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Fixing the First Week of the World Juniors

United States v Austria: Preliminary Round Group B - 2021 IIHF World Junior Championship
Stop this nonsense
Photo by Codie McLachlan/Getty Images

It’s fair to say the World Juniors has, to this point, sucked. We know it will get better. The second week remains arguably the most exciting week in hockey. But increasingly, the first week of this tournament has become a slog to get to the good stuff.

Boxing Day was a complete abomination with Canada destroying Germany 16-2, followed by the US beating Austria 11-0. Both games featured the winning squad scoring more goals than their opponent put shots on goal.

The global pandemic certainly didn’t help things. The Germans were playing shorthanded having lost players to quarantine, while Austria, facing no threat of relegation this year, packed their roster with youngsters who shouldn’t be playing at this level. But the uncompetitive blowouts weren’t all that different than the usual first round blowouts against the likes of Denmark, Norway, Kazakhstan, etc. we see every year.

Even the blowout games could be excused if some of the other preliminary round games made up for it. Sadly, they do not. Ever since the IIHF made a format change allowing four teams from each group to advance to the quarterfinal, rather than three from each group with the winner of each group earning a bye to the semifinals, the preliminary round games have basically become exhibition games.

The game of the tournament so far was the Czech Republic’s upset win over Russia on Day 3. The game itself was thrilling, but unless you believe either of them will face any sort of threat from an awful Austria team, the result of the game was almost meaningless. No one, it seems, is more aware of this than the Russians themselves, who have developed a habit of sleepwalking through these early games before turning it on when the games actually matter. And even the excitement shown by the Czechs in the game’s waning moments was an implicit admission that this was their tournament because they don’t expect to be a factor in Week 2.

There is a way to fix this and bring some excitement back into the first week of the tournament. The solution to these problems resides, I believe, in women’s hockey.

Owing to the lack of international depth in the women’s game, the IIHF splits their top level women’s tournaments into an A Group and a B Group, with the top teams all placed in the A Group, and the rest placed in Group B. The knockout rounds then feature all the Group A teams, plus a few qualifiers that have fought their way through Group B. This allows the USA and Canada to play each other in the preliminary round every year and get a good warm-up game before the knockout round, while still likely meeting in the gold medal game.

I fully accept that there are reasons the IIHF probably wouldn’t go for a format like this on the men’s side. The first that would probably be cited is the belief that emerging hockey countries like Austria and Switzerland fighting their way up the promotion system to earn the honor of getting destroyed by Canada in the Big Tournament somehow “grows the game”. More realistic, however, is the tremendous political pressure they would face from those Group B countries.

But if we’re being honest, this tournament is all about The Big 5—Canada, USA, Russia, Sweden, Finland—and then everyone else. Some combination of those five has appeared in each of the last 19 gold medal games of this tournament, and the smart money is on them making it 20 straight this year. The Czech Republic and Slovakia have proud hockey histories, and the Swiss have slowly improved their program to consistently stay in the big tournament, but ever since the US emerged as a player in this tournament with their first win in 2004, the Czechs have one bronze medal(2005), the Slovaks have one bronze medal(2015, on the back of an insane goaltending performance), and the Swiss have a pair of fourth place finishes.

There are two distinct tiers at the World Juniors level. And while I understand the IIHF wanting to close the distance on the gap between the two, it’s just not happening. If anything, the gap continues to grow wider. So why not let the top tier teams play against each other?

If the insanity of playing this tournament amidst a global pandemic has proven anything, it is that the IIHF will go to whatever lengths necessary if there is money to be made. And there is a lot of money to be made with an idea like this. The financial calculus for hosting the event changes drastically when you’re guaranteed nothing but premier match-ups at your main event venue, and get to stick all the less interesting games in a secondary venue.

And if this tournament is a crucible for measuring future NHL prospects, as it is increasingly being sold as, it makes sense that it would only increase interest if there were more opportunities to see the best face off against the best, rather than trying to judge NHL prospects by how many points they scored in a 10+-goal blowout.

There’s really no reason the first week of this tournament can’t be nearly as exciting as the second. This is an example of what my tournament format would look like:

Group A

  1. Canada
  2. United States
  3. Russia
  4. Sweden
  5. Finland

Group B

  1. Czech Republic
  2. Slovakia
  3. Switzerland
  4. Germany
  5. Austria

The opening week round robin would essentially be the same as it is now. Each team would play one game against each of the other four teams in their group.

From there, the top two teams in Group A would receive a bye in the quarterfinal round and advance directly to the semifinals. The women’s Worlds does this a little differently with their 10-team tournament, taking all five in Group A plus three Group B teams to make an eight-team quarterfinal. But I really like the idea of bringing back some sort of tangible reward for actually doing well in the opening week of the tournament. Win in the opening round and you’re automatically guaranteed to be playing for a medal.

The third place team in Group A would face-off against the winner of Group B in one quarterfinal. The teams that finished fourth and fifth in Group A would face-off in the other quarterfinal.

The two winners of the quarterfinal match-ups would obviously advance on to the semifinal where they would meet the two teams that had a bye. The two quarterfinal losers would play in a relegation game, with the loser of that game moving to Group B in the following year’s tournament.

The four remaining teams in Group B would play their own elimination round, with the team that loses twice being relegated back to the Division I tournament.

The IIHF is a political organization so they would probably favor more of a big tent philosophy, letting more Group B teams participate in the knockout rounds like they do for the women, even if history has proven it would mostly be for show since those teams aren’t likely to be competitive, barring the occasional fluke. It also means they’re deeply concerned with the bottom line financially, and my system puts a decent amount of risk that a major power could end up in the B pool in a fluke year.

But maybe that isn’t such a bad thing. That relegation game between the two quarterfinal losers would be a hugely important game. Winning early in the tournament and avoiding the quarterfinal round altogether becomes hugely important. There is a lot more intrigue to this format than just the two semifinal games and the gold medal game like we currently have. It might not make everyone happy, but it’s a much more competitive tournament, and would provide two sensational weeks of hockey, rather than just the one we get now.