There were two games going on – first, a matinee Sweden-Finland encounter, after which came the United States-Canada battle – but the parking lot was rich with information. There were dozens of license plates from Ontario, and there was an impressive representation of American plates – dozens from Michigan, of course, but then others from New York, New Jersey, Illinois, Connecticut, Wyoming, Ohio, and Indiana.
And the parking lot had hundreds of cars, not just a few. Inside, about 1,000 fans watched this casual event. It was the middle of the summer, but as temperatures and humidity soared the feeling inside was anything but casual.
This felt like a tournament.
“For us, it’s huge,” Swedish coach Tomas Monten said of the WJSS. “I’ve been here the last three years, two times here, last year in Canada. For us, it’s the only chance we have to play the U.S. and Canada except for the World Juniors. And when the tournament is in North America, this is the only time for us to play them. It’s great because we can also almost always get all the players we want, and the setup here is excellent. USA Hockey are great hosts. We like coming to this event a lot.”
Monten’s Finnish counterpart, the legendary Raimo Helminen, agreed. “In Finland, this is very important because we can get all the players we want to invite together. It’s a good way to judge the players, and you can watch them for the next two or three months and see who is going up and who is going down. It’s the same for every team, but it’s very helpful.”
This Summer Showcase started back in 2002 as a small but important internal event. USA Hockey gathered 47 top under-20 players in Lake Placid from August 1-10 for a camp leading to the 2003 IIHF World Junior Championship roster selection later in the year.
As part of the so-called “evaluation camp,” USA Hockey invited a U20 select team from Finland to participate in a “summer challenge,” playing two American teams, USA Blue and USA White.
The gathering was a success, so USA Hockey repeated the process the next year. In 2004, it moved to the Ralph Engelstad Arena in Grand Forks, a beautiful new arena and host to the World Junior Championship later that season. Again, the Americans created two squads, but this time teams from both Finland and Sweden came over to participate.
The evaluation camp returned to Lake Placid a year later, and there it remained for the next decade. Usually the Finns and Swedes came over, but in 2009 the Russians gave it a try. It wasn’t until 2013 that Canada became involved, and that, of course, ramped up the intensity of the event all around. It’s one thing for a Blue and White game to be played at a lacklustre pace in August, but United States-Canada? Casual is not ever in that conversation.
In 2016, the Plymouth Whalers of the OHL were sold and moved to Flint, leaving a vacancy at the Compuware Arena in Plymouth as the venue had been known until then. USA Hockey moved in, taking their summer evaluation camp with them to the USA Hockey Arena. A year later, TSN in Canada and the NHL Network in the U.S. got in on the act, televising the final six games of the event and re-naming it the World Junior Summer Showcase.
This past week, it seemed as though the “event” became a “tournament” as the final games were played, and the casual play turned into a more intense competition than what one might have expected.
No, roster spots weren’t won or lost this week, but impressions were surely made and coaches took note, as did the many, many scouts on hand to watch the proceedings. But for Monten, it wasn’t just goals and breakouts that mattered.
“You get a better feel off the ice than on the ice for the players,” he elaborated. “On the ice, you know players will step up once the hockey season starts, but off ice it’s good for us to get to know the players a little more and try to build some chemistry. You can see who’s eating with whom, who’s talking, who’s doing things off the ice.”
On ice and off, this Summer Showcase has become an integral event for these four teams. And for anyone wondering why they bother, consider this: World Junior gold has been won by one of these four teams every year since 2004, with one exception – Russia in 2011.
Important hockey in August? You better believe it.