Dear Canadian Hockey Fans,
With the World Juniors being on, hockey season is well and truly back, and it’s absolutely wonderful. The tournament is one of the highlights of the hockey season. As a hockey fan in Denmark, I watched it near religiously every single year since 2015. Even when the games have been starting at 4 am over across the pond, it has always been worth it. The workarounds are manageable for a time, and it is the purest form of hockey. It’s addicting to watch the future of hockey battle it out against each other, showcasing their fast skating and incredible skill.
However, each year. it also brings out the bad side of a few people. It’s especially true for a few Canadians, who feels an entitlement towards the whole tournament. Their view on nations like Denmark, Austria, Germany, and Switzerland is that they are nations that bring nothing to the tournament and only tarnish the reputation of the Juniors since they aren’t on the level of the very best nations.
This can lead to blowouts and causes endless cries to change the tournament. From the tweets and more, it seems like nations below Canada’s level is a stain on hockey and should never be allowed to go. The solution to them is either by cutting the number of teams down to eight or six teams or to revive Team Europe, so the competitiveness is more equal.
As a European, I want to showcase why exactly the current structure is the best and why the suggestions would hurt hockey worldwide. This is the perspective of what the Juniors means for a nation who never has a chance of winning it, and is looking at three major defeats at least each tournament.
Exposure That Grows The Sport
As mentioned, I’m living in Denmark and I grow up with hockey. I fell in love with the game as a kid and never looked back since. Being from Denmark, I was one of the very few people within my year that I knew as a child who was since most people were watching football (soccer) or handball. They are the main sports, and hockey is far down the pecking order.
Since 2000 when I was five and fell in love with the sport, hockey has been on the rise. From Denmark having the first Danish trained and raised NHL player, Frans Nielsen, break the glass ceiling to World Championship consistency, hockey has grown exponentially over the years.
This, however, is mostly within the nation, and Denmark’s first real international recognition came in the 2015 World Juniors. With Nikolaj Ehlers and Oliver Bjorkstrand leading the line, the team took Toronto by storm. Almost beating both Russia and the Czech Republic before beating the Swiss in a shootout, the buzz around the team was beyond anything I experienced.
In Denmark. the win against Switzerland sparked the quarterfinal against Canada to be shown on national television. It was the first game in 25 years to be broadcasted nationally. In Canada and around the world, praises towards Denmark’s team were constant and they felt like a real hockey nation.
This hype sparked the next two World Juniors to be shown on television in Denmark and once again, the quarterfinal against Russia was on national television. People were watching and it was clear that Denmark was starting to evolve into a hockey nation year by year. This development is still going on, even outside of the Juniors.
However, having been knocked out in 2019, it’s clear that the hype around junior hockey and hockey has taken a hit. It’s raising but not as fast any longer. The media isn’t making the same stories or highlighting the team the same way as they were in 2015-2019.
This shows the power of Juniors and how it can help hockey grow for the participating nations. Even if Denmark got slapped around in a few games and some might say isn’t worthy of playing Canada or the USA, they did and it helped grow the sport. It has created Danish hockey legends and is the reason I started watching the juniors like a lot of other Danes. The small team’s growth helps hockey turn into a more global game and that can only happen if they are able to play against the best of the best.
Winning Isn’t Everything
For Russia, Canada, USA, Sweden, and Finland, the main aim of each tournament will always be winning it all. Gold is the expectation and they want to at least get a medal every single year. Anything less and it’s a major disappointment. But for nations like Denmark, Austria, and Germany, the goal is something far different.
They want to stay in the top tier for the simple reason of getting to experience the games against the best of the best once again since it’s a once in a lifetime experience for a lot of the players. Far from everyone makes it to the NHL, so being in the Juniors might be the highlight of their career for the kids. It’s something that they will remember forever.
Just look at Austria, who this year was the punching bag of possibly the toughest group ever seen in World Junior history. With Russia, Sweden, USA, and the Czech Republic, the newcomer’s faith was sealed from the beginning, yet they played with pride. In an interview with TSN, during an intermission of Austria’s game, Marco Kasper talks about the pride it is to represent his national team on the world stage. Even in a blowout, its pride is the main thing that runs through the kids. To represent their country against top nations is what they deserve and what they have earned by qualifying.
For some of them, the World Juniors can also be used as a way to showcase their talent. The best example of this year’s World Juniors being Sebastian Wraneschitz, who has been incredible. Going from a name none had heard of, to one of the most talked-about players in these Juniors, he has been the goalie of the tournament.
Scouts must have taken note of him and I think a lot of people will be watching to see if this was a one-time thing or if he delivers this on a constant level in the Austrian league. Regardless of what it turns out to be, Wraneschitz will go down in history. He will be referenced for a long time as one of the best goalies seen in a World Juniors, similar to Denis Godla, who stole the show in 2015.
The proudest I have been as a Danish hockey fan was when they took on Canada in the Scotiabank Arena in Toronto and played against Connor McDavid in 2015. I have seen Lars Eller win the Stanley cup as the first Danish player ever, and seen Denmark host the men’s World Championships in 2018, but nothing compares to the pride I felt watching Denmark on national television against one of the best teams in World Junior history. All of this is while being cheered on by a sold-out building of the most knowledgeable hockey people in the world. Oh, and Denmark lost that game 8-0. This feeling of pride despite a loss is what the Juniors can do.
Team Europe Was An Abomination
One of the main suggestions I have seen from those who believe that the World Juniors needs to be more competitive has been to take inspiration from the World Cup of Hockey in 2016. There, Team Europe was assembled from the nations in Europe outside Sweden, Czech Republic, Russia, and Finland. This gave the team a larger pool to work with and they even made the finals, where Canada beat them. A nice debut in terms of sporting performance, but I’m yet to find someone in Europe who liked that team.
To be honest, I cheered for Canada in the finals. They were playing for their nation and had more likable players. Even if Denmark was represented on the other end, it felt fake. I didn’t feel pride in seeing the Danish be a part of it, and it was as far from a World Cup team as can be. When Denmark plays against Canada or one of the big nations, I watch it knowing that we might lose, but also proud that we can play them.
I see Denmark’s growth and it’s a direct statement as to how we have improved over the years. Add in players from Slovakia, Germany, and Switzerland and it turns into a glorified club team with a few Danish players on it. It’s not useful to see how far we made it on the world stage. Had team Europe won, Danish hockey wouldn’t have been praised like it was in 2015, 2016, and 2017 due to the World Juniors.
Without national pride, it doesn’t matter how well Team Europe did for those who were meant to support it. For the neutral, it might have been good, but for those meaning to celebrate a goal, it was nothing. It was a husk. A team that was carried around for the sake of entertaining the elitist of hockey, who doesn’t understand what lesser nations of hockey are going through.
I think a lot thought they were helping and giving teams a chance to win, but winning is nothing next to representing your country against the biggest names in the world. Team Europe wasn’t a nation, so it was meaningless when it comes to passion and exposing hockey to those countries trying to develop the game in the tier below the big six nations.
Ten Is The Perfect Number
With all that in mind, and how much it means for the smaller nations to take part in the Juniors as their own nation, it’s not like I want a blowout to happen for the sake of over inclusion. The IIHF shouldn’t expand the number of teams going to the Juniors. Ten is a great number which ensures that there is also prestige in taking part.
On a Junior level, there just isn’t always a good enough batch of players for nations like Norway and Denmark to field a strong enough team, so they shouldn’t take part unless they had earned it the year before. However, trying to remove teams from the World Juniors for the sake of competitiveness is equally wrong.
Removing two or even four teams is probably the most common suggestion I seen from those wanting a more interesting tournament from start to finish. They want to get rid of blowout games like against Austria or Germany by making sure that teams unable to ever win it all makes it. But all this does is make hockey a sport for the elite and that’s it. It will be like baseball, where it’s a national game rather international game, and that would be beyond a shame.
Imagine a tournament where Tim Stutzle isn’t allowed to compete and showcase his talent. That would have happened if the World only had eight teams. Switzerland would be in it, but they got smoked 10-0 by Canada. Another blowout, so they might be next on the chopping block. Removing two teams means that Russia, Canada, USA, Sweden, Finland, and the Czech Republic will most likely be the teams and will be the ones people care for, leaving a desolate wasteland behind them, where no other nation can prosper and grow up to challenge them.
Teams need a chance to showcase themselves against the best in the world. To see where they stand against them. This might lead to a bunch of blowouts, especially in the highflying and run and gun junior hockey, where it’s just high scoring, but eventually it will lead to new nations challenging for glory and delivering the upset. But they need to get used to playing against the top of the pile, going through spanking after spanking until suddenly it’s a really close game between one of the top teams.
Today, the teams like Germany, Switzerland, Austria, and Slovakia might not have a chance to win, but with a chance to improve and a way to measure themselves which comes from World Junior participation, they might have hopes of eventually joining the table as a true hockey nation that can win the Juniors. For hockey to be international, we need the blowouts and the smaller nations in the World Juniors so they can develop.
We want to become a hockey nation, but we need Canadian hockey fans to help us get the chance to become one.
Frederik Helmer Frandsen
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