WJC Needs to Remain at 10 Teams to Grow the Game

In Canada, the World Junior Championship (WJC) is more than a tournament, it is an annual tradition woven into the fabric of the holiday season for the majority of hockey fans nationwide. The sports television airwaves are filled with the games, but also the background stories of many of the players, with a focus on the grassroots levels and what sacrifices are made to get to this point, like Team Canada’s captain Shane Wright, whose path is filled with volunteers and parental involvement.

This growth in the game around the world is why this tournament needs to remain at 10 teams for now, and possibly, grow to 12 in the future. The enthusiasm of the players and fans during the games, as well as the popularity of this two-week event, provides the IIHF the perfect vehicle to win over new fans and help grow the game where it matters most, the grassroots level.

The Pinnacle of Junior Hockey 

With the conspicuous absence of Russia from the event due to their suspension by the IIHF, the 2022 and 2023 editions have had more opportunities for those smaller nations to participate. Some would argue that the on-ice product and the entertainment value suffer because there are a handful of lesser hockey nations that provide nothing more than cannon fodder for teams like the United States and Canada to run up scores of 9-0 and 12-1, for example. But fans want to see more, not less.  

It used to be a foregone conclusion that those nations, along with Russia and the occasional win by Finland or Sweden, were always going to finish with the medals. However, the gap between the haves and the have-nots is growing smaller. As those nations, and some of the smaller ones such as Slovakia and Czechia, put more resources into developing their systems, the tournament has gone from a Canada versus Russia for gold and everyone else fights for the bronze to a tournament where as many as nine nations can compete for a medal in any given year. 

Related : The WJC Should be Held in Junior Hockey Cities

While there may still be tiers in the tournament with a handful of nations considered as bottom tier, it needs to be restated that it is still in the top division in the world. Those in that lower tier are still filled with hard-working players, who play for pride. The character they show endears them to the fans. Austria for instance was a fan favorite all tournament, as the crowd in Halifax embraced the determined team from the Alps.

That enthusiasm, having over 8,000 fans go berserk simply for scoring a goal in the tournament is a testament to the years of effort Austria has put in to build a program that can get to this level.

“I’m from the area, I’m from Nova Scotia, they back people that work. If you quit, they’re not going to cheer. So, the character these players showed not to quit, I couldn’t be prouder of them. For our country (Austria) this is huge and we’re going to battle to get back here as quick as we can”

– Kirk Furey (head coach, Hockey Austria U20) 

The offshoot of that work by Hockey Austria is more players for the NHL to choose from. On their roster, Austria boasts an NHL-drafted player in Montreal Canadiens prospect Vinzenz Rohrer. Also, the 2023 NHL Entry Draft will likely add two more names from the small nation in forward Ian Scherzer and a player who could be a first-round pick in defenseman David Reinbacher.

More, Not Less Competition 

What the fans that argue for the contraction to eight teams don’t realize is that it takes years for a nation to develop a talent base skilled enough in a two-to-three-year span of birth years to even qualify. The World Juniors that everyone knows best is the one they see on television every year during the Christmas holidays. It consists of the top 10 under-20 (U20) teams in the world. However, it’s not the only IIHF U20 tournament that is held. There are four others, Division I A and B as well as Division II A and B tournaments, with some of the lesser-known hockey nations competing with the hopes of advancing year after year.

Vinzenz Rohrer Ottawa 67's
Vinzenz Rohrer, Ottawa 67’s (Frankie Benvenuti / The Hockey Writers)

For the first time since 2020, there was a relegation round. In it, the ninth and 10th-seeded teams from the round-robin played a best-of-three series. This year, the relegation round was won in a two-game sweep by Latvia, who gets to remain for the 2024 tournament in Gothenburg, Sweden. With the loss, Austria returns to Division IA. With a win at that level earlier in December, Norway has earned a promotion to the top level for 2024.

“We had moments in the tournament. We had moments against all countries where the whole team showed we could play. The trajectory of Austria is going in the right direction” 

Steffan Klassek (Austrian Forward) 

That is exactly why these teams are in this tournament. It doesn’t matter which nation it is; it is what hockey needs to grow around the world. For Austria, this was the longest (three years) that country had remained in the top division. Since 1980, they have participated at this level four times, with each time before these three years they had only been able to remain for one year. This shows that this tiny hockey nation is growing its development system. 

“These countries need this. For those who say this tournament should be down to 8 teams, I’d say I have a bias, maybe to all these teams that, even the ones who are in the quarterfinals that they’re outmatched.  But let’s look back at history and see the teams that have developed, let’s look forward and take the positives. It’s a huge thing for small countries. We need this. Not just small countries, but to grow hockey around the world to grow interest it benefits everybody.”

– Kirk Furey 

It takes years for a country to become competitive, especially when hockey is not the most popular sport in that nation. Some only have a pool of a few thousand to choose from as opposed to millions like in Canada. In Canada, at the grassroots level, the main focus for developing players is at the AAA or elite levels at each age group. There is debate in some local organizations on changing that to a “stovepipe” method, where every player is given the same coaching and practice time. This would allow the majority of them to all play in the same division and continually face the best competition.

One look at the Slovak development model, which does use this method, and you can see that it takes time and exposure to top competition to build a program. They were promoted to the top division of the World Juniors starting in 1996, and in their 27 years at this level, they’ve won two bronze medals. But they have battled in the relegation series three times, and have hovered around sixth place in this tournament for the remainder of their time. This year, thanks in large part to a group of highly talented players, many of whom are or will be first-round NHL selections, they were highly competitive, beating the USA in round-robin play and scaring Canada in the quarterfinals where it took overtime and a goal by a generational talent to beat them.

For Austria, that is a model to follow. Both nations face an uphill battle in onboarding players into their systems as hockey is a niche sport there. Having more players joining their system and allowing them to all compete with each other can allow for players, but also for the coaches, to improve over time.

“We’re not the top sport in Austria. I listened to how USA hockey did it (develop their program) they obviously had a lot more people. But they did an onboarding process where they just wanted to get numbers. I believe that numbers and competition from your peers is the best way to develop. Pressure helps develop and holds people accountable. Bringing away from this, we see the other countries, we see what they’re good at, but it’s baby steps. It’s not something that is going to happen overnight also we have to stick to the process”

– Kirk Furey 

In the infancy of this tournament, Canada did not provide much support or view it as an important stepping stone for NHL prospects. There were some years that they could do no better than fifth, and in 1981 they were in serious danger of relegation, but eventually finished seventh. Back then, the tournament had a consolation round, where the bottom four teams’ records against each other were counted, with the last-place team being relegated. Canada just missed relegation based only on their win against Austria, who were relegated that year. This only goes to prove that it takes years of hard work to build a foundation for a national hockey program. Also, that exposure to top competition is what it takes to truly judge where a national program stands in the world, and assess its strengths and weaknesses properly.

To grow the game at the grassroots level, it first takes exposure to the game. What better exposure than for someone to witness the excitement and enthusiasm of the game that is found in junior hockey. The U20 event is the premier junior hockey event in the world and the more nations that can participate, the more fans of the game will be born. With those fans will come players, and a handful of those will be able to play in this tournament and maybe even become the next generational talent in the NHL.