UFA Ė Hockey fans from coast to coast in the two most powerful hockey nations are about to close out 2012 with what should be a real barnburner.
Not only are Canada and Russia renewing their nearly 60-year-old rivalry, they are playing a game with huge meaning. The winner gets a bye into the semi-finals and two days off; the loser has to play January 2 in the quarter-finals.
This marks only the second time that the teams have played on New Yearís Eve. Fifteen years ago, Maxim Afinogenov scored in overtime to give the Russians a 2-1 win in the quarter-finals of the 1998 U20.
And remember last year in the semi-finals in Calgary? The Russians waltzed to a 6-1 lead in the second period only to watch Canada mount almost the greatest comeback in international hockey history. The final was 6-5, and a shot that rang hard off the post near the end of the game was all that prevented that game from going into overtime.
Indeed, New Yearís Eve has worked its way nicely into the U20 schedule as a day of reckoning and great hockey over the last many years. To fully understand the tradition of these games, though, letís first take a quick look back at the evolution of what is probably the most perfect schedule in the hockey universe, the U20 tournament.
Although the first U20 in 1976-77 took place over Christmas and New Yearís, the dates were different from today, as was the format. Then it was an eight-team round robin that started December 22 and ended January 2. There were three days off during the event, including December 31.
The next year the dates were the same but the format different, and the games played New Yearís Eve did, indeed, have medal implications. The start of the third U20 moved to after Christmas, but the tournament was only eight days long (December 27-January 3). It wasnít until 1983 in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) that the dates were similar to what they are now, but the round-robin format endured until 1996 in Boston when the current model of two preliminary groups followed by a playoff elimination was instituted.
For several years, while the event was consistently run December 26-January 4, New Yearís Eve was a day off. But from 1996 to the present, the New Yearís Eve games have been more or less a fixture. More often than not, the highlight of the dayís games features Canada and the United States, but the hosts this year in Ufa have usurped rights to the best game of the round robin, and so it will be a Canada-Russia game to close out 2012 and, fortunately, decide first place in Group B as well.
The dates for the tournament fluctuated a bit. Even as recently as 2002 the U20 started on Christmas Day and had New Yearís Eve as an off day. The current schedule really started in 2003 in Halifax. The dates were the now standard December 26-January 5. Two groups of five teams played a round robin, and December 31 saw critical games to decide first place in the groups.
But that year Canadaís game was against Finland, Canada winning, while in the other group Alexander Ovechkin and Russia claimed first place with a win over Switzerland. Canada and the U.S. had played consecutive New Yearís Eveís games in 2000 and 2001, each winning once. In 2004, the U.S. beat Russia and Canada beat the Czechs. This marked the first time since the playoff format was introduced in 1996 that the two North American countries both finished first in their respective groups.
In 2005, there were no games on December 31, but in 2006 began what has become an annual tradition of classic battles when Canada edged the U.S., 3-2, at a sold-out GM Place in Vancouver to win the group. On the other side, the Russians hammered the Czechs, 7-2, to win Group B.
In 2007, Swedish fans in Mora saw a U.S.-Sweden battle scheduled on the 31st while Canada, in the same group, faced Slovakia. Both North American teams won, but Canada took first place easily with a perfect record of 4-0-0.
As luck would have it, Ottawa 2009 saw another great North American showdown. Canada won 7-4 after falling behind 3-0, a comeback orchestrated by John Tavares. In Group B that year, the Swedes stifled the Russians, 5-0, to win the group.
While New Yearís Eve battles are tense, exciting, and usually meaningful, they are also random. After all, groups are determined by the previous yearís standings, so itís a crap shoot if Canada and the U.S. or the Russians are in the same group or not. Again in 2010, Canada prevailed, 5-4, in overtime against the Americans, thanks to a Brandon Kozun goal, while Sweden and Russia, again in the same group, didnít face each other to decide first place.
In 2011, again with the bye on the line, the Swedes edged Canada, 6-5 in overtime, Oscar Lindberg the hero this night. And last year, in Edmonton, Canada beat the Americans, 3-2, although the win was muted as the Canadians already had first place wrapped up and the U.S. was sent to the relegation round as a result of the loss.
This year has been special. Canada, Russia, and the United States are in the same preliminary round group for the first time since the format started 17 years ago. Fans get to see these three teams battle in the early games, and no doubt they will meet at some time in the playoffs as well, with more on the line.
The U20 has a schedule now that is virtually flawless. Two round robin groups, culminating with New Yearís Eve games; a day off on January 1; playoff elimination to follow. Start date December 26, a day after Christmas festivities. End date January 5. Clean, simple, full of drama. December 31, 2012, will add another chapter to that drama.
And as we say goodbye to another year, we would do well to remember Robbie Burnsís famous words, with a hockey twist. Sing it!
Should Old Acquaintance be forgot
and never thought upon,
Then hockey never did exist
for this great rivalry.