One of the hockey world’s best-loved traditions is set to get back on track.
Most of the world’s top under-20 players have gathered in Halifax, Nova Scotia and Moncton, New Brunswick for the 2023 IIHF World Junior Championship, which will run from Dec. 26 - Jan. 5.
In Canada, especially, World Juniors is baked into the holiday season — a coast-to-coast celebration of the national game, filled with stories of young men working to realize their dreams and the family and community members who support them. Television ratings are typically sky high, NHL-sized arenas sell out at premium prices and more often than any other nation, the Canadians come out on top. Since the tournament was made official by the IIHF in 1977, Canada has won 19 goals medals in 46 years.
This time around, the Canadians are favored to make it 20. Their roster includes eight players who won gold at the 2022 edition of the tournament, played last August in Edmonton. Head coach Dennis Williams also has a gold medal from his role as an assistant at the August tournament.
The Canadian lineup is further boosted by three players who have seen NHL ice time this season: forwards Shane Wright (Seattle Kraken) and Dylan Guenther (Arizona Coyotes) as well as defenseman Brandt Clarke (Los Angeles Kings). The forward group also includes the top two prospects for the 2023 NHL draft, 17-year-olds Connor Bedard (Regina Pats, WHL) and Adam Fantilli (University of Michigan, NCAA).
On the back end, Canada is big and fearsome, with six of the seven defensemen checking in at 6’2” or above.
Canada is the top-seeded team in Group A, and will play its four round-robin games in Halifax. The other teams in the Group, in order of ranking, are Sweden, Czechia, Germany and Austria.
The Swedes are seen as the team with the best chance to potentially upset the Canadians. Bronze medalists in August in Edmonton, Sweden’s forward group includes two first-round draft picks from 2021, Isak Rosen (Buffalo Sabres) and Fabian Lysell (Boston Bruins). They also have four first-rounders from 2022 and the favorite to go third overall at the NHL draft next June, Leo Carlsson.
Czechia finished fourth in Edmonton. Roster highlights include 2022 first-rounders David Jiricek (Columbus Blue Jackets) and Jiri Kulich (Buffalo Sabres), top prospect Eduard Sale and Tri-City Americans goaltender Tomas Suchanek.
In Group B, which will play in Moncton, the United States is the top-ranked team. The Americans are looking to bounce back from a disappointing fifth-place finish in Edmonton, after they were upset by Czechia in the quarterfinal game. Defenseman Luke Hughes headlines the list of eight returnees from 2022, and has been named captain for Team USA this time around. Their top offensive line features a trio of 2022 first-round draft picks, Logan Cooley (Arizona Coyotes), Cutter Gauthier (Philadephia Flyers) and Jimmy Snuggurud (St. Louis Blues).
Also in Group B: Finland, Switzerland, Slovakia and Latvia. The Finns won silver in Edmonton, falling to Canada in overtime in the gold-medal game, and their team-first mentality allows them to consistently punch above their weight. The Finnish roster is highlighted by a pair of forwards from the first round of the 2022 NHL draft: Joakim Kemell (Nashville Predators) and Brad Lambert (Winnipeg Jets).
On the Swiss roster, you won’t miss 6’4” defenseman Lian Bischel, the 18th-overall pick of the Dallas Stars in 2022. Slovakia’s lineup includes 2022 second-overall pick Simon Nemec (New Jersey Devils) and 26th pick Filip Mesar (Montreal Canadiens) as well as another top 2023 draft prospect, forward Dalibor Dvorsky.
Conspicuously absent, for the second-straight tournament: representation from Russia. Second on the gold-medal list with 13 championships between Russia, the Soviet Union and CIS, the nation has been banned from all IIHF competition since its invasion of Ukraine last February.
And while COVID-19 has wreaked havoc on the entire sports world over the last three years, World Juniors has been hit particularly hard. The 2021 tournament was successfully mounted in a fan-free bubble in Edmonton, with the United States winning gold. But the first attempt at staging the 2022 edition in Edmonton and Red Deer last December was cancelled after just a few days, as positive COVID tests led to games being forfeited when teams were unable to ice proper rosters.
When the tournament was rescheduled for August in Edmonton, it was an opportunity to crown a champion as well as to honor commitments to sponsors and broadcast partners, and to finally collect some gate revenue.
But summer is short in Northern Alberta, and fans weren’t as eager as expected to spent their August afternoons inside a chilly hockey arena. Empty seats abounded.
Also — by August, Hockey Canada was embroiled in a severe crisis. In late May, news broke that the organization had settled a lawsuit out of court with a woman who claimed that she was sexually assaulted by eight players following a gala event to celebrate the 2018 World Junior Championship team in August of 2018 in London, Ontario.
A parliamentary inquiry was launched, and the news that emerged around the incident raised questions about Hockey Canada’s operating procedures and badly sullied its reputation. By late June, major sponsors that would typically have huge presences during the World Juniors tournament, such as Canadian Tire, Telus, Imperial Oil and Tim Hortons, paused their sponsorship agreements with Hockey Canada. At the August tournament, rink boards were unadorned with the usual advertising and commercial inventory on TV broadcasts was re-assigned.
Hockey Canada is now working to re-build its reputation, but it’s a slow process. A brand new board of directors was elected to a one-year term on Dec. 17, chaired by retired judge Hugh Fraser, and the search is on for a replacement for former CEO Scott Smith, who left the organization along with the former board in October.
But while sponsors may not yet be ready to return, the fans will be back.
With an eye on growing the bottom line over the last decade, Canada hasn’t hosted a World Junior tournament exclusively in a non-NHL market since 2010 (Regina and Saskatoon, Saskatchewan), although Victoria shared the 2019 tournament with Vancouver and Red Deer was partnered with Edmonton for the original 2022 edition.
In non-NHL markets like Halifax and Moncton, junior hockey is king. Last week’s pre-tournament tuneup games were well attended, and the energy should be palpable in both arenas, which seat roughly 10,000 spectators.
Round-robin games kick off Monday, and run through Dec. 31. The single-game elimination playoffs begin on Jan. 2, with the gold and bronze-medal games on Jan. 5.
For the first time since 2020, there will also be a relegation round. The bottom two teams in the round-robin will play a best-of-three series, where the winner stays in the top-level tournament and the loser will move down to Division 1A. With a win at that level earlier in December, Norway has earned promotion to the top level for 2024.