The annual World Junior Hockey Championship, which starts December 26 (Boxing Day in Vancouver), has become an elite event on the hockey calendar simply for the fact that it features the top players 19-and-under in a 10-day, pressure-packed event.
What makes this tournament so intriguing, is that it’s hockey’s ultimate coming-out party. The World Juniors provides National Hockey League general managers, scouts and fans a glimpse of the NHL’s future stars and the 2006 has plenty of star power.
The United States is favored to win its second WJC title in three years, and Head Coach Walt Kyle has 18 NHL draft picks on his 22-man roster. Much of the pre-tournament hype has centered on star forward Phil Kessel of the University of Minnesota Golden Gophers, who is pegged to be the No. 1 pick in the NHL draft next June.
“It’s going to be a great tournament. But it doesn’t matter if you’re the favorites,” said Kessel. “The favorite gets beat all the time.You have to go out there and play your game and hope everything works out.”
“Phil is an exceptional talent and a catalyst on this team offensively, but I would also tell you that we’re not going to place any overemphasis on any one individual here,” Kyle says.
The United States is grouped in a pool with Canada, Finland, Switzerland and Norway. Russia, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Sweden and Latvia make up the other pool.
While the Americans are favored, Russia, Canada and the Czech Republic will also be in the medal hunt.
Kyle is downplaying any pre-tournament hype about going in as the supposed favorite. He says defending champion Canada is the team to beat, because they are on home ice and hockey is in the Canadian blood.
| Wild draft pick Benoit Pouliot will be counted on to lead Canada in the quest for a gold repeat. |
“Canada is playing in their own country. They are the defending gold medalists. They’ve won medals forever in this tournament,” Kyle says. “People talk about us being favorites. I would challenge anyone to go into Canada and take this away from them. That is going to be a very difficult task and in my opinion, they are the favorites.”
Kyle understands the pulse and pressure of the WJC. He won a bronze medal with the United States in 1992 when Canada finished sixth.
“From the last time I coached this team in ’92, there’s a huge difference in the talent pool,” Kyle says. “When we medaled, I don’t think we really believed we could win the gold medal. The difference between these guys and the guys I had then, is that these guys legitimately believe that they can have success. And they believe that because they’ve done it (at the under-18 level).”
One thing the players on the American roster have in common is that they have been in USA Hockey’s development pipeline for a handful of years and many of them have played together at different international tournaments.
“You look at our roster, almost all of these kids have had success in international competition,” said Jim Johannson, USA Hockey’s senior director of hockey operations. “We’re just deeper. Head to toe we have more players capable of playing at this level of championship. The depth continues to grow and the attitude has changed.”
The Canadians have taken a different approach in preparing for the tournament. Hockey Canada invited about three-dozen players to a final selection camp under the watchful eye of head coach Brent Sutter.
The Canadians have only one returning player and half the players on Canada’s 22-man roster are 18. Forward Jonathan Toews of the University of North Dakota – who is Kessel’s main rival for the coveted first overall pick in the NHL draft - is just 17.
“We’re young, but we’re good,” says Sutter. “We know it’s a very tough tournament to be successful in, but I truly believe that whenever you’re a Canadian and you put that sweater on with that logo on the front, you raise your game to a different level. It’s going to be our goal to do that,”
The Canadian team includes Benoit Pouliot, who was Minnesota first pick, fourth overall, in the 2005 draft. Other Minnesota prospects include Russian left wing Roman Voloshenko, Russian goalie Anton Khudobin, and right wing Julien Sprunger of Switzerland. All are playing in their second straight WJC tournament.
Canada likes its underdog status and hopes to feed off that and the adrenaline jolt of playing at home.
“Any time a team can use whatever it can as motivation, you use it and use it
properly,” Sutter says.
For the players who proudly wear their country’s colors on the international stage, a trip to the World Juniors means so many new experiences. They’re united with so many people they’ve never met before, or even had celebrated battles in league play, and they are usually a long ways from home in a foreign land at a time usually reserved for family.
The list of who’s played in the World Juniors read like a Who’s Who of hockey.
The Canadian alumni list includes Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux, San Jose’s Joe Thornton, Nashville’s Paul Kariya, Joe Sakic of Colorado, Trevor Linden of Vancouver, Jarome Iginla of Calgary, Jose Theodore of Montreal, Eric Lindros of the Toronto Maple Leafs and Philadelphia’s Eric Desjardins and Wild youngsters Nick Schultz, Pierre-Marc Bouchard and Brent Burns.
Four of the top rookies in the NHL this season – Sidney Crosby of Pittsburgh, Dion Phaneuf of Calgary, and Philadelphia’s duo of Mike Richards and Jeff Carter helped Canada mine gold at the ‘05 WJC in North Dakota, where they tested their wares against Washington’s Alexander Ovechkin, another NHL freshman who played for Russia.
The American alumnus includes the Wild’s Brian Rolston, Brian Leetch of the Bruins, Calgary’s Tony Amonte and Pittsburgh’s John LeClair, Keith Tkachuk and Doug Weight of the St. Louis Blues, Zach Parise of New Jersey and Mike Modano of Dallas.
Markus Naslund of the Canucks played on a line with Philadelphia’s Peter Forsberg at the ’93 tournament in Sweden. Montreal’s Saku Koivu, Jaromir Jagr of the Rangers, Alexander Mogilny of the Devils, Mats Sundin of the Toronto Maple Leafs, Sergei Fedorov of Columbus, Marian Gaborik of Minnesota, along with Ilya Kovalchuk of Atlanta are NHL stars that were part of the Who’s Who of international players who showcased their talent at the World Juniors.
| Widely considered the best player not in the NHL, Russia’s Evgeni Malkin WILL be in the World Junior Tournament. |
Kessel and Toews aren’t the only members of the Class of 2006 who will be in the spotlight at the ’06 WJC. They’ll have plenty of company from other highly touted picks including Michael Frolik of the Czech Republic, Peter Mueller of the United States, Nicklas Backstrom of Sweden, Jesse Joensuu of Finland and Igor Makarov of Russia.
Another player who people are anxious to see is Russia’s Evgeni Malkin, who was the second overall pick in the 2004 draft behind Ovechkin. Malkin is considered the best player not in the NHL and he’s the only player in the WJC who will compete in the 2006 Olympic tournament in February in Italy.
“He is like the Russian players of old,” says Dave King, the ex-NHL coach (Calgary, Columbus) who is Malkin’s coach in Russia. “He can stick-handle in traffic if he needs to. He is very dangerous when he gets open ice and he gets room to work. He can play in tight spaces when he has to and he is dangerous with open ice.”
The World Junior tournament kicks off with pool play on December 26.