The World Junior Hockey Championship is alway fantastic hockey, but this year’s tournament will be even more special. NHL caliber talent will litter the rosters, and since hockey fans have been shut out of enjoying the NHL thanks to the most ridiculous lockout in modern professional sports, they’ll presumably be extra excited.
There are many reasons to get excited about the WJHC every year – players playing with passion that comes from playing for one’s country, and the intensity that comes from a short tournament setting, to name two. How about a few more? Nail Yakupov, Seth Jones, Nathan MacKinnon, Ryan Strome, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Aleksander Barkov – the list goes on, and on, and on.
Let’s get to the top 10 reasons to get excited about the 2013 WJHC.
10. Actual hockey being played. No lawyers, no collective bargaining agreements, and no need for fans to have to read PR spin and try to decipher an ounce of truth from largely misleading statements. These kids are representing their countries and they have a burning desire to win – for themselves, their teammates, and their family and friends.
9. The WJHC is a first look at many of the top young players in the world on a national stage (much like the bowl games in college football, and March Madness for college hoops). Have you heard of Finnish sensation Aleksander Barkov before? Probably not, but you will know his name once this tournament is done.
Every year we get to learn the back stories about so many of these talented young hockey players. A few years ago, Jordan Eberle became a household name across the hockey world in the span of a week. The same could be said for Dion Phaneuf back in 2005. This tournament is the springboard to stardom for many of these players, and as fans it is the first time we get to see them in a high stakes tournament.
8. It has been five years since Canada had a clear-cut starting goaltender (Carey Price back in 2007). Malcolm Subban looks to be the guy who will hold down the fort for Canada – he doesn’t have the same brash personality as older brother PK, but he is an equally talented athlete. Malcolm was drafted in the 2012 1st round by the Boston Bruins, and he is ready to stake his claim as the best young goaltender in hockey. He was outperformed at training camp by Canada’s other goaltenders, but Subban has the pedigree and the experience to emerge as the starter for Canada nonetheless.
7. The Swedes are looking to retain their international U20 top ranking with a back-to-back WJHC victory. They will be without the hero from last year’s tournament, Mika Zibanejad, who will remain in the AHL playing for Ottawa’s affiliate in Binghamton. (I wonder if Ottawa would have released Zibanejad if he were Canadian?) The Senators want Zibanejad to play against men in the AHL, and they feel he has little to gain from suiting up for Sweden again.
Even without Zibanejad, the 2013 Swedish squad is deep and talented. Some of the notables to watch for include winger Filip Forsberg (Washington’s 2012 1st round pick), center William Karlsson (Anaheim prospect), defenseman Hampus Lindholm (Anaheim’s 2012 1st round pick), and center Elias Lindholm (2013 draft eligible and no relation to Hampus).
6. After losing to Sweden in the gold medal game last year, the Russians will have plenty of motivation this time around. And their lineup is chalk-full of skill, as we have come to expect each year. What could really pose a problem to the other countries isn’t Russia’s offense (led by blue-chip prospect Nail Yakupov), though. In between the pipes will be Andrey Vasilevskiy (Tampa Bay’s 1st round selection from 2012). Vasilevskiy led the tournament in shutouts and save percentage last year, and he has all of the attributes to dominate at this tournament once again. Other Russian prospects to keep an eye on include Alexander Khokhlachev (Bruins prospect) and Mikhail Grigorenko (Buffalo’s 2012 1st round pick).
Russia has the firepower to match up favorably with any team at this tournament, and they may have the best goaltender, as well. That is a scary combination.
5. One of the best parts of the WJC is the crazy start times when the tournament is hosted in Europe. This year the tournament will be played in Ufa, Russia, which means a lot of coffee and early wakeups for Canadians. This is the first time in five years that the WJC won’t be hosted in North America. For some, the 4:00am wakeup (East Coast), or the 1:00am late night start (West Coast) present viewing issues.
One of the best inventions in recent years from a sports-viewing perspective is the PVR, and the PVR is going to make this tournament much easier to follow. Instead of having to change your sleeping pattern for a few weeks, you can now watch the games whenever you please. There are a few problems with this, though – make sure you don’t hit the “skip” button on your controller (speaking from experience), and forewarn your friends that you will be watching the game on a delay. Or simply turn your phone off if you don’t trust them to keep the score from you.
4. The lockout stinks. The NHL/NHLPA relations appear to be a disaster right now. However, hockey is awesome. We’d do well to remember that the NHL and hockey are not one in the same, and because of the lockout, hockey fans around the world (and especially in North America) need this tournament more than ever.
3. It is impossible to match the intensity that the players display at these types of tournaments – short in duration, high in effort, and national pride at stake.
2. There are a number of draft-eligible prospects to watch this year, including MacKinnon, Jones, and Barkov. This will be the first time most casual hockey fans will be able to catch a glimpse of the future stars of the NHL. If a lockout agreement is reached at some point before the tournament starts, don’t expect to see Alex Galchenyuk skating out there for the USA, though. Montreal has let the American coaching staff know that they will be recalling Galchenyuk if and when the NHL season resumes.
1. The Nuge. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins held his own in the NHL last year against the best players in the world. And he did so while playing for an inferior team. He is going to be Canada’s top line center and the player they lean on in every offensive situation. He may be in tough to break Peter Forsberg’s tournament scoring record of 31 points, but he has a great shot to set the record for most points in a single tournament by a Canadian player at 18 (shared by Dale McCourt in 1977 and Brayden Schenn in 2011).