Certain sporting spectacles carry with them their own cultures and traditions, and go so far as to become synonymous with their own dates on the calendar.
One of these is the IIHF’s World Junior Hockey Championship, the annual late-December tournament that brings the best under-20 years old hockey players from around the globe together to represent their home country and battle against the best the world has to offer. From Boxing Day until the first week of January, 10 countries select their top under-20 prospects to compete in different host cities around the globe. Canada hosts the 2017 edition, with games being held in Montreal and Toronto for the second time in three years.
Year after year, the tournament features highly-touted prospects who have their eyes on making the jump to elite-level status, with a shot at a high-end draft pick or a spot on an NHL roster. Among the World Juniors alumni are current generation players like Sidney Crosby, Carey Price, John Tavares, Connor McDavid (Canada), Johnny Gaudreau (United States), Erik Karlsson (Sweden) and Patrik Laine (Finland), all of whom had memorable performances for their countries.
For many of these players, the tournament, which started unofficially in 1974 before gaining official status in 1977, has served as a launch pad for professional hockey careers. Many NHL teams even use the WJC to help gauge their prospects’ development and will often “loan” young talent on their roster to teams in the tournament. In 2014, the Ottawa Senators allowed forward Curtis Lazar, one of their top prospects, to play for Canada, while the Toronto Maple Leafs sent William Nylander to skate with Sweden in 2015.
“I was a later pick in the NHL draft and I got a lot of confidence from playing in the tournament,” says Jordan Eberle, who is in his seventh season with the Edmonton Oilers and was drafted at No. 22 in 2008. “Simply put, I don't think I would have played in the NHL at such a young age if it wasn't for the World Juniors.”
Eberle, who took home gold in 2009 and was named MVP and Best Forward while settling for silver in 2010, was named TSN’s best Canadian World Junior player ever. No small feat as the country has sent the likes of Crosby, Eric Lindros and even Wayne Gretzky. There are numerous big WJC moments to Eberle’s credit, perhaps his biggest is tying Canada’s 2009 semifinal matchup with just five seconds remaining in an eventual 6-5 overtime win over Russia. That Canada team featured players by the name of John Tavares, P.K. Subban, Alex Pietrangelo and Jamie Benn.
“The talent is incredible,” Eberle says. “The exposure for players at a young age is amazing”.
“The best thing (for me) was playing with the best young junior players and you learn a lot from each other,” says Montreal Canadiens defenseman Nathan Beaulieu, who won bronze with Canada in 2012. “I learned a lot and it was big step in my career and helped my development and made it an easy move into the NHL.”
For players in non-North American leagues, that exposure can also make a big difference.
“All the scouts are watching,” says Jakub Zboril, who skated with the Czech Republic in 2016 after being drafted by the Boston Bruins and will make his second appearance this year. “North American scouts will not be at European games as much. You are representing your country and have to be passionate about it, it’s really important for us.”
The scouts, while important, aren’t the only ones watching. Fans have become an increasingly impactful and important part of the tournament.
“We were in Finland last year and we were playing in a rink full of red and white jerseys,” says Thomas Chabot, an Ottawa Senators prospect who suited up for Canada in 2016 and will do so again on home ice this year. “We know how great the World Juniors are, the whole country is behind us.”
Canadiens forward Brendan Gallagher, a bronze medal winner in 2012 with Team Canada, has experienced things from both sides of the glass.
“When I was a little kid it was a tradition to wake up on Boxing Day with the family and watch the first game and follow the rest of the tournament,” he says. “All of Canada feels the same way, they really get behind that team for the tournament and I know from playing on the team you definitely feel the support.”
Knowing that there’s a nation of exuberant hockey fans rooting for you can definitely be a trip, though it can also be a huge edge when it comes to playing nine other countries’ best junior hockey talent.
“It's extremely hard to describe. At the time you don't realize how big the tournament really is” says Zach Boychuk, who sports a pair of gold medals from the 2008 and 2009 Canadian squads. Now with Sibir Novosibirsk of the KHL after skating with the Carolina Hurricanes, Pittsburgh Penguins and Nashville Predators, Boychuk looks back on his WJC experiences fondly. “You have the whole country watching you. And every team is always bringing their best when they play you. A lot of pressure for a bunch of teenagers, but an experience you will always remember.”
David Brien, who has been working for Hockey Canada for the past four years as a Content Coordinator, believes that the timing of the tournament is what has led it to become such a special and memorable event.
“Most people are off during the holidays,” he says, “and that allows them to catch most, if not all, World Juniors games.”
With broadcasters like Toronto-based TSN showcasing stars of tomorrow, many on-air sports broadcasters and personalities also get to play a role in driving the success of this event. TSN host James Duthie believes that many key elements blend together to make the World Juniors an unforgettable experience.
“It becomes a tradition,” Duthie says. “I can't tell you the number of people over the years who have told me watching the Juniors is as big a Christmas tradition as any in their family. The kids, from all countries, care so much and it shows. When they sing their anthem arm in arm after a gold medal or cry when they lose...I think the entire country shares in that passion. Kids at this age also make more mistakes than the pros. And mistakes usually lead to the wild 6-5 games we often see. Put all those things together, you have a special event.”
The high-scoring, emotion-filled contests mean that every team has a shot at taking home the gold medal, and it shows in the leaderboard: Canada has medaled at the World Juniors 29 times, including 16 gold medals. Russia is then second with 20, including four gold. Sweden (17), Finland (14) and the United States (nine) have developed over the years as highly touted contenders—and rivals.
“I think it's a combination of timing, passion, and just flat-out great hockey,” says Duthie.
Craig Button, TSN’s Director of Scouting and a former Director of Scouting with the Dallas Stars and General Manager with the Calgary Flames, believes that the tournament has come a long way from only being a Canadian tradition.
“While people in Canada have really been the drivers of interest, that interest is now in all the other countries right now,” Button says. “TSN is the IIHF Broadcaster and this tournament is shown in every single country that’s playing in it and other countries. In the past, Canada always got the prime time games, now countries like Sweden or Finland are saying ‘no we now need the prime time games’ because there is so much interest.”
Those prime time games give hockey fans a chance for an in depth look at the highly touted prospect pool from their favorite NHL team. “The fan is becoming incredibly interested in who the up-and-coming players are,” says Button. “They now get an up-close glimpse of the best players at this age group.”
For a lot of fans, that first close-up comes through an always-growing social media audience. It’s yet another tool that helps drive promotion of the WJC world-wide.
“I'm on Twitter during games...when something special happens, it blows up,” Duthie says. “I think it's definitely helped in American coverage. American hockey media members follow Canadian hockey media, and vise-versa. They've seen the reactions and attention from Canadian media on social media about the event.”
With all the attention, it’s easy for the spotlight to find a player, team or play—for good or bad reasons. Just as the tournament can raise a player’s profile, a rough showing can have the opposite effect as well. Button, however, stresses that the WJC is not the end-all, be-all for a player.
“If you don't have a good tournament, it doesn't mean you aren't going to be a good player,” he says, “And if you have a good tournament it doesn't mean you are going to be a great player. [As a player] you have to get in, be part of the team, represent your country, but realize that this is a stepping stone and a slip on the stone doesn’t mean you are not going to be a good player, and a leap from the stone doesn't mean you are going to be a great player.”
When those players make their move, however, the whole hockey world will be watching, waiting to drink it all in. By combining elements of passion, elite skill, tradition and the future, the World Junior Championship has earned its place on the sports calendar.