Arguably the most popular hockey tournament of the year, the World Juniors can, in a sense, be viewed as the pinnacle of minor hockey development. With many of the players still young enough to play in leagues like the Canadian Hockey League and participating in the Hockey Canada Program of Excellence, it’s the highest level of competition for this age group.
We can use this tournament as an annual benchmark to reflect on the state of the game globally and gain a better understanding of what other countries are doing in their hockey development in the hopes of making the game better. Canada has historically been viewed as a leader in the game based on our number of players, facilities, resources and international success. The challenge of getting new players into the game and keeping them registered is relatively new for Canada. Countries often share best practices in order to help reach the collective goal – growing the game.
Short term competition can often be unpredictable by nature. While teams have dozens of games in an entire regular season to go through the ups and downs, the two-week window of the World Juniors means that teams have to be prepared and engaged at all times to ensure success. This year was an even bigger challenge for most teams as they were limited in their preparation by the restrictions imposed by the pandemic.
The World Juniors hasn’t seen a repeat winner since Canada won five in a row from 2005 to 2009, proving just how even the playing field has become. However, the parity at the World Juniors has not translated to other international events as Canada has won three of the last four gold medals at the Olympics and captured the World Cup of Hockey in 2016.
Each nation is implementing innovative programming that they believe will improve their country’s hockey development. For example, there are no standings or stats for kids U13 and below in Sweden. Scores are kept during the games, but there’s no written record of wins or losses. Finland has a goaltending coach on every team at every age level. Denmark is geared towards a more practice-based model, though there are regular season games that increase in frequency as the age groups progress. USA Hockey was one of the first to mandate modified ice programming at the U8 level.
The way minor hockey is organized in North American compared to Europe offers different pathways of development as well. The Canadian model can be described as more of a ‘free market’, where players go from their minor hockey teams to the junior hockey with the goal of reaching the professional level. In Europe, players are ‘self-contained’ within clubs and they play all of their minor hockey with the same team and all the development is provided within the organization which is connected to the professional club team.
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A focus on skill development in countries that are not historically viewed as “hockey nations” has been successful in developing players such as Tim Stützle (Germany) and Marco Rossi (Austria). The World Juniors offers these players an opportunity to play and grow against the best competition in the world.
This is all not to say that the skill level of Canadian players is decreasing. While you can look at the stats of the number of NHL players who are Canadian is going down, you can also say that it’s not because we are declining in skill but rather that the competition is increasing thanks to the global growth of the game.
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