IIHF Needs to Let New Countries Host World Junior Championship

Just six countries have hosted the World Junior Championships since 1998. During that spell, Europe’s four premier hockey powers – Russia, Finland, Sweden, and the Czech Republic – have shared organizing responsibilities with the U.S. and Canada.

Since the World Juniors’ unofficial launch in 1974, the tournament has only been held outside of those six countries on five occasions. The competition headed to Switzerland in 1997 and has twice travelled across the German boarder (1992, 1981). Also of note, Czechoslovakian cities that sit within modern-day Slovakia set the scene for WJCs in 1987 and 1987.

To put it differently, Canada has provided the tournament’s backdrop in 10 of the last 24 years and will do so again this month.

Related: 2022 Guide To the World Junior Championship

In other words, the world’s most prestigious junior hockey contest is a closed shop when it comes to hosting rights. If your nation isn’t a superpower, the chances are it won’t be a top-flight host either. But is that desirable?

Could Hockey Follow Other Sports?

FIFA, soccer’s global governing body, holds a biennial U-20 World Cup. Since 2007, Canada, Egypt, Colombia, Turkey, New Zealand, South Korea, and Poland have held it. Next, it will head to Indonesia.

FIBA, which governs international basketball, holds a biennial U-19 World Cup. Since 2007, Serbia, Australia, Latvia (twice), the Czech Republic, and Greece (twice) have hosted it. Hungary will put on the show for the first time in 2023.

For good measure, I’ll throw World Rugby’s U-20 Championship into the mix. Since the competition’s formation in 2008, nine countries have hosted it.

Hockey, then, is an exception, not the rule, when it comes to hosting junior cups in the same countries time and time again.

Switzerland goalie Luca Hollenstein Russia's Kirill Slepets-IIHF Needs to Let New Countries Host World Junior Championship
Switzerland goalie Luca Hollenstein stops Russia’s Kirill Slepets (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck)

Evidently, there are reasons for that.

First and foremost, hockey’s global reach is limited compared to soccer. Secondly, FIFA – unlike the IIHF – reserves a place at its tournament for the hosts – hence Qatar, which has never qualified for a World Cup before, will participate in next year’s tournament.

Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, the World Juniors are extraordinarily popular in Canada. You could pick any soccer-crazed country on the planet and the following statement will be true: ‘FIFA’s U-20 World Cup is not as important there as the WJCs are to Canada and Canadians.’

So, with that in mind, is it a problem that the World Juniors are almost exclusively hosted by countries that have a chance of winning gold? I’d argue it is.

Would Germany, Slovakia, Austria or Switzerland Be Good WJC Hosts?

If John Tortorella’s comments about Connor McDavid and Trevor Zegras are anything to go by, it is clear – broadly speaking – that the hockey world is not fond of change. There’s a reason why the NHL had an Original Six for so long, and it isn’t because the sport was unloved elsewhere.

As a result, I’m mindful that any changes to the IIHF’s host selection rationale would be piecemeal, to begin with. Thus, there’s no use in me advocating for the World Juniors to be held by nations that haven’t qualified to participate in the tournament.

I might do so in the future (because it would be the best way to grow the game) – but I shan’t today.

Instead, let’s raise the spectre of handing the reigns to the four nations that currently sit beneath the big six in the junior hockey pyramid: Germany, Slovakia, Austria, and Switzerland.

Switzerland has a rich hockey culture, a successful national team program, and well-supported domestic clubs. SC Bern – of the Swiss National League – has been Europe’s most-visited club since 2002, attracting an average attendance of 16,237.

As NHL attendances fall, SC Bern has continued to attract large crowds during the pandemic.

It’s also worth remembering that Auston Matthews opted to spend his draft year in the National League with ZSC Lions. Switzerland is a consistent producer of NHL talent and already has the facilities needed to hold major tournaments. That the central European nation hasn’t hosted a WJC since the late 1990s is a travesty.

The same is true of Germany. It has the arenas. It has a well-supported league. It has good players.

After winning silverware at the 2021 Hlinka Gretzky Cup, Slovakia would also be in a strong position to host the World Juniors.

Lastly, some flowers for Austria. The nation’s cross-border league boasts an average attendance of 3,163 (the sixth highest in Europe), and that figure would likely rise after hosting a WJC. After all, crowds in Denmark and Slovakia have grown since they hosted World Championships in 2018 and 2019.

Michael Grabner Arizona Coyotes-IIHF Needs to Let New Countries Host World Junior Championship
Before entering the Canadian Hockey League, Michael Grabner made 14 appearances in Austria’s top division as a teenager (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Which is probably the point, right? If the IIHF wants to grow the sport on a global scale, it must shuffle the deck when it comes to selecting hosts for its flagship events.

Let’s be honest, holding this year’s World Junior Championship in Edmonton and Red Deer will not boost hockey’s popularity, but hosting it in Munich, Bern, Vienna, or Kosice might’ve had that kind of impact.

Hockey’s Fun, Let’s Take It Global

As a product, hockey should be easy to sell to new fans. It’s fast, highly-skilled, relatively uncomplicated, and occasionally violent.

Moreover, if the IIHF wants to see small hockey nations develop into medal-winning forces, it should do everything in its power to reach untapped audiences. Step one in that process is allowing Switzerland to host the World Juniors.

We can see where steps two, three, and four take us from there.

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