Christmas is officially in the rearview mirror, which means that it’s time for one of the best annual amateur sporting events on the calendar — the IIHF World Junior Ice Hockey Championship.
The event sees the top 10-ranked hockey nations in the world face off against each other with their best under-20 talent — think an annual Olympics, but for hockey’s most talented teenagers. This year’s tournament kicks off on Tuesday, December 26th and runs for about two weeks as a preliminary round featuring two groups of five teams that determines seeding for the medal rounds.
Here is how the grouping shakes out for this year’s field:
The tournament has provided a number of awesome moments over the past several years — especially if you’re a fan of Team USA — and interest (as well as coverage) of the event has picked up as a result. As more and more people catch on to the excitement that the WJC brings, we figure it’s worth pointing out what makes the tournament so great.
So, without further ado, here are a handful of reasons why it’s worth tuning into the WJC this year.
It’s one of the most fun hockey events of the year
Everyone knows that the Stanley Cup Playoffs is one of the most thrilling and dramatic postseasons in all of sports, and that the Winter Olympics is the biggest international stage for hockey. But, in all honesty, the World Junior Championship often isn’t far behind either of those events in terms of enjoyability. The hockey may not be as polished or the names as recognizable, but it’s still a great entry point for casual fans. The play is fast-paced, there’s a ton of scoring and highlights and there’s usually plenty of drama still there. It can be an intoxicating experience.
Plus, there’s still an intense hunger in the competition, as all the players are teenagers looking to prove themselves while representing their country. The emotions and stakes run high for these kids and it’s an absolute thrill to watch year in and year out.
On top of that, with the NHL not participating in the 2018 Olympics in South Korea, this could actually be a year in which the teenagers put on a better show than the Olympians.
It’s a showcase for future NHL stars
As is the case every year, the WJC tournament will feature most of the best under-20 prospects in the world this year. While it’s possible to catch some of these kids playing in competitive junior leagues north of the border or in U.S. college programs, the World Juniors provides the highest level of competition on a big stage for these young players.
With that in mind, the tournament is a proving ground that gives fans a great opportunity to get an early look at the stars of tomorrow. There are plenty of prospects eligible for the upcoming 2018 NHL Draft, and there are plenty of prospects that already belong to NHL clubs and are looking to have a breakout tournament.
One of the big names to keep an eye on is Rasmus Dahlin, the 17-year-old Swedish defenseman that is projected to be the top overall pick in this summer’s draft. The biggest American name to keep an eye on is Casey Mittelstadt, the 19-year-old forward who was taken eighth overall by the Sabres in the 2017 draft.
It’s being hosted on American soil
This year’s tourney is being held in Buffalo, marking the third time the United States has hosted the event since 2005 and the fifth time they’ve hosted exclusively since the first official event was held in 1977.
With the games being held on American soil and in the East Coast time zone, the United States and Canada will get favorable prime-time slots that make it easier for a lot of North American fans to watch the games they’re interested in. It will be a lot easier for a casual fan to get hooked this year as opposed to a tournament hosted in Europe or Asia.
Plus, with the tournament taking place in Buffalo, the aforementioned American stud Casey Middelstadt will have a chance to win over plenty of his new hometown fans and quiet everyone who roasted him for.
There’s an outdoor game this year
One of the most anticipated games every year is the preliminary round matchup between the United States and Canada. This year, that rivalry matchup will be even more special, as the two teams are set to meet at New Era Field for the first outdoor game in tournament history.
That game, which will be held at 3 p.m. ET on Friday, December 29, is also a rematch of last year’s WJC gold medal game, which the Americans won in a shootout. It’s likely to be an important game for seeding in the medal rounds and you can expect quite a battle between two of the best teams in the tournament.
The Americans will be wearing special uniforms for the event, ones designed after the Buffalo Bills’ home jerseys. They’re…something.
Hopefully Team USA has better luck on the field than the Bills have had in recent years.
Team USA is trying to make history
Speaking of Team USA, they have a chance to do something that the American program has never done before — go back-to-back with consecutive WJC gold medals.
The Americans have won gold four times since 2004 but they’ve never done it in consecutive years. In fact, no country has gone back-to-back since Canada won five straight golds from 2005-2009, which speaks to the rise in international competition and parity over the years.
The USA Hockey program has been on the rise lately, so winning consecutive tournaments would be a huge accomplishment for them. The Americans have one of the most talented rosters in this year’s field, so there’s certainly a chance they could do it.