By Stu Hackel
The best hockey of any season is the Stanley Cup playoffs, but not too far behind is the World Junior Championship, the great international tournament that begins every year on the day after Christmas.
Canada, the U.S., Sweden and Russia are considered the favorites in this year's 10-country tourney, which will be played in Alberta, both Edmonton and Calgary.
The WJC provides a great chance for fans to see many NHL stars of tomorrow perform in a high-pressure environment. Not only are they playing for the glory of their home countries, they're also trying to impress pro scouts who jam the arenas to get a better look at their prospects.
The 2012 WJC, officially known as the International Ice Hockey Federation Under-20 Tournament, has become a holiday tradition for Canadians, thanks largely to two factors.
The first is how well Hockey Canada has built its national junior program. Team Canada has captured the gold medal 13 times since 1988, the most among all countries, and won silver or bronze another eight times in that span.
The second factor is TSN, who has extensively televised and heavily promoted it since 1991. Canada's excellent showings haven't hurt TSN's ratings; twice since '91, Team Canada has won five consecutive gold medals. Last year, Canada and Russia met for the title and 6.1 million Canadiens watched the final game, the largest audience ever for a TSN telecast.
TSN now regularly televises or streams live webcasts of not just Team Canada's game, but most of the tournament, including all medal round games as well as the pre-tournament tune-ups for the young Canadians. Here is TSN's schedule for this year's WJC. Team Canada's games are also heard on an extensive radio network in Canada.
For U.S. viewers, the NHL Network has begun televising select games in recent years and just this week announced they had reached an agreement with USA Hockey to be exclusive television and streaming home for the WJC in the United States through the 2018 tournament.
NHL Network in the U.S. will provide live broadcasts and NHL.com will provide live streams of all the U.S. National Junior Team games, five additional preliminary games and every medal-round game, a total of 15 games. All the Team USA games will be called by the NHL Network crew, the others will be picked up from TSN. Here's the NHL Network's schedule for WJC coverage in the U.S.
The U.S. team has done fairly well in recent World Junior showings. They've won four medals in the last eight years, including gold twice (in 2004 and 2010, which broke Canada's last run of five championships) and bronze twice, including last year.
The format for the 10-team tournament is a bit complicated and explained here on the IIHF website. Basically, teams are divided into two groups of five (Canada and U.S. are both in Group B) and play a round-robin preliminary round within the group. The top three finishers in each group advance to the medal round. The winners of each group get a first game bye, advancing automatically to the semi-finals. The second and third place teams play in the quarterfinals, a cross-over match-up with the other group that sees the second place team from Group A play the third place team from Group B and vice versa. Those two winners then play the group winners in the semis and those winners play for the gold.
On the IIHF website, content on the WJC, a.k.a. the IIHF U-20 tourney, can be read here.
USA Hockey has a section of its website devoted to the WJC that can be found here. Not all countries have announced their WJC roster but Team USA has and it can be found here. It is an older team than in previous years with 19 of the 22 players in their final year of eligibility. Seven of the U.S. players were on last year's Bronze winning team and two of them, goalie Jack Campbell and forward Jason Zucker, who will return for a third world junior hockey championship. Here's more on the Team USA roster.
As you'd expect, the website of the host country's governing body, Hockey Canada, also has an extensive WJC section. Canada announced its roster last week. None of their defensemen are returnees from last year, which has some observers concerned. Starting goaltender Mark Visentin is a returnee as are three returning forwards and an NHL player, Devante Smith-Pelly, who was released by Anaheim to play in the WJC, which is permissible for age-eligible players under IIHF rules. NHL teams are generally reluctant to release their WJC-eligible players if they are good enough to be NHL regulars.
TSN's website also has a great deal of WJC content on its pages, which can be accessed here.
For hockey fans, the World Junior Championship is just as good as a white Christmas..