A tournament exists that features primarily 18 to 20-year-olds, who compete for the highest honor, featuring super powers and underdogs, that you should be watching. You may think I’m referring to March Madness. You would be wrong. The IIHF Ice Hockey World Junior Championship, known by fans as “the World Juniors” rivals March Madness in its intensity and thrills. Agreeably, it’s a difficult task to persuade people to watch a tournament in a “niche sport” let alone a tournament whose participants are unknown compared to their college basketball counterpart. However, the World Junior Tournament possesses many traits, most importantly Patriotism, that would be attractive to the average sports fan. Sports fans in general love to cheer for their country, whether it fits the situation or not. I can attest from personal experience, that some sports fans misunderstand when to display their patriotism during a sporting event. Following the Boston Bruins 2011 Stanley Cup victory, fans packed the area in front of the arena and started cheering USA, USA. They chose this particular chant because the vanquished opponent hailed from Vancouver. Unfortunately, they failed to take into to account that this was an NHL game, not an international competition like the Olympics. Hockey is an international game and the Bruins roster featured only one American-born player, although it was Tim Thomas, the Bruins goalie and series MVP. The Bruins had 16 players who hailed from Canada. Vancouver, by comparison, had five American players. Although this patriotism demonstration was pointless, sports fans thirst to fly their countries colors. Patriotism in the World Junior Tournament is not only important, the US needs far more. During this year’s tournament, in games against rivals Canada and Russia, the United States had barely any following besides players’ family and friends. This was pathetic in the face of the massive amount of noise that Russian and Canadian fans were making. Although the US team went on to win gold, the lack of following for the best team in the tournament was deflating, and it shouldn’t be. In the World Junior Tournament, The United States has faced off against Russia in each of the past five tournaments, with four matchups occurring in elimination games. The US also regularly faces Canada in the tournament and each game in this rivalry delivers on every level. In fact, on their way to the gold medal in this year’s tournament, the US beat Russia AND Canada in nail-biting shootouts. The US media loves to paint every US vs. Russia matchup in the Olympics as the next installment of the “Miracle On Ice.” Considering the renewed animosity between the United States and Russia, hockey games between the two super powers should be charged with patriotic energy. Unfortunately, the United States lacks a following within these tournaments, because people do not pay attention to hockey. However, utilizing this tournament could help grow the sport’s following in the US. Another potentially attractive characteristic of the World Junior Tournament, an opportunity for athletes to prove themselves on a big stage, makes the stakes of the competition even higher. Much like March Madness, a strong individual performance by a player can raise their draft value and earn them a higher salary in the future. Most young hockey players are drafted into the NHL between the ages of 18 and 20; the tournament is a venue where players show scouts that they can perform in the clutch when the pressure is high. In the 2016 World Junior Tournament, Auston Matthews and Patrick Laine, playing for the USA and Finland, had extra motivation to play well in what eventually helped determine which of the two players would be drafted first overall. Currently, both players are within the top ten in NHL scoring in their rookie year. The ability to watch highly touted prospects compete against each other occurs far more often at the World Juniors than in March Madness. In fact, since 1999, every number one overall NHL draft pick has played in the World Juniors, with the exception of Aaron Ekblad, who missed the tournament due to a concussion. During the same span, March Madness did not feature the upcoming number one overall pick on six occasions, largely because foreign players like Yao Ming and Andrea Bargnani chose to play in their home countries over a US college. It’s not just top draftees who compete in the tournament. Almost every player from the major hockey powers, USA, Russia, Canada and Sweden has either already played in the NHL, has been drafted, or is expected to be drafted into the NHL. In fact, the level of play at the World Juniors may be more intense than in the Olympics and World Championships and many games in the NHL regular season. Although NHL players who compete in the Olympics and World Championships are often larger and stronger than their junior counterparts, the risk of injury and loss of income from NHL games makes them more cautious. As I mentioned above, junior players rely on the tournament to stake their claim on higher draft spots and are proud of competing for their country so they play physically and do not fear injury as much as NHL players do. The young players entering the NHL over the past ten years have raised the level of play and the World Junior Tournament concentrates this level of skill. Just take a look at this article by hockey news writer Ken Campbell. It gives exact figures when describing the increase in size and skill that have occurred in the NHL. He writes, “It would be impossible to look at today’s NHL player and argue he’s not faster, higher, stronger, not to mention more skilled, better coached, better equipped, better nourished and better prepared than ever.” The World Junior Tournament contains entire teams with incredible skill and speed, without being diluted by the slower, older NHL players. It’s a best on best tournament at a time when players are their most energetic. The World Junior Tournament distills this skill and speed game into it’s purest form. For fans of the Olympic hockey tournament the World Junior Tournament, in my opinion, provides a better product. Players are willing to be more physical and take more risks. In the Olympic hockey tournament as well as the World Cup of Hockey, players avoid massive hits as an unwritten rule, to avoid injury. This is not the case at the World Juniors, just check these out.
This physicality and the tournament's speedy brand of hockey make it appealing to a wider audience than the NHL and It would be wise for the hockey community and the NHL to promote the World Juniors in an attempt to make it more popular in the United States. Hockey is perhaps at it’s most popular during the winter Olympics and the NHL, the IIHF and NBC could capitalize on this fact to grow an audience for the World Junior Tournament. The casual sports fan, more than on any other occasion, watches hockey during the Olympics. 2010s Canada vs USA final was the most-watched hockey game in the United States since team USA beat Finland to win the gold after the “Miracle On Ice.” The USA vs. Canada semifinal game in 2014 on NBC Sports Net was the highest rated program in the network’s history. In addition, hockey created the most buzz online in 2010 (I couldn’t find that figure for 2014.) Although it can be difficult to measure, the World Junior Championship also seems to have increased in popularity in the United States. In an interview, Sports Illustrated writer and professor, Richard Deitsch, stated that although the NHL Network does not publicize its ratings, sources told Deitsch that this year’s final between the US and Canada was the network’s most watched program in its history. One thing is very clear, people watch and discuss hockey during the Winter Olympics, more than they do at any other point. This likely has to do with the same factor that I mentioned early in this blog, that people watch for their country. Just like the World Junior Tournament, the Olympic tournament usually results in a rivalry game for the US against Russia or Canada. The US has faced off against Russia or Canada in every Olympic men’s hockey tournament since 1998 when professionals were first allowed to compete. This means that a highly rated and highly buzzed about rivalry game is likely to occur in every Olympics. Why not capitalize on this phenomenon by packaging the World Juniors and Olympic or international professional tournaments together? The World Juniors always occurs between Christmas and New Years, a time where the NHL has a break anyway. The NHL routinely takes breaks when their players do play in the Olympics, why not just hold both tournaments at the same time and cross-promote them? While the World Junior Tournament draws large audiences in Canada, in the US, it’s an unknown. It only airs on NHL network and doesn’t even draw a mention within sports media, outside of markets where the local NHL team is popular, and they have prospects playing in the tournament. If the IIHF were to piggyback its world junior coverage off of NHL Olympic coverage, they would have the chance to grow the sport tremendously in the United States. Not only would there already be a hunger and a discussion of hockey but it would likely air on a more widely subscribed to channel than NHL Network. So, come the 2017 holiday season, if you are bored between Christmas and New Years, or hung over, lounging on the couch, try to tune into NHL network and catch a couple games of the World Junior Tournament. You might see something like this
Maybe even this.
You may find yourself equally intrigued as if you were watching March Madness.
ALSO for your viewing pleasure!