December 25, 2009
Once you've found a spot in the fridge for the leftover turkey and the torn-up wrapping paper has been picked up, it's time to turn your attention to Boxing Day and the puck drop on what has become a Canadian tradition during the holiday season -- the World Junior Hockey Championship.
We're counting down to the opening faceoff of the Canada-Latvia game on Boxing Day with the Top 10 Things to Watch at this year's tournament.
1. Taylor Hall.
The 2010 World Junior Hockey Championship provides the backdrop for what will be Hall's introduction to hockey fans worldwide. At 18 years, one month old, he is Canada's youngest player; but his recent results suggest he will be one of Canada's best players.
He's already won a Memorial Cup with Windsor, he's still leading the OHL in scoring despite being away from the league for the past two weeks, and he scored in all the pre-tournament exhibition games. A strong tournament would solidify his claim as the consensus number one player for the 2010 NHL Entry Draft, and he looks poised to deliver on that.
Remember him? It hasn't been too long since he was drafted sixth overall by the Columbus Blue Jackets in 2008, but after two years of limited NHL action, Filatov has been loaned back to CSKA Moscow of the KHL for the remainder of the season. And he's doing quite well in his native land, with 14 points in 12 games... but can he carry his fellow countrymen back to the top of the junior hockey world?
Since last winning gold in 2003, Russia has three silver medals and two bronzes. The Russians were singing their own version of "Heartbreak Hotel" when they came within six seconds of knocking off the Canadians a year ago only to give up a Jordan Eberle goal and then lose in a semi-final shootout..
3. Sweden's best chance.
After producing six first-round picks in the 2009 Entry Draft, and on the heels of consecutive silver-medal performances, Sweden may just win it all for the first time since 1981.
Even with two eligible defencemen playing in the NHL (Victor Hedman(notes) with Tampa and Erik Karlsson(notes) in Ottawa), the back end boasts three first round picks playing in front of the best goalie in last year's tournament, Jacob Markstrom. The offensive attack looks similar to Canada's in depth, though they lack the star power Taylor Hall provides. Next year, a lot of these players will be ineligible for the WJHC, so the pressure is definitely on to produce now.
The NHL is still debating which hits to the head are illegal, but there's no debate at the IIHF. In a well-timed news release, the IIHF posted on their website that every headshot will be penalized and possibly reviewed for suspension. This is a tournament featuring teenagers playing for their country in a violent sport. Tempers are going to soar, and players are going to test the limits. In a tournament where almost every game is a must win, high hits could affect the outcome of some games... and decide the fate of teams in the process.
5. Gord Miller and Pierre McGuire.
You won't find a more "homer" broadcast on any national network than what the TSN crew delivers every WJHC. Miller's pace and volume seem to rise the closer Canada gets to winning, and McGuire has been known to rudely interrupt the play by play to complain about a call against Canada, or get excited to the point of ecstasy:
If you like objective commentary, you'll be hard-pressed to find it during this tournament. Don't forget, TSN's crew will be the primary broadcasters calling the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver ... so get used to it.
For the Americans, we know Jordan Schroeder will pace the offence, but Team USA's real strength is on the blue line. Nineteen-year-old pro Carlson leads the charge, followed by Fowler, a standout junior D-man (and Hall's teammate in Windsor ).
Carlson is a leader, capable of playing the most minutes 5-on-5, along with ample time on both special teams units. Fowler, a projected top five draft pick in the 2010 NHL entry draft, will also see time in every situation. Fowler already has a terrific rapport with goaltender Jack Campbell, as they are teammates in Windsor.
7. Is Saskatoon too small?
In 1991, Saskatoon hosted this tournament in the very same arena. In order to win the bid for this year's event, they increased the capacity of the rink by over 3,000, bought a new scoreboard, upgraded the sound system, renovated the dressing rooms... in other words, tried to make the 20-year-old Credit Union Centre look new again.
After enormous windfalls in Ottawa and Vancouver, Saskatoon now has to compete with cities that are 4-10 times bigger. Is this the last time a small city gets a chance?
8. Made in Saskatchewan. Given Saskatchewan's history of producing quality hockey players, it's not surprising that there is plenty of local talent in this tournament. Brayden Schenn is as local as it gets, a Saskatoon born and raised junior star. 2009 WJHC hero Jordan Eberle(notes) is from Regina, and stars for the Regina Pats. Hulking blueliner Jared Cowan is from the nearby town of Allan, while head coach Willie Desjardins is from Climax and used to coach the Saskatoon Blades. Speaking of the Blades, Finnish captain Jyri Niemi is their lone representative at the tournament.
9. Slovakian Snipers. This might be all you need to know about Team Slovakia: Tomas Tatar - Marek Viedensky - Richard Panik(notes). That's their dynamic top line, and if they don't score two goals a game between them, they probably won't win. Well, unless Jakub Gasparovic can do this again.
10. Green is the Colo(u)r.
The New Year's Eve game (USA/Canada) The Dec. 28 game for Canada vs. Switzerland will be a "green out" at Credit Union Centre. Team Canada will wear their third jersey, which will be green with the Hockey Canada logo in the centre. Don't be surprised if people go all out and wear watermelons on their heads, too. If you don't understand, I'll just provide you with this link to get started: RiderPrider.com.
But if Canada gets caught for too many men...
Hockey writer Bruce Peter will be providing coverage of the 2010 World Junior Hockey Championship tournament for Yahoo! Canada and Puck Daddy, including daily recaps of game action and exclusive sights and stories from the event.