It's the best-kept secret on the hockey calendar everywhere but in Canada, and that should come as no surprise.
What we're talking about here is the World Junior Hockey Championship, which is the elite international showcase for players under the age of 20. The pressure-packed tournament usually features 18- and 19-year-olds, but there has been a handful of 15-year-olds strut their stuff on the world stage and make people sit up and take notice.
In 2002-03, the 12-team tournament is being played in two centers – Halifax and Sydney in the Eastern Canadian province of Nova Scotia. It starts Dec. 26 and ends Jan. 5 and what happens in between is as intense as the Stanley Cup Playoffs or the Winter Olympic hockey tournament.
Let's face it, hockey is simply much better when played by teams of fairly equal value and the games at the World Juniors will be quick and play will swing like a pendulum. One minute a team will be on the attack and the next it will be in full retreat. The drama is increased by how much the prize means to those playing and the countries they represent.
What also makes the World Juniors a must-see event stems from the fact that it is hockey's ultimate coming-out party. The World Juniors provides scouts and fans the first glimpse of the NHL's future stars.
Team Canada's roster has included Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux – who need no introduction – along with Boston's Joe Thornton, Paul Kariya of Anaheim, Joe Sakic of Colorado, Trevor Linden of Vancouver, Jarome Iginla of Calgary, Theo Fleury of Chicago, Owen Nolan of San Jose, Jose Theodore of Montreal, Eric Lindros of the New York Rangers, Philadelphia's Eric Desjardins and Atlanta's Dany Heatley to mention a scant few of the stars who wore Canada's colors at the World Juniors.
American alumni include Brian Leetch of the Rangers, Tony Amonte of Phoenix, Keith Tkachuk and Doug Weight of the St. Louis Blues, Tom Poti of the Rangers, Mike Modano of Dallas, Nashville's Mike Dunham and Philadelphia's John LeClair.
Peter Forsberg of the Colorado Avalanche and Montreal's Saku Koivu are only two of the Who's Who of international players who showcased their talent at the World Juniors. Others include NHL stars such as Jaromir Jagr of Washington, Markus Naslund of Vancouver, Pavel Bure of the Rangers, Alexander Mogilny of the Toronto Maple Leafs, Detroit's Sergei Fedorov, Mats Sundin of the Maple Leafs, Mattias Ohlund of Vancouver, Igor Larionov of Detroit, Teppo Numminen of the Coyotes and Marian Gaborik of Minnesota, along with Ilya Kovalchuk of Atlanta.
It's best-on-best hockey in a pressure-cooker and since its inception in 1974, Russia has won the world title 13 times, while Canada follows with 10 gold medals. The Russians are the defending champions, and the Canadian juniors head to Halifax hoping to win a world crown for the first time since 1997. The best showing the United States ever had came in 1997 when they won silver in Switzerland.
"I think it is important for any elite athlete to be able to compete and play against the best athletes in whatever sport they are in," New York Rangers General Manager Glen Sather said. "The opportunity for hockey players to grade themselves, to figure out how good they are, and to figure out how good we are, to compare our coaching techniques to others, I think is important.
"For a junior player to go play against the best in the world it is an opportunity for him to plan and an opportunity for Canadians to see their own players and how they are developing."