By Robert Mackenzie and Mitchell Tierney
In case you haven’t heard, the World Junior Championship is back in Canada this year, having kicked off on Monday. And while the Red and White (and Black, for reasons unknown) has struggled in recent years, a little home cooking could be the cure for all that ails it.
The tournament used to be so predictable. Canada played in every final between 2002 and 2011, including five straight gold-medal wins from 2005 to 2009. But in recent years, the tournament has been a crapshoot. Russia, Sweden, the United States and Finland have all won gold in the past six tournaments.
Canada, meanwhile, has flagged in its effort to reclaim its throne. Last year’s sixth place finish was the country’s worst in almost 20 years. Canada’s only gold in the past eight years – and only medal in the past four – came in 2015, when Connor McDavid and company led the under-20s to victory in Montreal and Toronto.
Two years later, the tournament is returning to Toronto and Montreal, where Canada hopes to continue its trend of dominating the tournament when it is played on Canadian soil. Since the turn of the century Canada has only lost three world junior games on home ice.
“It's definitely home ice advantage for a reason,” said Columbus Blue Jackets center Boone Jenner, who represented Canada in 2012 and 2013. “You've got the crowd with you and that gets you going maybe that little extra that you might miss overseas.”
Whether it’s the crowd, the ice surface or the comfort of playing at home, Canada is better in almost every statistical category when playing on home ice.
Since 2000, Canada’s juniors average 250.3 shots per tournament in Canada versus 202.7 out of the country. This has led to an average of 36.2 goals per tournament at home compared to 28.8 when playing in the U.S. or overseas. Moreover, Canadian teams average 63 shots higher and a goal differential 11 points higher on home ice.
Along with that, Canadian teams score roughly five more power play goals and Canadian power plays average 38 percent per tournament at home compared to 26.8 percent on the road. This all has helped Canada win 91.9 percent of their games played in Canada, as opposed 71.8 percent abroad.
According to New York Islanders defenseman Thomas Hickey, who was a member of Canada’s junior team for the 2008 tournament in Czech Republic and 2009 in Ottawa, part of that success is due to the difference in international ice surfaces.
“When you grow up playing on the rink size that we do and you’re playing against a lot of guys who grew up playing on bigger ice surfaces, then the advantage is certainly yours,” Hickey said. “I think it caters more into Canada's hands playing on that smaller ice.”
The one position where international ice doesn’t seem to have much of an impact on Canada’s play is goaltending. Prior to last year’s tournament in Finland, where Canada put up a .851 save percentage, their goalies were actually marginally better on international ice than at home.
There tends to be a lot of chatter when Canada plays abroad about the angles being different for goalies on international ice. Zach Fucale, who played in net for Canada in 2014 and again when they won gold in 2015, said he noticed it at first, but it quickly became a non-factor.
“When you practice a couple of times on it you get used to it and you end up not thinking about it in the end,” said Fucale, a Montreal Canadiens prospect currently playing for the ECHL’s Brampton Beast. “You’re so motivated you don't think about those kind of things, it's like a minor detail at that point.”
Fucale, Hickey and Jenner all said that jet lag and culture shock – often stated as potential distractions when Canada plays abroad – have little effect on their play. Practices, exhibition games and Hockey Canada all help the players to feel comfortable wherever the tournament is played.
“They bring everything we need,” said Fucale of Hockey Canada. “When you’re far away like that it makes you feel at home, and everything is always provided as much as possible so the players have nothing to worry about other than just playing hockey.”
But despite feeling comfortable in any setting, past results have shown there’s no place like home for Canada at the world juniors.
“That tournament's a lot about momentum,” Hickey said. “To have a crowd behind you it just helps create that momentum and get things going in the right way.”
This year’s team will be hoping to carry that crowd, and the advantage that comes with playing on Canadian soil, to a gold medal. It would be the country’s sixth on home ice, and could set the course for them to control the tournament once again.