UFA – The world didn’t end on December 21, which left believers in Mayan prophecies disillusioned. But instead, a new world of opportunity is about to open up for young stars at the 2013 IIHF Ice Hockey U20 World Championship. And hockey fans will feel the chills.
That’s not an allusion to the -20 Celsius temperatures on the broad, snow-dusted boulevards of Ufa on the eve of the tournament.
It’s all about emotion. The capital of the Republic of Bashkortostan is primed to host some amazing moments during the 31 games from December 26 to January 5.
With all due respect to the Olympic gold medal game, the IIHF World Championship final, and the Stanley Cup final, the World Juniors have produced some of the top spine-tingling memories in recent hockey history.
Canadian fans, for instance, need look no further than Jordan Eberle. Now 22, the Regina-born forward has gone on to NHL stardom with the Edmonton Oilers, and currently leads the AHL in scoring with the Oklahoma City Barons.
But he truly forged his legend with a deft forehand-to-backhand move that fooled Russian goalie Vadim Zhelobnyuk and lifted Canada into a 5-5 tie with 5.4 seconds left in the 2009 semi-final in Ottawa.
The historical implications weren’t as great as when Paul Henderson tallied with 34 seconds remaining against the Soviet Union in Game Eight of the 1972 Summit Series. But in terms of pure hockey chills, in that moment, it was comparable.
Eberle then scored in the shootout to propel Canada into a gold medal showdown with Sweden, where it prevailed again.
The ecstasy at Scotiabank Place that year was only equaled by Eberle’s two late goals to knot the score at 5-5 (again) versus the United States in the 2010 gold medal game in Saskatoon.
Yet American defenceman John Carlson gave Stars and Stripes supporters chills of their own there, when his rising shot from the left faceoff circle earned his nation a 6-5 overtime win and just its second World Junior title of all time.
Could Russian fans have experienced greater excitement than watching their team, keyed by Yevgeni Kuznetsov and Artemi Panarin, rallying from a 3-0 third-period deficit to stun favoured Canada 5-3 in the 2011 final in Buffalo?
And how about Sweden’s Mika Zibanejad? If you were wearing a Tre Kronor jersey at the Scotiabank Saddledome – or watching on TV anywhere from Kiruna to Malmö – when the budding power forward exploded off right wing in overtime and scored on Russia’s heroic Andrei Makarov with his team’s 58th shot on net, you’ll never forget it. It was history and poetry intertwined as the Swedes captured their first U20 title in 31 years.
Let’s not forget the stellar goaltending performances. Whether it’s Canada’s Jimmy Waite stoning a stacked Soviet squad in Moscow in 1988, Tuukka Rask singlehandedly lifting Finland to a bronze medal with his exploits against Sweden and the U.S. in 2006, or Slovakia’s Jaroslav Janus backstopping his nation to a monumental quarter-final upset against the Americans in 2009, the passion and prowess of U20 netminders is not easily forgotten.
For many North American fans, particularly in light of the NHL work stoppage, this U20 tournament could be the most meaningful hockey they watch all season.
Because young players are here to play their hearts out, because momentum swings can occur faster than a Pavel Bure breakaway, and because opportunities and mistakes abound when pro-level skills are housed in teenage frames, thrills and chills will always abound at the World Juniors.
The chills just increase when you realize that although some of these players are bound for more glory on the pro and senior international levels, for others, this will be their one true shining moment. Time marches on so quickly.
Welcome to the 2013 IIHF Ice Hockey U20 World Championship. Enjoy the ride.