Thus, no matter what happens in the world of pro hockey, fans know they can count on the U20 every Boxing Day to January 5, the World Championship every May, and the Olympics every fourth February.
And as players prepare to take to the ice in Russia for the 36th formal edition of the IIHF U20 what shows through most of all is their pure love of the game. They are in Ufa not because of money and contracts, not because it’s their paid employment or because they are being told to participate. Indeed, they are giving up holiday time and family time to play the game they love, test themselves against the best from the rest of the world, and try to win a medal for their country.
The World Juniors marks the first serious hockey that fans in North America can watch since last June’s Stanley Cup finals (Los Angeles beat New Jersey in six, remember?). Europeans have been spoiled not only by the usual spate of league games but by the addition of so many NHL stars. And as the labour conflict drags on, now past the century mark of missed days, the senior World Championship in Stockholm and Helsinki promises to be a veritable Olympics preview.
For Europe, though, and Russia in particular, this year’s U20 is critical in the history of the tournament. It is being held in Europe for the first time since 2008 (Czech Republic) and the first time in Russia since 2001. In the interim, Canada has been the choice of preference for the event thanks to the overwhelming enthusiasm of the fans and the incredible TV numbers garnered by TSN.
And while the IIHF—indeed Hockey Canada—would love to spread the wealth around, as it were, Europeans have not yet supported the event to the extent that it deserves more time on the Continent. A great tournament here in Ufa would be a major step in that direction; poor support would push the event emotionally right back to Canada (even though Malmo, Sweden is the confirmed host for 2014).
To be sure, the players will do their part. For starters, the rivalries are many. Canada-Russia is the classic international battle; the Americans and Canadians share no love; Sweden-Finland enjoys a similar geographic love-hate relationship; Russia-Czech and Czech-Slovakia have a significant political history to augment their on-ice conflicts.
The labour conflict has been kind and cruel to various teams. Canada has Ryan Nugent-Hopkins in the lineup and the Russians have Nail Yakupov, but the Swedes weren’t able to get Mika Zibanejad, whom the Ottawa Senators wanted to keep in the AHL for NHL-guided development.
All of the players in Ufa are in great shape, having played the first half of the season in the CHL or other leagues, but dressing for their country is a special honour. Every game has emotion and meaning; every game is important in the country’s ongoing hockey history. True, scouts are here and undrafted players might see their stock fall or rise, but the event is more about the energy the players bring to the rink than the draft list order which makes the U20 so special.
This marks the last year of quarter-finals byes for the top teams in each group, meaning there are only two quarter-finals on January 2. Teams have much to prove this year. The Swedes, who won gold last year for the first time since 1981, want to prove that that win was no fluke. They beat the Russians 1-0 in overtime a year ago, so, of course, the hosts in Ufa want to change silver for gold in 2013.
Canada was shut out of the gold-medal game last year for the first time in eleven years, an astonishing streak that they’d like to begin anew this year. The Americans, according to their cocky star Seth Jones, are the team to beat. Is he right, or did he just put a bull’s-eye on his team’s chest by making that declaration? The Finns last won gold in 1998 and last won a medal of any colour in 2006.
Over and above the medal favourites, the other nations all have something to fight for. Slovakia, Switzerland, Germany, Czech Republic, and Latvia all want to sneak into the playoff round and see if they can’t catch an opponent unawares, and all want to avoid the nail-biting prospects of having to play in the Relegation Round.
The U20 will make new stars, provide moments of heroism for players we don’t know yet, will be a test for fans in Russia and across Europe. It’s a Christmas tradition and great hockey. Let the games begin!