make.
So while Canada captured the 2014 Olympic gold medal in hockey by relying on a strong defense that stifled opponents and did whatever it could to take all sense of flow out of the game, this tournament often sees wide-open affairs with five goals finding the net in a single period.
The other type of mistake made more by the young than anyone else is letting their emotions get the best of them, something that happens more often than not when Team Canada is involved. Nearly every game they play is against a team that is a heated rival of Canada, and watching these players try to find the balance between setting the tone of the game physically while simultaneously trying to adapt to the stricter rules of international hockey only adds to the sense of unpredictability inherent in the tournament.
Canada comes into this year’s tournament as the all-time leader in gold medals won at the tournament and will return three players from the team that won gold in Toronto a year ago.
The 10-team tournament gets started in Helsinki, Finland on Boxing Day, and with it the best Christmas tradition of all begins again.