The World Junior Championship starts on Christmas Day and if you ask a Canadian, there are few greater things in life.
For regular readers of The Hockey News, the world juniors are well-known. But for casual hockey fans in the U.S., it may be more of an unknown. If you're in the latter camp, consider this a primer. If you're in the former, consider this a celebration, eh?
Simply put, the world juniors are Canada's March Madness - if everyone in the country was cheering for the same team. TV ratings are massive, the pressure on the players is immense and it's the only time of year where it's OK to hate on Swedes.
Traditionally, the world juniors have started on Dec. 26, otherwise known as Boxing Day in Canada. The tournament runs for about 10 days and features 10 national teams featuring the best under-20 players in the world - many of whom have already been drafted by NHL teams. Due to the pandemic, this year's tournament is being held in a bubble in Edmonton with no fans in the stands, robbing the event of what would have been sold-out, electric audiences.
But no matter: Canada will be watching from home. During last year's gold-medal final in the Czech Republic between Canada and archrival Russia, nearly nine million Canadians watched at least part of the game - so basically one-quarter of the country.
While the tournament officially began in 1977, it really began to gain steam in the early 1990s thanks to a run of Canadian dominance and the emergence of TSN (one of Canada's two main cable sports networks) as a broadcast partner. Back then, the tournament was often hosted in Europe and the difference in time zones meant hockey at odd hours for Canadians - but with families off for the holidays, it was perfect. Hockey at nine in the morning? Don't mind if I do!
From 1988-97, Canada won eight of the 10 tournaments, with the Soviet Union/CIS taking the other two. The Great White North was hooked and now, the tourney is such a cash cow that Canada hosts every two or three years.
From Sidney Crosby and Connor McDavid to Alex Ovechkin and Auston Matthews, nearly every NHL superstar has played in the world juniors, but the beauty of the tournament has been its ability to create instant folk heroes from its teenage participants.
Like clockwork, every generation has gotten one. In 1991, defenseman John Slaney scored the golden goal - and his first of the tournament - on a slapshot late in the third against the Soviets to win on home ice in Saskatoon. In 2009, Jordan Eberle famously tied the Russians in the semifinal by notching a goal with 5.4 second left on the clock, while last year, Los Angeles Kings prospect Akil Thomas added his name to the ledger by scoring the game-winning golden goal against Russia on a breakaway backhander.
But Canadian kids aren't the only ones who have found glory. Diminutive goalie Denis Godla propelled Slovakia to a surprise bronze medal in 2015, earning himself MVP honors in the process. A few years prior in 2010, Switzerland shocked the Russians in the quarterfinal thanks to a virtuoso performance from Nino Niederreiter and netminder Benjamin Conz.
The Russians aren't always the victims however, and they had a particularly delicious revenge in 2011 when Artemi Panarin, Evgeny Kuznetsov and Vladimir Tarasenko helped their squad score five unanswered goals in the third period to snatch gold away from Canada in a 5-3 win.
In terms of high drama however, nothing will ever match 1987. That was the infamous 'Punch-up in Piestany,' when Canada and the Soviet Union got into a bench-clearing brawl so uncontrollable that the officials turned the lights off in the arena (spoiler alert: it didn't help). Both teams were disqualified from the tournament and books have literally been written on the game since.
While Canada is always a favorite to win gold at the world juniors, the team hasn't always lived up to expectations and when that happens, it's basically a national crisis. In 1998, after five straight gold medals, the Canadians cratered and ended up losing the seventh-place game (which no longer exists) to Kazakhstan, a team it usually beats by a touchdown or more. More recently, the Canadians lost in the 2016 quarterfinal to Finland after winning just two of four round-robin games.
And what about the United States, you ask? While Canada and Russia are always favorites to win, the Americans are just a slight tier below. USA Hockey had its reckoning in 1996 after a lacklustre showing on home ice in Boston, which directly led to the formation of the National Team Development Program, a hothouse project which has graduated the likes of Matthews, Patrick Kane and Jack Eichel over the years and stocked the world junior team with its alumni.
Before 1996, the Americans had never won gold at the tournament; since 2004 they've won it four times and been a constant medal threat overall. The most dominant performance came in 2013 when MVP John Gibson led a stacked roster featuring Johnny Gaudreau, Seth Jones and Jacob Trouba to gold.
The Americans' first world junior title was also one of Canada's most infamous gaffes. In 2004, the North American rivals were battling for gold in the final with the score tied late in the third. With the puck behind Canada's net, goalie Marc-Andre Fleury accidentally cleared the puck off of defenseman Braydon Coburn and into his own net. American forward Patrick O'Sullivan was given credit for the game-winning goal and Team USA had its elusive first title.
Along with Team USA, Canada and Russia, the major players in today's world juniors are Sweden and Finland. The Swedes haven't lost a round-robin game in about a decade, yet the program has only won gold twice (2012 and 1981). The Finns on the other hand, usually come into the tournament as underdogs, but often with bite: they've won three of the past seven gold medals after winning only twice ever before that.
While the Czechs are often interesting, they haven't won a medal since 2005 or gold since 2001. Slovakia and Switzerland can beat bad teams, but usually struggle in the playoffs. In every other year, the worst team in the field gets relegated to a lower world junior level and the winner of that tournament comes up - but due to the pandemic, there will be no relegation or promotion this time. That's great news for Austria, the newest team up, and Germany, a rising program that still has minnow status for now.
Despite the circumstances, the 2021 world juniors will feature high drama, emotional teenagers and some nail-biting games that rival any Stanley Cup final. It's a Canadian obsession and it's not hard to see why.