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Legendary Scribe Outlines Flaws With the World Junior Format

What drives the disparity of talent at the World Junior Championship?

IIHF World Juniors

I am usually not one to argue or disagree with legends within a specific domain. That said, Ken Campbell’s recent Hockey News / Sports Illustrated (see below) article about the IIHF World Junior tournament format piqued my interest. It was worth taking a closer look at how the format of the tournament is put together and it seems clear Campbell missed the mark here.

Related: Team Canada Depth: The 2021 Canada World Juniors Final Roster

Campbell proposes a new format for how to determine the last two teams of the tournament – in 2020 those teams are Austria and Germany. His rational for the format change is to address the inherent imbalance that is clearly evident each Christmas. He makes some great points, but also misses the mark on others.

Current WJC Format

For those not familiar, the tournament we (as North Americans) are exposed to each holiday season is the Division I event – of which there are three. Every year, the winner of Division II moves up to the first (the Austrian team in 2020), and the last place team in Division I moves back to the second (to be determined).

Leon Draisaitl and Tim Stutzle German hockey
Leon Draisaitl and Tim Stutzle German hockey

Now, I fully agree with Campbell that there are some tough games to watch and several teams are vastly overmatched. Case in point, Team Canada’s first game – a 16-2 drubbing over a German squad that could only dress 14 skaters after playing a tight game with Finland the previous day. Ugly to watch, but to say German hockey is not growing or developing misses the mark. The current Hart and Ted Lindsay trophy winner, Leon Draisaitl, is a good indicator of that fact.

The other gap in Campbell’s argument is that as many bad games as there are in the round robin, there also some great matchups throughout the event.

RELATED: Germany’s Continuous Hockey Development on Full Display in NHL

Meaningful WJC Games

For example, the first game of the tournament between Slovakia and Switzerland was a tight match but also had big implications. The Slovaks won by a narrow 1-0 margin, and it was plain to see the pure joy in the Slovaks and the agony of defeat amongst the Swiss players. It meant something and was a significant game for each team.

The game between the Slovaks and Germans last night was also significant – a game that ended with an overtime power play goal by the Germans. In my humble opinion, the lower tier games only get better and the tournament normally ends in an entertaining relegation series. Because of the ongoing pandemic the IIHF cancelled the other lower-level under-20 tournaments which means there will be no relegation or promotion from the 2021 tournament. One more unfortunate result of the year that was 2020.

Measuring Development

In my opinion, national sport development does not happen year to year but decade to decade. In some cases, much longer. I can distinctly recall some very poor German junior teams of yesteryear. However, they are slowly starting to compete, and I hope no one is surprised when they leapfrog the Slovaks, Czech Republic or Swiss.

Whether the next up and coming country is Belarus, Kazakhstan, Austria, France, Norway, or Denmark does not really matter. These countries expect to take a few lumps after promotion, but they would likely never reverse it given the opportunity. Each group of young men proudly represented their country and earned the right to participate in the top division accordingly. While they may not appear like they are developing by taking some beatings along the way, they are likely learning a great deal during the entire process.

Global Growth

Most importantly, the game of hockey continues to grow around the globe. On the other hand, I could argue that the disparity of teams at this tournament is more a function of how far hockey still needs to grow on a global scale. After all, there are only eight countries to ever medal in the tournament.

The unofficial tournaments held prior to 1977 are not included in this table. Countries in italics no longer compete at the World Championships.

Country1st place, gold medalist(s) Gold2nd place, silver medalist(s) Silver3rd place, bronze medalist(s) BronzeMedals
 Canada189532
 Russia
 Soviet Union
 CIS
Total 
4
8
1
13
10
3
0
13
9
2
0
11
23
13
1
37
 Finland54615
 United States42612
 Sweden211619
 Czech Republic
 Czechoslovakia
Total 
2
0
2
0
5
5
1
6
7
3
11
14
 Slovakia0022
  Switzerland0011
Total444444132
Courtesy of Wikipedia

The point is, outside of the big five – Canada, Russia, United States, Sweden and Finland – the tournament is always going to have these ugly imbalances. Instead of changing the format, perhaps we should be looking at why there are only five teams that compete for an IIHF division I medal each year? Perhaps the sport is too expensive for a country to invest in or there are more popular sports at the youth level – usually a combination of both. As a junior hockey scout I can certainly attest to the fact that this game is becoming more ‘elitist’ every season. What are the long-term implications of that?

Lastly, the idea of promotion/relegation is foreign to many North Americans but widely used in Europe. Personally, I love it. Maybe because I have personally seen and know how much it means to young players just to be able to participate in the Division I tournament. Sure, the beatings might be tough to take, but perhaps these current players can one day take their lessons back to their own countries and figure out how the nation can get back to the big stage.

It takes time, investment, and even a few tough lessons but it is not impossible. 

NEXT: Team Canada Depth: The 2021 Canada World Juniors Final Roster

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