The first bit of World Junior Championship news to break today was the International Ice Hockey Federation’s unveiling of the schedule for the 2012 event, being held in Edmonton and Calgary.
Coming up after the jump, a look at Team USA’s WJC schedule and the other big WJC-related news regarding Jamie Oleksiak.
Let’s waste no time in getting to the date that any and every North American who watches this tournament will be circling.
If the U.S. and Canada are going to meet in the prelims, in Canada, that game is going to be on New Year’s Eve. So, guess what? That’s exactly what’s going to happen in Edmonton on Dec. 31, 2011 at 6 p.m. local, 8 p.m. Eastern Time.
USA vs. Canada, the rematch of last year’s semifinal, will take center stage and it is sure to be the crowned jewel of the preliminary round. Nothing energizes a tournament in North America like the border battle between USA and Canada. There’s a good chance that New Year’s Eve tilt could have major playoff-round implications.
That said, Group B will also come with two other big tests for Team USA as Finland will be a solid opponent and you can never seem to count out the Czech Republic. Newly promoted Denmark is not necessarily a pushover, but it’s doubtful they’ll be much of a player in the group.
The wild card of the group is most definitely Finland. The Finnish junior team may have something they didn’t in its last trip to the WJC. That something is actually a someone, and his name is Mikael Granlund. If you’re not familiar with Granlund, Minnesota’s 2010 first-round pick, perhaps this will refresh your memory. He missed out on last year’s event, but helped Finland’s senior team capture the Men’s World Championship in May and is as exciting a player to watch as there is. Hopefully, for Finland, he is healthy and available, as he plans to stay in his home country for at least one more season as a pro. This could be a great showcase for the Finnish phenom in the year leading up to his presumable rookie season in the NHL.
The Czechs should have a solid team and should make an honest run to the crossovers, but the favorites to make it out of the group are undoubtedly Canada, USA and Finland.
Now that the schedule is set, you can plan your WJC accordingly. The U.S. television home of the World Juniors has yet to be made official, but rumors have swirled that VERSUS could be a destination. The tournament has aired in the U.S. on NHL Network the past two seasons and has also been streamed on FASTHockey.com.
I’ll keep you posted if I find out more regarding television rights. To be honest, even three years ago, I never imagined the American interest in the WJC would get to this point, but it’s definitely grown a bunch. We used to hope the games would be on TV somewhere in the U.S. Now we only have to wonder what network it will be on. This is a truly great step for this tournament.
Here is Team USA’s preliminary-round schedule:
Dec. 26 — Denmark vs. USA — 6 p.m. MST/8 p.m. EST
Dec. 28 — USA vs. Finland — 1:30 p.m./3:30 p.m.
Dec. 30 — USA vs. Czech Rep. — 1:30 p.m./3:30 p.m.
Dec. 31 — Canada vs. USA — 6 p.m./8 p.m.
Oleksiak To Play for Team Canada?
Tuesday morning, Ryan Kennedy of The Hockey News tweeted this hot scoop:
For the record, Oleksiak accepted an invite to the U.S. National Junior Evaluation Camp in Lake Placid and was not listed on the initial roster for Canada’s summer tryout camp. That said, there’s nothing to stop him from accepting a late offer from Canada, which according to Kennedy he has.
Upon seeing Kennedy’s tweet, I immediately contacted USA Hockey and received this response from a spokesperson, via text: “We have not heard a word from [Oleksiak] on this.”
I don’t doubt Kennedy’s report at all. However, it is also important to remember that no formal announcement has been made by any party. So at this point, it is not technically official.
The big defenseman is currently at the Dallas Stars development camp and also has another decision to make this summer. Though he played for Northeastern University last season, that school is currently without a head coach, as former bench boss Greg Cronin was hired as an assistant coach by the Toronto Maple Leafs. Oleksiak has stated he will wait until the new coach is in place before deciding on whether to return to Northeastern or go play for the Saginaw Spirit in the Ontario Hockey League. So it’s been quite a heavy summer for Oleksiak, who was selected by Dallas 14th overall at the 2011 NHL Entry Draft.
If, and when, Oleksiak’s switch becomes official there will be a slight void in the U.S. summer camp. Losing Oleksiak hurts, but it is by no means a crippling blow to Team USA. After all, the roster hasn’t even been decided yet and there’s no guarantee Oleksiak would have been on it.
The U.S. and Canada both boast particularly strong defensive corps in the 1992 and 1993 birth years. So while either having Oleksiak would help, either country could get on without him just fine. Still, there’s no doubt that both the U.S. and Canada would prefer to have Oleksiak as an option given his tremendous size and physicality.
In terms of the U.S., if Oleksiak is not an option, it might mean Jarred Tinordi has a little less competition to be the physical, shutdown guy for the U.S. squad. He had a rough go in his first OHL season, but improved as the year progressed. Tinordi comes with a first-round pedigree and a successful history with USA Hockey as the captain of the 2010 World Under-18 Championship team. With Oleksiak out of the picture, Tinordi goes from on the bubble to probable pretty quick.
It also could mean a defense spot is open in camp. That empty slot, if filled, could potentially go to Islanders second-rounder and Youngstown Phantoms defenseman Scott Mayfield, who was one of the notable omissions from the initial roster. It’s all speculative at this point, of course. There’s a lot of moving parts to this, so we’ll just have to wait and see how this all shakes out.
Oleksiak has been in a bit of an uncomfortable position this summer, having to choose between the country in which he was born (Canada) and the country he has represented in smaller international competitions (Oleksiak’s father is American, hence the dual citizenship).
Though he played for the U.S. in the 2009 Memorial of Ivan Hlinka Under-18 Tournament, Oleksiak has yet to suit up in an IIHF World Championship, the only type of event in which national allegiance is locked in place. For more on IIHF eligibility rules, click here.
What makes this slightly more uncomfortable is that Oleksiak’s formative years have been spent in the U.S. and within USA Hockey programs. He skated in the USA Hockey sanctioned United States Hockey League, played on a few U.S. select teams and was a late cut from the 2010 U.S. National Junior Team. He’s been a bit of a late bloomer, but his talent has essentially been cultivated by U.S.-based programs, having even played his midget hockey with Detroit Little Caesars.
Now saying all that, I cannot criticize Oleksiak for his decision, if in fact he has made his mind up. At the end of the day, we are talking about national teams. There is an element of national pride and patriotism that comes along with representing your country. Whichever country Oleksiak would consider his home and/or the one he most relates to is the one he should play for.
Whether or not this is a hockey decision, it should be a decision in which emotions can and maybe should play a role. If his heart is in Canada, he should play for Canada. Hard to criticize anyone for going with their heart in a situation like this.
This saga may not be over just yet as nothing has been formally announced from any party, so I will keep you posted as best I can from the U.S. perspective.
UPDATE: According to Mark Stepneski, of Andrew’s Dallas Stars Page on ESPNDallas.com, nothing has been finalized regarding Oleksiak’s decision:
@andrewsdsp Dallas Stars prospect Jamie Oleksiak on The Hockey News report that he is trying out for Canada’s World Junior team, not USA team: “As of now, we are going no comment. It’s definitely a tough decision.. … As of now we’re still debating what’s going to happen over the summer.” More later on the blog.
Make sure to follow Mark on Twitter and check the Stars Page for more on this. Oleksiak’s no-comment comment doesn’t give you a warm and fuzzy feeling, but it at least leaves the door open. We’ll keep an eye on this situation and update this post as more news becomes available.