2012 WJC: Why the World Junior Championship Matters

It seems every year there is a discussion that occurs among some hockey fans in which the initial question asked is, “What’s the point of the World Juniors?” It’s a question that is sometimes difficult to answer as the significance of the World Junior Championship is multi-layered.

As I’m sure you’ve heard by now, the WJC is a huge deal in Canada. The phrases religion, rite of passage and birthright are often thrown around with reckless abandon. However, while there may be less significance for fans outside of Canada, the World Juniors is a big deal for every international federation that produces elite players, the NHL teams that have prospects participating and the players themselves.

Find out more about the somewhat unknown significance of this tournament after the jump.

I’ve often heard people talk about the fact that there’s an awful lot of weight put on a tournament that features teenagers, which I suppose is a fair statement. However, when you consider that the NHL has gotten younger over the years, these players are required to mature quickly.

Many have left home by the time they were 15 or 16 for Junior hockey. Most have already been drafted, some have even signed their first professional contract. These kids are far from your normal teenagers.

It’s still a fair thought. There is an awful lot of weight put on these kids’ shoulders, particularly Team Canada.

However, the significance of this tournament is far greater than that of national pride. The results of these tournaments may not matter 5-10 years from now in the minds of the fans, but the impact tournaments of the past make are felt for decades to come by each hockey federation.

At the end of the day, for as big of an event as it has become, the World Juniors is, quite simply, a measuring stick. For all 10 national hockey federations that participate in the WJC annually, this tournament is a chance to see how one stacks up against the rest.

The U20 level is a good gauge of where a country’s overall development is and what kind of players it has produced for the future. Most 19-year-old players are reaching the end of their skill acquisition and development cycles. From then on, all many players can do is improve their hockey mind and their physical attributes. This is essentially the last test for a country’s elite players before they’re sent off into the professional world.

Because of the uncertainty that surrounds player availability for the Men’s World Championship, the World Juniors and Olympics are the only two tournaments where every country can truly say they’ve sent their absolute best players in the age group, or at least a large majority of best players (as the NHL continues to see an influx of 18- and 19-year-olds).

The players that skate in the World Juniors are going to have played against each other a lot in other international events, whether it be the World U17 Challenge, World U18 Championship, Ivan Hlinka or a Four Nations. So the federations also get a chance to gauge its talent as it has come up through the ranks and make sure everyone is on the right developmental track and if they’re keeping up with the rest of the world.

As far as every federation is concerned, the World Juniors is one of the best tools to see where they are at in player development as a country. That allows everyone a chance to find out what areas the country is deficient in or whether its style of play needs an adjustment, or if they’re keeping pace with the world’s elite.

Over the last four or five years now, it has become clear that the U.S., Canada, Russia, Sweden and Finland are in a higher class.

Switzerland is probably the fastest rising country developmentally, getting stronger each year, but not quite to the elite level overall yet.

Slovakia and the Czech Republic are scuffling developmentally and have been for the last few years. Despite those neighboring countries’ struggles, both still produce a good number of elite individuals, the depth just hasn’t been there.

Germany recently earned a promotion back into the WJC’s top flight for next year and has continually improved, keeping a cut above the rest of the field, but slightly behind the previously mentioned countries.

Then there’s everybody else, like Denmark, Belarus, Norway, Latvia, and so on.

At the end of this tournament, even more will become clear as to where everyone stands. All 10 teams participating will have learned something about their country’s development system when the tournament ends, if only a small sample. Then each will take a long look at the last three years, last five years, last decade and see what the trends are. They’ll know pretty quickly if something needs to be changed at that point.

So it might be 11 days of hockey, with a lot of hype and attention on teenagers, but its effects could play some role in setting aspects of a country’s development philosophy on a different course.

The World Junior Championship’s Impact on USA Hockey

The U.S. has enjoyed more success at the World Junior Championship in recent years because its player pool has widened and deepened. That deepening pool is a result of rising participation numbers across the country and improved development from the grassroots levels on up.

The World Junior Championship has had a significant impact on the way USA Hockey develops its players. From 1974 to 1996, the U.S. had only mustered two medals at the World Juniors, neither gold.

The lack of international success (outside of the Olympics) prior to 1996 was getting to a point where USA Hockey felt it needed to do something drastic.

That’s when the National Team Development Program was formed, after tons of research along with passionate and sometimes heated debate. Some saw it as a gamble to invest so much into a smaller number of players. The gamble paid off.

Prior to the NTDP’s establishment in Ann Arbor, Mich., the U.S. had a .410 winning percentage at the WJC. Since the program began, that winning percentage has increased to .650 and the United States has captured five medals, two of which were gold.

Now we’re seeing other countries like Switzerland and Slovakia make a more concerted effort to boost national team training at the younger levels. Hockey Canada established its Program of Excellence to give it a more cohesive way to develop a national team culture and identify and develop top players.

Many of these programs have started because of results at the World Junior Championship, combined with copious research on player development and a lot of trial and error.

Meanwhile, in the wake of America’s growing hockey-playing population, more avenues for development have opened up to American players. The USHL has evolved into a viable developer of elite talent. College hockey has made significant strides in its focus on player development, while some players are exercising their option to play Major Junior in Canada. With several different paths of development, there are more opportunities for American players than ever before.

One more note on the significance of the World Junior Championship as it pertains to USA Hockey. If you look at the silver medal team from the 2010 Olympic Winter Games, that roster included three players that were part of USA Hockey’s first-ever gold-medal World Junior team. Ryan Suter, Zach Parise and Ryan Kesler were all key parts of that gold-medal squad at the 2004 WJC. All three were big contributors at the Olympics as well. The  Olympic squad also included Jack Johnson, Erik Johnson and Patrick Kane, who were all part of the bronze-medal-winning U.S. National Junior Team in 2007.

The Olympic team had a bevy of young players with international success prior to the Olympics. Many of those players will be available again in 2014 (if the NHL goes to Sochi).

USA Hockey, through it’s gradual building of its development system, has created a culture of winning and international success. A lot of that has to do with a concerted effort at developing the top players in the country in its most crucial developmental years.

The organization, at least in part, can thank the World Juniors for exposing some of those developmental deficiencies, thus allowing or perhaps forcing USA Hockey to plot a new course.

NHL Significance

When you look at the litany of National Hockey League players that have played in this tournament, it’s not hard to see just how important this tournament can be for a player’s development. Crosby, Ovechkin, Kessel, Kesler, Phaneuf, Price, Parise, Hall, Tavares, Johnson, Suter and many many more have been a part of this tournament.

Every NHL team gets a look at its prospect(s) against the best players in the world in their own age group. So while the tournament is a measuring stick for federations, it’s also a measuring stick for NHL teams to see how their prospect compares with other elite players.

The experience the WJC offers a young prospect and the challenge it presents are great for development, but the NHL teams have to love the evaluation they can get out of it.

The WJC has also become a chance for NHL teams to get a look at the year’s top draft prospects. Guys like Nail Yakupov, Mikael Grigorenko, Jacob Trouba, Filip Forsberg and more will have the opportunity to showcase themselves on the biggest stage granted a draft-eligible prospect.

There’s no shortage of significance of this event on the NHL and that’s a big reason why NHL.com and NHL Network have devoted so many resources and air time to coverage to bring more of its fans into the loop.

Significance for Players

As mentioned before, this is a great opportunity for NHL teams to gauge their prospects, but it’s a good chance for the players themselves to see where they stand up against their peers.

Some of these players are two years removed from their draft season. It’s a chance to see how far they’ve come compared to a guy that was selected in the same draft year.

Additionally, it’s a great chance for the young players to play new roles, in some cases. Some players might be a first-liner on their Junior team, but play a third- or fourth-line role at the Juniors. That might even be where that player projects at the NHL level.

Players that accept and excel in the roles their given at the World Junior Championship are probably more likely to accept and excel in roles at the next level. A player has to prove he is adaptable and versatile in this tournament to play for most teams at the WJC. If he can do that at this stage, there’s a good chance he can do it at the next.

The other big factor is that a player can certainly gain a lot of confidence and/or take a gigantic step forward at a tournament like this.

At the 2010 World Juniors, Derek Stepan likely played his way into forcing the team that drafted him to offer him an NHL contract earlier than expected. He continued to have a stellar season at Wisconsin after captaining Team USA to gold in 2010 and ended up signing on the dotted line that summer. Now he’s playing significant minutes on a good New York Rangers squad in his sophomore season.

The World Junior Championship undoubtedly plays a significant role in the international hockey landscape and its future. While we witness the NHL stars of tomorrow on the World Junior stage, we’re also finding out which countries will be international powers over the years to come.

Coming later Wednesday morning, a detailed preview of Team USA’s second preliminary-round match up of the 2012 IIHF World Junior Championship against Finland.

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About Chris Peters

Editor of The United States of Hockey. Contributor to CBSSports.com, USA Hockey Magazine and more. Former USA Hockey PR guy. Current Iowan.
This entry was posted in American Prospects, Junior Hockey, NCAA, NHL, NHL Draft, NTDP, U.S. National Teams, USA Hockey, World Junior Championship. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to 2012 WJC: Why the World Junior Championship Matters

  1. Pingback: USA vs. Finland; Garrison; Joe Krause; East Greyhounds | Rink and Run

  2. Curtis says:

    You’d think the USA vs. Finland game was being played in Finland. I hate Canadian hockey fans.

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