Canada's favorite holiday tradition, the World Junior Hockey Championships, begin tomorrow morning in Finland. The USA's first game throws them right in to the fire - they'll play perennial tournament favorites Canada at 1 PM on Saturday on the NHL Network.
While traditionally only Canada has really cared about this tournament, increased exposure and TV coverage has increased interest in the US and Europe. Those who do watch are treated to some of the most exciting, high-octane hockey all year long.
If you're new to watching World Juniors - or if you just want a little more info about this year's tournament - we've got you covered.
So what exactly is this tournament?
It's the world championship for under-20 hockey players. The IIHF holds a number of age group competitions (U16, U17, U18) but it's the U20 that is most coveted by national hockey federations. Players playing in any league are eligible, so the US team will be comprised of college players, players in Canadian junior leagues, and this year even USHL players, a player in the Swiss league, and an AHLer. NHL regulars under 20 are eligible for the tournament but usually won't be released by their teams, so you won't see Jack Eichel or Noah Hanifin for the US even though they're age-eligible.
Why should you watch it?
Well, first of all, I usually find the WJC to be some of the most exciting hockey played all year long. It's full-throttle, wide open hockey, usually with a ton of scoring and lots of high-end skill. Some of the lower ranked nations will deploy a trapping, defensive style, but when the top teams get together it's strength vs. strength, attack vs. attack. There's also national pride on the line - especially in Canada, where the tournament has become a national obsession and losses are treated with periods of national mourning and self-reflection.
Beyond the entertainment value of the games themselves, this is the best chance to see some of the best NHL prospects all in one place. You've got a good balance of 19 year olds who are already drafted and playing in the CHL or NCAA, plus 18 (and sometimes 17!) year old wunderkinds who are draft-eligible prospects. You're going to see all of this year's top draft prospects, so it should be fun.
What's the tournament format?
Ten teams are broken in to two groups of 5. Each team plays four group stage games, then the top four teams in each group advance to the knockout stages. 1A plays 4B, 2A plays 3B, etc. The bottom team in each group faces off in the relegation round. The losing team drops down to the 2nd tier of the World Junior Championship for 2017, while the winner of that second tier will come up and play in the big show next year.
How good are the US's chances?
In a nutshell: it would be a bit of an upset if they won gold, but it wouldn't be an upset if they medaled. They will most certainly be expected to advance to the quarterfinals as either the 2nd or 3rd place team in their group, which features Canada, Sweden, Switzerland and Denmark.
Of course, you never know. Nobody really thought the US would win gold in 2013, but they did, led by Johnny Gaudreau going off. The last two years, there was a lot of hype around the US team - especially last year, which featured The Risen Jack Eichel, Noah Hanifin, child star Auston Mathews, and other superstar prospects. And yet each of the last two seasons, the US flamed out in the quarterfinals against Russia.
On offense, the US is expected to be loaded. Auston Matthews, playing in his draft year, is probably the team's biggest star; the team also features expected high first round pick Matt Tkachuk, and one of the top scorers in the CHL, Alex Debrincat. The dynamic duo of Brock Boeser and Nick Schmaltz from North Dakota will be paired up, and Colin White is expected to be a big contributor as well.
The two question marks around this team are youth and defense. It's not really a great birth year for the US defensively, and the top u20 prospect, Noah Hanifin, will not play as he has obligations with the Carolina Hurricanes. The US dipped in to some very young players with BU's Charlie McAvoy and BU committ Chad Krys rounding out the defense corps. Even up front, where the US is strong, there's a lot of draft-eligible youth. Traditionally, the best teams are often led by drafted 19-year-olds.
What are the BC connections?
It's pretty typical for 2-3 BC players to be on the World Junior team, but this year there's only one: freshman forward Colin White. Former BC commit Sonny Milano is also on the team, loaned out by his AHL team. Casey Fitzgerald was on the camp roster but didn't make the final cut; Alex Tuch was widely expected to make the team but surprisingly was left out.
There are a lot of college hockey players whose names you'll be familiar with. The US roster features two BU players, plus Harvard's Ryan Donato. In total, Notre Dame, North Dakota, Harvard, Yale, BC, Miami, St. Cloud, BU and Michigan are all represented on the roster. There's a pretty even split between college players and those in the Canadian junior leagues.
Who are the favorites to win?
Canada is the favorite as always. They're the defending champs after an unusually long stretch of NOT winning (5 years). However, they're dealing with Connor McDavid being out injured, and a lot of turnover from last year's team. They're certainly beatable.
Finland, led by projected top-10 draft picks Jesse Puljujarvi and Patrik Laine, will fancy their chances as hosts. Sweden and Russia tend to be the other top contenders each year, with the much-hyped Alex Nylander on the Sweden roster. The US would probably be the next favorite after that, followed by the Czechs as a dark horse.
Who are the two teams that will be the token pair to get ceremonially destroyed over and over again, and will undoubtedly play in the relegation round, rendering the entire group stage kind of pointless?
Denmark and Belarus.
When are the US's games?
Sat., Dec. 26 Canada - 1:00 PM ET
Mon., Dec. 28 Sweden - 9:00 AM ET
Wed., Dec. 30 Switzerland - 1:00 PM ET
Thu., Dec. 31 Denmark - 9:00 AM ET
All games will be broadcast on the NHL Network.
And when is the medal round?
Sat., Jan. 2 Quarterfinals - 7 AM, 9 AM, 11 AM and 1 PM ET
Mon., Jan. 4 Semifinals - 9 AM and 1 PM ET
Tues., Jan. 5 Bronze-Medal Game - 9 AM ET
Tues., Jan. 5 Gold Medal Game - 1:30 PM ET
What non-US games should I be watching?
Canada vs. Sweden on New Year's Eve at 1 PM will be pretty awesome and may well determine the Group A winner. Russia vs. Finland Dec. 28 at 11 AM is the best Group B game.
That was a lot of words. Is there perhaps a video I can watch of Johnny Gaudreau shredding this tournament in 2013?
We'll be covering the tournament extensively here at BC Interruption and encourage you to climb aboard the bandwagon! Go USA!