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IN DEPTH: Welcome back World Juniors

by Meg Tilley / Edmonton Oilers
’Twas the night before World Juniors, and all through the house, not a player was stirring, not even Lawson Crouse. Team Canada was nestled all snug in their beds, as dreams of gold medals danced in their heads.

The roster is set with 23 players playing, they’re in Helsinki, Finland, where everyone will be saying, “Go Germany, Go Russia, Go Sweden and Finland,” all vying for the chance to see their team beat them.  

Then, in a twinkling, Boxing Day finally came, which meant you could finally see jerseys with players' names. The world started tuning in from sports bars and homes, in hopes they’d catch a glimpse of Dylan Strome.

Each player dressed in red, from their head to their foot, looking polished and prepared for the Championship afoot. With sticks in hand they take to the ice, World Juniors is here, no one’s here to play nice!
With a completed roster, including four players returning from the 2015 IIHF World Junior Championship-winning team, Canada’s National Junior Team will be vying for another gold medal at the 2016 IIHF World Junior Championship in Helsinki, Finland from December 26, 2015, to January 5, 2016.

More commonly known as the World Juniors, the IIHF Ice Hockey World Junior Championships (WJC), is an annual event organized by the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) for national under-20 hockey teams from around the world.

The tournament began in 1974, but due to its unsanctioned status, it, as well as the following ’75 and ’76 tournaments, were considered unofficial. The formal inaugural season began in 1977.

Held in late December and ending in the beginning of January, the main tournament, also considered the Top Division, consists of the top 10 ranked hockey nations in the world, from which a world champion is crowned.

As top contenders, Team Canada is already overcoming obstacles, having had to sit goaltender Mackenzie Blackwood for the first two round-robin games due to an eight-game suspension for unsportsmanlike conduct during an Ontario Hockey League (OHL) regulation game. But having spent six days in Imatra, Finland, where they played pre-competition games against Belarus, the Czech Republic and Sweden, Team Canada’s coaching staff is confident in their final selections.

“Our goal is always to assemble the best possible team to represent Canada. We had a really good evaluation period in Toronto and Imatra, and were able to see how the players responded to different situations – from practices to games,” said Scott Salmond, vice-president of hockey operations and national teams for Hockey Canada, in a press release.

“These are never easy decisions, but we feel confident in the team we have and their ability to make the nation proud and give us all something to get behind this holiday season.”

A number of Oilers have had the chance to represent their country in the U20 tournament, both past and present. This year, Edmonton’s defence prospect William Lagesson has suited up in royal blue and sunshine yellow to play for Team Sweden.

With a colourful history, the Edmonton team has seen their players participate in World Junior tournaments time and time again, representing different nations at different times, even crossing paths of unsuspecting teammates.
Whether it was 2015 World Junior Team Canada gold medal champions Connor McDavid and Darnell Nurse in Toronto, or the 1999 IIHF World Junior Championship Team Canada silver medalist Andrew Ference in Winnipeg, Team Canada has maintained a strong presence at the World Juniors.

With the likes of Taylor Hall, Benoit Pouliot, Jordan Eberle and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins also in the mix, some pivotal moments have been ingrained in World Juniors history.

Eberle played two consecutive years with Canada’s National Junior team, but his most memorable moment came during the Semi Finals with 5.4 seconds left in the third period.  

Jordan Eberle scores on a back-handed shot against Russia sending the 2009 World Juniors semi-final game into overtime. Photo Getty Images.
His backhanded game-tying goal against Russia at the 2009 World Junior Championships in Ottawa rattled Team Russia and infused a fire in Team Canada, which led to a shootout that saw the Canadians beat the Russians and go on to defeat Sweden in the Gold Medal Game.

Though Eberle’s second consecutive year at the 2010 World Juniors in Saskatchewan saw Canada place second, ending their five-year gold medal streak, he did receive the award for Most Valuable Player of the tournament, and fans saw a reunion performance between himself and Hall after their stint playing together at the 2008 IIHF U18 World Championships.

Hall was the lone draft-eligible player selected to the final roster for Canada’s national junior team that year and didn’t fail to impress, scoring a hat trick in a game against Slovakia that saw Canada win 8-2.

Having been among the final players cut from Canada’s 2011 National Junior Team, it looked as though Nugent-Hopkins would have been unable to after his National Hockey League (NHL) draft year, but due to the 2012-13 NHL Lockout, he was able to compete in the 2013 World Juniors and subsequently named team captain.

Though Nuge led the tournament in scoring with 15 points in six games, the team was unable to medal, losing the bronze medal game to Team Russia, which included Oilers teammate Nail Yakupov. The loss ended Canada’s 14-year medal streak in the annual tournament.
Along with Canada and Sweden, Finland has participated in all 42 IIHF World Junior Hockey Championships. The Oilers have had some strong Finnish players on the team both in the past, such as Esa Tikkanen, and present, with Lauri Korpikoski and Iiro Pakarinen.

Pakarinen’s chance to play for his nation in the December tournament came in 2010 when he made the roster for the World Junior Championship in Saskatchewan, the same year Eberle and Hall played for Canada. Finland placed fifth that year and sixth the following year, Pakarinen having played that year as well.   

Korpikoski played in both the 2005 and 2006 IIHF World Junior Championships with Team Finland. Though his first year didn’t see the team medal, taking fifth place, his second year with the national team saw Finland clinch a 4-2 win over the United States for the bronze medal in British Columbia.
Leon Draisaitl attempts to block a shot. Photo Getty Images.
Below the top division of the World Juniors, there are three lower pools: Divisions I, II and III, that each play separate tournaments for the right to move up to a higher pool or risk being relegated to a lower one.

Germany has been a frequent participant in the WJC’s top pool, having played there roughly half the time in the past decade. Leon Draisaitl’s debut in the tournament came during the 2013 World Juniors in Ufa, Russia and the following year in Malmö, Sweden.

Though Germany’s National Junior Team placed ninth both years, Draisaitl put on an impressive display of skill in his first year, scoring two goals and adding four assists for six points in six games.

He earned the title of Captain in his second year with the national junior team where again he scored two goals and added four assists for six points in six games.
Slovakia’s first appearance in the World Juniors came in 1994, starting in Pool C. Their story is one that saw them moving up the ranks, having won first place in Pool C, they were promoted to Pool B where they placed second and were promoted once more to Pool A.

Since securing their spot in the Top Division for the 1996 World Juniors, Slovakia has maintained their position in the Pool A for their last 20 appearances, winning two bronze medals, one in 1999 and the other in 2015.   

Oilers defenceman Andrej Sekera played with Slovakia in both the 2005 and 2006 World Junior Championships. Though Slovakia placed seventh and eighth each year Sekera played, they made for stiff competition against other teams. 
Affectionately known as “The Junior Crowns,” Sweden’s National Junior Team has featured performances from well-known NHL players such as Mats Sundin. Making their debut in the unofficial 1974 tournament, Sweden has made over 40 appearances since then.  

This year, Oilers 2014 NHL Draft fourth round pick William Lagesson is making his debut with the Swedish team. As the sole prospect in this year’s tournament, Lagesson is looking to make an impact and help Sweden avenge last year’s fourth-place finish.

Oilers defenceman Oscar Klefbom played for Team Sweden at the 2012 IIHF World Junior Championships in Alberta. Photo Getty Images
His association with the Oilers isn’t the only play presence that Sweden’s junior team has seen, as Edmonton’s goaltender Anders Nilsson, forward Anton Lander and defenceman Oscar Klefbom have each had their individual go on the team in 2010, 2011 and 2012.

In the last nine years, Sweden has placed in the top four positions, three of which were fourth-place finishes. Nilsson’s year saw the team win bronze at the 2010 World Juniors in Saskatchewan, spanking Switzerland 11-4 for the win.

The following year saw Lander on the national team, where the Junior Crowns lost in a 4-2 upset to the United States, after maintaining a 2-1 lead for much of the second period.

Klefbom’s year with Sweden at the 2012 IIHF World Juniors Championships in Alberta reflected the Swedes' fierce determination as they claimed a spot for the gold medal against Russia, who coincidentally had Klefbom’s current Oilers teammate, Nail Yakupov, on their roster.

It was a deadlock game against Russia that saw no scoring from either team throughout all three periods. It would be overtime that would see Sweden forward Mika Zibanejad score the game-winning goal, securing the win for his team and, for the second time in 31 appearances, a Gold Medal for their country.
Russia competed as a nation for the first time at the 1993 World Junior Championships in Gävle, Sweden. That year they placed sixth, but since then, have dominated the tournament, medaling 19 times in 23 appearances.

Russia’s junior team won their first medal, bronze, at the 1994 World Juniors in Ostrava, Czech Republic. Their first gold medal win didn’t come until 1999 after defeating Canada 3-2 in overtime.

Russia’s junior team has seen some top performances from eventual Edmonton players. Nikita Nikitin played with the junior team for the 2006 tournament in British Columbia, where he ended up playing against Team Canada, which included current Oilers teammate Benoit Pouliot, in the Gold Medal Game. Russia lost in a 5-0 upset to the Canadians, claiming silver for the second year in a row.

In 2012, a young Nail Yakupov made his appearance with Team Russia in the December tournament as part of the 2012 World Junior Championships. Though his team defeated Canada in the semi-finals that year, Russia was ousted by Sweden in an overtime upset, deterring the Russians from winning gold for a second year in a row. 
The World Juniors tournament has been dominated by the likes of Team Russia/Soviet Union and Team Canada, together accounting for 29 of the 39 overall gold medals that have been awarded.

What started as a small, invitation-only junior tournament for the top ice hockey nations in the world, featuring only six teams, grew into a highly competitive tournament for both players and fans.

Canada has medalled in 29 of 39 events held since 1977, leading the all-time gold medal count with 16, while Russia and their predecessors lead the all-time overall medal count with 32.

But the buck doesn’t stop there, as these two countries are joined by the Czech Republic (and its predecessor Czechoslovakia), Finland, Sweden and the United States in dominating medals overall.

Among these nations, they have taken every medal in the history of the tournament, with the exception of two bronze medals for Slovakia in 1999 and 2015 and one bronze medal for Switzerland in 1998.

This year, as the returning champions, Canada is looking to repeat their gold medal win but also break an unwelcomed pattern. Though they won gold at the IIHF World Junior Championship on home ice in January, the team has not won in Europe since 2008, which was the fourth of five consecutive gold medals for Canada’s National Junior Team from 2005-09.

The return of the World Juniors is a highly anticipated tournament each year. Fans attend and tune in from all over the world to see the culmination of countries vying for first place and to watch the development of great players that have gone on to make an impression in the NHL, such as Sidney Crosby and Jonathan Toews.

In turn, Edmonton has had a fair share of players represent a number of countries in the World Juniors, including Canada, Finland, Germany, Slovakia, Sweden and Russia. Oil Country is a tapestry of mixed nations and the Oilers are a direct reflection of that. 

By Meg Tilley/
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