It was the most wonderful time of the year. While many people associate the end of December and early days of January with the various holidays that occur within this tight window, hockey enthusiasts have another event that engenders feelings of cheeriness and glee.
This event is the Under-20 World Junior Hockey Championships; this pits the top professional prospects from all over the globe against each other. For readers who are unfamiliar with the format of the tournament, here is a quick rundown:
The top division of the tournament consists of the ten best hockey nations in the world. One team is relegated to the Division 1A tournament each year, while the previous Division 1A winner tries to compete against the hockey powerhouses in the top division. The teams are separated into two pools, and the top four teams from each pool advance to the medal round, while the last teams in each pool compete to decide who stays in the top division and who is relegated. (For the 2021 tournament, relegation was eliminated as a result of the lower division tournaments not being held due to the Covid-19 pandemic.)
Now that the format of the tournament has been explained, let’s set the scene for this year’s tournament. Group A consists of Canada, Finland, Germany, Slovakia, and Switzerland, and the order listed is how the teams finished in pool play. Group B consists of the USA, Russia, Sweden, Czech Republic, and Austria, and as stated for Group A, that is the order in which the teams finished pool play.
In the medal rounds, all of the top seeds won their first-round matchups, setting the stage for two intense semi-final matches. In-Game One, Canada easily handled the Russian team 4–0; while in Game Two, the USA lost a lead in the third period but scored a clutch goal with under two minutes left to burst into the Gold Medal game.
This sets up the battle of North America, USA Vs. Canada. The two nations who are arguably the best in the world, geared up to prove who is best for the next year. Before we get into the final game, it’s time for some background on each team:
This tournament has always belonged to Team Canada. They have a record of 209–60–23 and have the most championships with 18 Gold Medals. This is absurd, and that adjective also describes the talent level of the 2021 rendition of the team. Canada strolled onto the ice at Rogers Place in Edmonton, Alberta, as not only the hosts of the tournament but the heavy favorites. The defending champions are represented by a whopping 20 first-round picks. Yes, you read that right. 20 players on the roster were selected in the first round of the NHL Draft in either the 2019 or 2020 season.
For context, a world junior team only carries 25 players. 80 percent of the team is looked upon as a future franchise star in the National Hockey League. This alone made the team incredibly imposing. It is important to note that the 2020 first overall pick Alexis Lafreniére was not permitted to participate as the New York Rangers wanted him to be a full participant in training camp. While this could be considered a huge letdown, it was expected going in; and, an embarrassment of riches softens the blow.
A bigger disappointment for the Canadians was a pre-tournament injury to captain Kirby Dach. Dach, the 3rd overall pick in the 2019 NHL Draft for the Chicago Blackhawks, broke his wrist in a pre-tournament game against Russia. It was a freak play where the young centerman went for a body check and his wrist received the brunt of the punishment. This was a tough blow for the Canadian squad, but 19 other first-round picks were still ready to lead the red and black to back-to-back titles.
Canada barely had to break a sweat in the tournament. They opened up the tournament with a dominating 16–2 victory over the undermanned Germany team. They continued rolling with a 3–1 victory over Slovakia, a 10–0 drubbing over Switzerland, and a 4–1 victory over Finland. This set them up for a matchup against the Czech Republic, which they took 3–0; then, the victory over Russia catapulted them into the Gold Medal game.
Impact players for the team up North included defencemen Bowen Byram and Jamie Drysdale and forwards Dylan Cozens, Connor McMichael, and Peyton Krebs. Goaltender Devon Levi was solid in net for the team as well. Cozens finished the tournament 2nd overall in scoring with eight goals and eight assists. He and Byram split captain duties with the absence of Dach.
The U.S.A Team:
Moving south, The U.S. team may not have had 20 first-round picks, but they were no slouches either. The team boasted seven first-round picks and many NHL draft picks with high league potential. Unfortunately, the team was without 2019 first-round pick John Beecher and Toronto Maple Leafs standout Nick Robertson due to Covid-19 issues. Nevertheless, the team persisted.
The U.S. opened up with a loss to Russia 5–4. This was a wake-up call for the team, and they were buzzing for the remainder of the tournament. They dismantled Austria 11–0, crushed the Czech Republic 7–0, and handles Sweden 4–0 to secure the first position in Group B. This set them up to face Slovakia, who they defeated 5–2 and with their victory over Finland, they were looking for Gold.
Impact players for the United States included defenseman Jake Sanderson and Cam York; moreover, as well as forwards Trevor Zegras, Matthew Beniers, Alex Turcotte, and Matthew Boldy. Goaltender Spencer Knight got off to a rough start but held his own for the rest of the tournament; he was a consistent advantage for the Americans. Clutch play from forwards Arthur Kaliyev, who scored the deciding goal in the Finland game, and Cole Caufield also are worth noting. Zegras was the leading scorer for the tournament with seven goals and 11 assists, and York was the captain of the U.S. team.
In the final game, it felt like it was Canada’s game to lose. They were the favorite and the defending champion, and frankly, nobody had even given them much of a scare going into the game, as pointed out by Zegras during a pregame interview. This showed in the final, as two U.S. tallies were more than enough to take home gold. Knight was the star of the game, constantly squashing Canadian chances with such vigor that it almost felt like an insult that the red and black even attempted to score. Knight was a man on a mission in the championship game; this led to the result that was a gold medal for the U.S.
Highlights of the game include Zegras tying the all-time U.S. scoring lead in World Junior play, Knight being a brick wall between the pipes, and countless Canada fans whining on Twitter and making excuses despite their consistent bragging about the talent on this year’s roster.
Sorry, Canada had to get one in there. In all honesty, Canada played well too. The nation is still the gold standard for hockey culture, and while the U.S. is catching up, Canada still deserves full recognition as the best hockey nation. Still, the U.S. is right on their doorstep, along with the likes of Finland, Russia, and Sweden. The tournament has not seen a back to back winner since 2009, and that is an amazing display of parity.
The 2021 World Junior Hockey Championships are unfortunately over, but the memories will last a lifetime. The U.S. is technically the victors, but the sport of hockey overall one. The tournament was held amidst a global pandemic and still was successful. It captivated nations all over the globe and was a great way to kick off in 2021.