CALGARY – December 26 is Boxing Day in Canada, when shoppers line up to grab post-Christmas bargains. But it’s also the day the World Juniors kick off, and what this tournament offers is something money just can’t buy.
For the young international players that have congregated in Alberta, it is a chance to live out their dreams on the biggest stage in U20 hockey. And no matter what else they go on to accomplish – Olympic gold medals, World Championships, Stanley Cups – it is impossible to replicate the pulse-pounding excitement of competing for glory as a teenager. Adrenaline, testosterone, endless energy: the vibe at this tournament is a recipe for magic.
The deep, talented Canadians carry the weight of an entire hockey-crazed country's expectations on their shoulders. But they know that capturing their first gold since 2009 in front of fervent crowds will transform them into national heroes and household names faster than you can say "Jordan Eberle". It will also ease the pain of blowing a 3-0 lead in last year’s gold medal game in Buffalo against Russia.
Blessed with super-snipers like Yevgeni Kuznetsov and Nail Yakupov, the Russians dream of winning a second straight title for the first time since 2003. If they do, it will also be a tribute to the memory of Danil Sobchenko and Yuri Urychev, the two members of last year’s golden squad who tragically perished in September’s Lokomotiv Yaroslavl plane crash.
What about the Americans? Under coach Dean Blais, who led the USA to a 6-5 OT shocker over Canada in the 2010 final in Saskatoon, they’re aspiring to make spoiling the host team’s party into a regular thing. Captained by Las Vegas native and three-time World Junior participant Jason Zucker, they just might strike it rich in oil country – for what would be just the third title in the USA’s World Junior history.
The Swedes are haunted by an ancient curse – dating back to 1981, to be precise. That year, Sweden earned its one and only World Junior title. Not a single member of this year’s squad was alive when future NHLers like Jan Erixon and Patrik Sundstrom helped Tre Kronor capture gold in Kaufbeuren, West Germany. But since Sweden has come close recently, competing for a medal on the last day of the World Juniors each year since 2007, today’s blue-and-yellow youngsters are eager to prove they know how to win. Not just in the early stages of the tournament, but when it counts most: for gold on January 5 at Calgary’s Saddledome.
There is hope, there is belief, and there is sheer willpower. And those qualities aren’t reserved for the top contenders.
Buoyed by the genius of Mikael Granlund, who shone in Finland’s senior championship run at the Worlds in Slovakia last May, the Finns dream of completing a World Junior golden hat trick by adding another title to the ones they claimed in 1987 and 1998. The Czechs and Slovaks are eager to squash the widespread feeling that no more Jaromir Jagrs and Marian Hossas are coming out of these Central European countries. Underdog nations like Switzerland, Denmark and Latvia are determined to surprise as their U20 talents perform in front of the largest audiences they’ve ever seen in their lives.
Prepare for unforgettable levels of drama, passion, despair, and ecstasy. Somehow, this tournament manages to deliver something new and compelling every year. It’s a credit both to the delicious unpredictability of adolescence and to the growth of hockey around the globe.
Welcome to the 2012 IIHF Ice Hockey U20 World Championship. The dream begins today.