SANTA CRUZ, December 25, 2013 — For American sports, the day after Christmas is typically a slow one. There may be a few obscure college football bowl games, as well as an NBA game or two, but not much else to entertain the U.S. sports fan. While the NHL is in the third day of its mandated holiday break, there is still elite hockey being played. The trick is knowing where to find it.
Every December 26, somewhere in the world, the best hockey players under 20 gather to represent their countries in the world junior championships. The players participating are the best of the best, most of them drafted by NHL teams last year, while the rest are draft eligible this year. This year’s tournament will take place in and around Malmo, Sweden.
Ask ten Americans on the street about the world juniors and you will be lucky if you get one respondent familiar with it. Conversely, Canadians rabidly follow their team from start to finish, and anything less than a gold medal is seen as failure. There was a time when the U.S. was seldom a threat, more of a feisty distraction on Canada’s annual march to the medal platform, but in recent years, the balance of power in the hockey world has begun to shift.
The U.S. stunned Canada in 2004 and 2010, winning both gold medal games against their northern neighbors. In 2011, the U.S. captured bronze, and last year, the U.S. again took gold in a tournament where Canada failed to medal for the first time in 17 years. This year, the U.S. and Canada will compete in a group with the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Germany.
It is a tremendous sacrifice these young American players make, traveling overseas, away from their families during the holidays, competing in a tournament of which most Americans are unaware. They come from all over the country and, increasingly, from unlikely hockey locales. Some are college players, while others compete at the major junior level. Almost all of them at some point have come through the U.S. national team development program in Ann Arbor, Mich.
While this year’s roster features players from places one would expect like Illinois, Massachusetts, Minnesota, and New York, there are two players each from California and Colorado. The development of players like Seth Jones, Beau Bennett and Emerson Etem is a testament to hockey’s growing popularity in the Southwest and California coast, and there is certain to be more elite players coming from these areas in the future.
For American hockey fans wondering what to do after Christmas, it will be worth the time to check out the world juniors and get an early look at players who will soon be household names playing in the NHL. It is also an opportunity to support USA hockey and America’s emergence as a legitimate force on the international hockey stage.
Follow team USA as they defend gold.
Russ Rankin writes about hockey, music & politics. You can find him on Facebook and follow him on Twitter. He also sings for Good Riddance and Only Crime. Find out what he’s up to by checking out his website.
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