In Canada few things encapsulate the holiday season like family, friends, a good meal, and the World Juniors. Arguably the preeminent annual hockey tournament; fans tune in to get a look at the NHL’s stars of tomorrow and of course project and hyperbolize every little thing they do in hopes their team has drafted the next big thing. It’s been dominated by the typical powers, Canada and Russia boast the most tournament wins, with the US, Sweden & Finland consistently in the mix. While this should be no surprise, and the highly contested nature of the tournament has made it must watch TV, it’s the lower end of the standings that’s garnered a lot of press in recent years.
The format, which has been roughly the same since the mid 90s, is two divisions comprised of five teams each, with the playoffs a cross over after the round robin based on seeding. The bottom two teams face off in a best of three relegation round, as one team is subsequently demoted to the ‘B’ tournament the following year, the winner of which is promoted to the ‘A’ group. While there’s no shortage of NHL calibre talent amongst the top nations, that’s not been the case lower down, and over the years we’ve seen the likes of Germany, Austria, Latvia, Denmark and Switzerland get blown out in the competition. This has of course led to cries to shorten the tournament or limit the number of teams to eliminate these lopsided affairs. Thing is, nobody ran that by these nations. Painful as these games can be to watch at times, the reality is they’re the growing pains necessary to build these programs and hockey itself internationally.
It’s taken time but we’re starting to see the results. Germany won silver in the 2018 Olympics (Granted there were no NHL players, but still!), the NHL just had its first German born MVP in Edmonton’s Leon Draisaitl, and the Devils’ Nico Hischier became the first Swiss player selected first overall a few years ago. Several European nations are limiting imports into their own domestic leagues in part to grow talent, and because they have enough home grown players to fill the roster because of this development. Even this year, a scrappy, undermanned German squad made their first ever quarter final and gave Russia all they could handle. Latvian fans are renowned for their enthusiasm and have had several notable NHL players.
The impact of these, and other, nations only continues to grow. Without this opportunity and development, that’s not a reality. Then there are the financial implications which are significant to the individual country’s national hockey programs, as they receive more funding from the IIHF, so the longer you can remain in the top group the greater the windfall for your nation.
The counter argument is of course, “Why would they want to show up just to get embarrassed?” The answer is simple: because it’s a memory they’ll never forget. Talk to those who’ve proudly represented these nations over the years and sharing the ice with tomorrow’s NHL stars is a moment they’ll cherish always, no matter the score line. Something their kids and grandkids will probably be sick of hearing about. They would much rather have been in the ‘A’ pool and struggled than be relegated to (with all due respect) the also-rans in the ‘B’ division, playing on a much bigger stage, in front of much larger crowds (Damn you 2020…) and TV audiences that for many may be the highlight of their hockey career.
This scepticism is a natural reaction for Canadians, as everyone looks small from the top of the mountain. Fans need to take a shift in their skates, so to speak, and realize that the only way for these countries to develop top tier talent, and improve domestic leagues, is to face the best competition and play at the highest level possible.