How to Fix the Competitive Imbalance at the World Juniors

Reducing the field to eight teams would be the best way to go, but that's not going to happen. So how about holding a qualifying tournament during the summer?
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Had Germany’s junior national team not been ravaged by COVID before and during the World Junior Championship, there’s little doubt it would have been able to keep the goal differential against Canada on Boxing Day to one converted touchdown instead of two. So there’s that.

In reality, all the pandemic did was further widen a chasm between the two teams that was already ridiculously large. If it looked like the two teams didn’t belong in the same tournament, it’s because they didn’t. Even with all their best players, Germany is the ninth-best team in a tournament that should realistically comprise eight teams.

But of course, that will never happen. You see, back in 1991, the Saskatchewan organizers guaranteed Hockey Canada a $1 million profit for the event and over-delivered. Four years later, they filled arenas all over Alberta and made another ton of money and realized they were onto something. So they increased the field from eight to 10 and changed the tournament from a straight round-robin event to a two-division format leading to quarterfinal, semifinal and championship final games. That way, when the tournament is played in Canadian and American border cities, organizers could put together high-priced ticket packages designed maximize revenues. And it’s all the better when you can have the tournament in Canada every other year and make more than $20 million in profits, not a penny of which goes to the players who are providing the product.

There are those who would have you believe that the lesser countries benefit in terms of development by playing in this tournament. This is, of course, hogwash. If anything, the gap between the haves and have-nots has grown larger over the years. Since 2002, there have been a total of 57 medals up for grabs and Canada, Russia, USA, Sweden and Finland have won 55 of them. Slovakia has regressed slightly. The Czechs have regressed dramatically. Switzerland has not moved the needle one iota since winning bronze in 1999. And the likes of Germany, Austria, Denmark, Kazakhstan, Ukraine, Latvia, Norway and Belarus take turns winning Division IA and getting clobbered in the World Juniors. Whatever development is happening in those countries is not coming from the Worlds, but from the best players domestically against men and imports from the traditional hockey powers, or from honing their games in the Canadian Hockey League.

There will be a total of 28 games in this year’s 10-team tournament. But what if you reduced the field to eight teams? You could play a round-robin tournament with the first- and second-place teams playing in the gold-medal game and Nos. 3 and 4 playing for bronze. The fifth- and sixth-place teams would stay in the tournament the next year and Nos. 7 and 8 would face relegation. That would give you a total of 30 games. Teams playing for medals would play one more game than they do now.

But again, that’s not going to happen. This tournament is staying at 10 teams. So let’s try something else. No matter what the format is or how many teams are involved, the main flaw is in the International Ice Hockey Federation’s promotion/relegation system. Let’s take Austria, who lost their tournament opener 11-0 to USA, as an example. The Austrians went into the Division IA tournament last year as an underdog in an event where Belarus was the heavy favorite. But Austria surprised everyone by going 4-1-0 to win the tournament and earn promotion to this year’s and - because there will be no relegation this year – the 2022 World Junior Championship. The only problem is that the Austrian team had 13 19-year-old players who aged out, including New Jersey Devils prospect Benjamin Baumgartner, who led the tournament in scoring, second-highest scorer Paul Huber and both their goaltenders. If anything, the Austrians should have been in last year’s tournament, not this year’s.

The problem is that under the current system, teams win Division IA and it becomes the hockey equivalent of sending lambs to slaughter. The players who got the country into the top tier are no longer around to help them stay there. That does nothing for development, either for individual players or hockey programs.

And there is a very simple way to rectify that. Have the top eight teams return to the main tournament the next year, with the ninth- and 10th-place joining the six Division IA participants from the previous year in a qualifying tournament in the summer, minus the last-place team in Division IA, which would be replaced by the winner of Division IB. That way, the teams that are trying to get to the top tournament have a chance to do so with their best 18- and 19-year-old players. (Players turning 20 before Jan. 1 of the next World Junior tournament would not be eligible to play in the qualifying tournament.) If you’re going to load the tournament with countries that have proven over the years that they can’t consistently compete with the best countries at this level, at the very least you would have teams that would have a puncher’s chance of not losing games by double-digit scores.

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