Many people around the game of hockey truly believe the World Junior Hockey Championship is the finest international competition in the sport.
They feel that way for good reason, too; the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) has done well in making this an annual tournament that brings the best hockey players in the world under the age of 20 into one place.
Some players have already been drafted by NHL clubs and others are hoping to have their name called in June, but for two winter weeks, they all have one goal: to bring a gold medal home to their country. Hockey Canada began its World Junior preparation last week in Calgary when the team's final roster was announced after a brief camp, and this week in Tarrytown, N.Y. and Finland, the United States team will start to take shape.
While no cuts will be made following practices this week in New York, the plan is for USA Hockey to begin paring down to the final 23 players once things get settled in Finland.
Among those considered "on the bubble" for the United States is Blue Jackets prospect Mike Reilly, a freshman defenseman at the University of Minnesota.
As we've previously discussed in this space, Reilly is in the midst of a solid opening season for the Golden Gophers and has received more ice time from coach Don Lucia as the season moves along. The 19-year-old is one of the best pure skaters in the Blue Jackets system, and is a game-changer from the back end with his speed and puck-moving ability.
It would seem that Team USA could use a player like Reilly, but this isn't your average group for USA Hockey and under-20 defensemen. The American blueline is deep and extremely talented, with names like Seth Jones (a projected top-five pick in this year's draft), Jacob Trouba, Patrick Sieloff, Brady Skjei and Connor Murphy in the mix for one of the seven final spots.
Murphy is another local connection, having grown up in Dublin and come up through the Ohio AAA Blue Jackets program with Sean Kuraly -- also an invitee to Team USA's camp from Miami University. Connor's father, Gord, was an assistant coach with the Blue Jackets and is currently an assistant with the Florida Panthers.
But wait: there are more Columbus ties in this year's World Junior (and on Team USA). Ohio State head coach Mark Osiecki, who has a strong relationship with USA Hockey, is an assistant coach on Phil Housley's staff for the tournament and is also in New York for the open of camp this week.
I think we say this every year, but this year's tournament should be tremendous. The talent level is off the charts, the home team (Russia) has had a very successful run in junior hockey lately, and the local storylines add an extra element of intrigue.
UPDATE: Good news today for World Junior viewers in the United States, as the NHL Network announced it will broadcast 18 tournament games live, including all Team USA contests. For full details on TV coverage, visit this link.