Today (or more accurately earlier this morning) marks the beginning of the 2013 World Junior Championships in Ufa, Russia, which runs through January 5. The annual tournament features the world's best players under 20 and is a treat for hockey and prospect fans of all shapes, sizes and nationalities.
It's also an unofficial state holiday in Canada. Seriously, they loves some hot WJC action north of the 49th.
For those who are not from Canada and/or are unfamiliar with how the tournament works, the rules are fairly simple. Ten countries are divided into two groups of five based on last year's results and play a round-robin schedule. Regulation wins are worth three points, overtime wins are worth two, OT losses are are worth one and losing in regulation merits nothing.
After the round-robin portion of the tournament, the bottom two teams in each group face each other in a tournament to avoid relegation while the other six have a much better fate. The top team in each group gets a bye to the semifinals and the second and third place teams face off with the other group's respective team (i.e. A2 faces B3 and B2 faces A3) in a single elimination game. Then the four semifinalists play in a single-elimination tournament where the winners advance to the finals for bragging rights and a gold medal.
While this year's tournament - much like 2005 in Grand Forks - benefits talent-wise by the NHL Lockout, it shouldn't take a hockey-starved audience to get into what I believe is Christmas after Christmas. The World Junior Championships is the one time a year where the best prospects are all in a single place. There are always stories built along national rivalries plus the hockey isn't bad either.
Some storylines entering this year's WJC are:
- Can Sweden repeat as champions?
- The Russians, last year's silver medalist, having home-ice advantage after the tournament spent the last three years in North America
- The Canadians trying to live up to impossibly high expectations and win their first gold since 2009. Team Canada had won five straight gold medals prior to the dry spell and benefit the most from this Lockout.
- Team USA is looking to rebound from last year's disappointing seventh-place finish. However, they are also in the same group as Russia and Canada.
- How will Finland look without Mikael Granlund?
- Which 2013 draft-eligible player will shine under the bright lights?
- And of course, Germany's status of being the odds-on favorites to get relegated in Group B.
(As an aside, Team Canada parading out cut players one-by-one in front of the media like they are participating in some sort of hockey beauty pageant sends a really bad message. Every other team from JV/Varsity to the Olympics lists the roster rather than the cuts. In a sport that preaches team above individual, why make it about individuals cut from the team?)
There will always be ebbs and flows with prospects. We were lucky to have such a high number of Wild prospects be in leadership positions the 2012 tournament but that can't hold up on a year-to-year basis.
Just because there are fewer players, however, doesn't mean they won't be showcased. All of Lucia's games will be broadcast live in the United States on the NHL Network and replayed during primetime hours for those who aren't up at 3:30 Central. Additionally, the channel will simulcast the TSN feed for Canada and other games.
TV Schedule (NHL Network & NHL.com in the US):
Thursday, Dec. 27 - USA vs. Germany, 9 a.m. ET
Friday, Dec. 28 - USA vs. Russia, 9 a.m. ET
Sunday, Dec. 30 - USA vs. Canada, 4:30 a.m. ET
Monday, Dec. 31 - USA vs. Slovakia, 5 a.m. ET
Wednesday, Jan. 2 - Quarterfinals — 4/8 a.m.
Thursday Jan. 3 - Semifinals 4/8 a.m. ET
Saturday, Jan. 5 - Bronze Medal Game, 4 a.m. ET / Gold Medal Game, 8 a.m. ET
Both Minnesota Wild prospects begin play tomorrow. We'll have more updates throughout the 2013 World Juniors.