International Ice Hockey Federation

Joy on ice

Joy on ice

Montreal, Toronto welcome the world’s U20 best

Published 25.04.2017 09:17 GMT-4 | Author Lucas Aykroyd
Joy on ice
It's a great time for hockey fans in Montreal and Toronto as the IIHF World Junior Championship returns for the second time in three years. Photo: Richard Wolowicz / HHOF-IIHF Images
Some people divert themselves with the latest Star Wars movie or Metallica album. But for hardcore hockey fans, the World Juniors are the purest form of escape.

As the IIHF’s annual U20 showcase returns to Montreal and Toronto for the second time in the last three years, a feeling of joy pervades these two Canadian hockey meccas, from the streets and shops to the hotels and host arenas. It’s almost showtime.

At the end of a tumultuous year full of challenges, it’ll be refreshing to watch talented, wide-eyed prospects from 10 nations chasing dreams of glory. And in today’s youth-driven hockey climate, their dreams can come true extremely quickly.

That applies not only to national team success, but also to professional prowess. Three members of last year’s World Junior all-star team – Auston Matthews of the Toronto Maple Leafs, Patrik Laine of the Winnipeg Jets, and Zach Werenski of the Columbus Blue Jackets – are already elite NHLers, battling for the Calder Memorial Trophy as the NHL’s 2017 rookie of the year.

But first things first. We’re about to make some new IIHF history in cities whose NHL teams have combined for more Stanley Cups than anywhere else. The Montreal Canadiens, the all-time leaders with 24 Cups, have iced World Junior all-stars like Mats Naslund (1978), Shayne Corson (1986), and Carey Price (2007) over the years. The Toronto Maple Leafs, whose 13 Cups rank second all-time, have employed such former all-stars as Alexander Mogilny (1988), Bryan McCabe (1995), and Dion Phaneuf (2004, 2005).

As usual, pre-tournament questions abound. Five different countries have won the last seven World Juniors. There is no easy consensus favorite anymore, and that jacks up the joyful, nervous anticipation among fans.

Led by captain Dylan Strome and fellow returning centre Matthew Barzal, can host Canada rebound from a disappointing sixth-place finish in Helsinki last year and live up to golden expectations? Will defending champion Finland get another all-star performance from top blueliner Olli Juolevi and enough firepower from young guns like Eeli Tolvanen and Aapeli Rasanen to retain its title?

Is KHL-experienced goalie Ilya Samsonov ready to shoulder the load for Russia and backstop coach Valeri Bragin’s perennial contenders to gold for the first time since 2011? With creative aces like Jeremy Bracco of the Kitchener Rangers and Boston University’s Clayton Keller, how will the stacked Americans fare as they vie to reprise the 2013 championship run keyed by John Gibson and Johnny Gaudreau?

The Swedes finished last year’s tournament with a tough 8-3 bronze medal loss to the Americans: can this year’s deep squad, featuring the crafty Alexander Nylander, regain the strut that saw Sweden medal at six out of seven World Juniors from 2008 to 2014?

Outside the “Big Five” nations, hopes are also high. The Czechs, seeking their first medal since 2005’s bronze, hope towering goalie Daniel Vladar and nifty forward Martin Necas will help them pull off a quarter-final surprise – or more. Similarly, the Slovaks will lean on a pair of Adams – starting netminder Adam Huska and strapping center Adam Ruzicka – as they quest for glory, and the Central European underdogs have fond memories of their stunning 2015 bronze medal in Montreal to draw on.

Ever-improving Denmark returns to the elite division for the third consecutive year. With solid team defence and offensive contributions from NHL-drafted forwards like Joachim Blichfeld and Nikolaj Krag Christensen, there could be rejoicing in Copenhagen in January. Remember, in last year’s quarter-final, the Danes led Russia 3-2 with under a minute left before allowing a late tying goal and falling short in overtime.

Switzerland, whose lone medal in tournament history remains 1998’s bronze, isn’t favored to make the podium. But 17-year-old phenom Nico Hischier, who’s reaped early comparisons to stars from Henrik Zetterberg to Connor McDavid, dazzled with two goals in a 4-3 overtime loss to Canada in exhibition play, and should help his team improve on last year’s ninth-place finish.

Newly promoted Latvia would be overjoyed to survive into the 2018 tournament in Buffalo, New York. That will require superb goaltending and offensive production from the likes of Kamloops Blazers sniper Rudolfs Balcers – but this tiny Baltic nation is all about beating the odds.

On any given day between 26 December to 5 January, you might curl up in front of your TV to watch the 2017 IIHF World Junior Championship on TSN, follow the tournament online, or thrill to the live action at Montreal’s Bell Centre or Toronto’s Air Canada Centre. Regardless, you’ll come away entertained and inspired by the 31 games we’re about to witness. You’ll never forget the skill, speed, determination, heartbreak, and joy. This is a holiday tradition that truly never gets old.


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