CALGARY/EDMONTON – The United States is bound for the Relegation Round for the first time in World Junior history, the biggest shocker of the 2012 tournament so far. But other "Big Seven" nations have also suffered this fate in the past.
The “Big Seven” includes the acknowledged world hockey powers, the ones that contend for Olympic, World Championship, and World Junior medals, and whose players stock the clubs of the NHL, the KHL, and other top leagues. The list includes Canada, the Czech Republic, Finland, Russia, Slovakia, and Sweden. While other countries, such as Switzerland, Germany, and Belarus, may eventually break into this elite group, the “Big Seven” is still holding strong right now.
No “Big Seven” country has ever tumbled down to Division I (formerly known as the B Pool) at the end of a Relegation Round. At least not in U20 play. (The Czechs and Slovaks were relegated with their U18 teams, however.)
That said, at the World Juniors, Slovakia has consistently proven to be the weakest of the elite. It’s appeared in the Relegation Round a whopping nine times (1996, 1997, 1998, 2000, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2010, 2011) since the IIHF adopted the playoff format in 1996. That figure could rise to 10 if the Slovaks lose their last round-robin game to Switzerland on New Year’s Eve.
Two countries that used to always vie for the silver and bronze medals behind the Soviet Union in international play currently share the dubious distinction of having the second-most Relegation Round appearances. Sweden (1997, 2003, 2004) and the Czech Republic (1999, 2010, 2011) have three apiece.
Sweden’s early 2000’s swoon was mostly about excessive emphasis on defensive systems, which temporarily stifled the development of talent domestically. Tre Kronor has bounced back big-time, playing for a medal in each of the last five World Juniors.
The Czechs, however, are in a situation similar to Slovakia – just not quite as badly off. Reduced availability of ice time, equipment, and quality coaching in the post-Cold War era, plus the migration of too many top juniors to North America, has hurt their program. They must find ways to reverse these trends, or more Relegation Round appearances await, despite the pleasant surprise of their 5-2 upset of the Americans this year.
Finland’s lone Relegation Round appearance came in 2009. That year, the Finns iced a team largely devoid of game-changers, outside of Mikael Granlund, then just 16 and making his World Junior debut in Ottawa. (Toni Rajala, who electrified the World U18 tournament in 2009 by potting 10 goals and nine assists to break Alexander Ovechkin’s old points record of 18, hasn’t been able to parlay that early momentum into stardom yet.) But 2009 was an anomaly: the Finns can normally steer clear of relegation play with their outstanding goaltending and work ethic, even when they lack bona fide snipers.
The Americans had to play in the Relegation Round in 1999, where they beat Switzerland 5-4 and Belarus 7-2 to save themselves for 2000.
And how about Canada and Russia, who have faced each other in seven out of the last thirteen U20 finals? Let’s just say they “don’t do” Relegation Rounds.