December 26, 2011
As an American interviewed with some frequency by Canadian radio hosts, I usually get the "what's the reaction to World Juniors in the States?" question this time of year.
The answer they're looking for is that it's so far off the radar that reruns of "The Golden Girls" out-rate it on basic cable, thus reestablishing the Canadian fanaticism for hockey's great gifts in contrast with America's love of Betty White. In reality, I think American hockey fans are starting to make World Juniors, which begin today in Alberta, an annual, if entirely jingoistic, rite.
You have your rabid World Juniors fans who treat the tournament with the type of fervor usually reserved for March Madness. You have the NCAA hockey fans that see this tournament as a mini-Olympics for the players they follow. You have NHL fans that want to see their team's top prospects compete on this stage. You have casual hockey fans that just want to see the Americans open a Costco-sized can of whoop-ass on the Canadians.
The middle two demographics are growing in terms of World Juniors audience for three reasons: NHL Network broadcasting Team USA games; the Internet offering great reporting and analysis, making the American team and players more accessible; and the sense that this tournament offers a chance to see the next wave of NHL stars, after the ridiculous star power it has produced through the years.
Besides the IIHF site, the best places to follow World Juniors news and views?
• Yahoo! Sports' own Buzzing The Net is going all-out with news and chats; including Canada vs. Finland today; Here are Yahoo! Sports' team capsules on Group A — Latvia, Slovakia, Sweden, Switzerland and Russia — and Group B — Canada, Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland and the United States. (By the way, the majority of Yahoo! Sports' World Juniors coverage will be on Buzzing rather than Puck Daddy, so bookmark it, yo.)
• Puck Worlds over on SB Nation has Bruce Peter's well of knowledge and some great analysis.
• The Hockey Writers has coverage by several different scribes on the tournament.
• Finally, Puck Daddy's own Ryan Lambert and Chemmy from Pension Plan Puppets have cranked up The Sleeping Giant machine again, cutting down the Canadians while bathing itself in the fine oils and fragrances of USA Hockey.
Here are our seven players to watch in this nutty little tournament …
Jack Campbell, USA
The man who came off the bench and backstopped the Americans to gold in 2010 was sensational again last tournament, despite taking the loss against Canada in the semifinals. He's only the second goalie in U.S. hockey history to make three World Juniors rosters. As big a big-game player as there is in the tournament.
Devante Smith-Pelly, Canada
The best offensive players on the Canadian junior team … are playing NHL hockey in Edmonton, Philadelphia and Columbus, respectively. Smith-Pelly was loaned by the Anaheim Ducks to the WJC tournament. He's got a scoring touch to go along with a power game; his physical game alone might spark the Canadians in some big moments. One caveat: He's been dropped down the lineup to help spread out the scoring. If his ice time gets affected, Winnipeg Jets golden boy Mark Scheifele could be the one to focus on.
Mika Zibanejad, Sweden
The Ottawa Senators prospect already made his mark in the exhibition round, scoring twice in a win over Canada. A solid offensive talent, and a player that would love to rise to the occasion given where the tournament is being held.
Mikael Granlund, Finland
The last time Mikael Granlund represented Finland in an international tournament, it resulted in a lacrosse-style goal and a postage stamp created in his honor. If he does nothing that results in a YouTube clip, we'd be stunned.
Tomas Jurco, Slovakia
Evgeny Kuznetsov, Russia
A dominating force for the Russians and one of the reasons why they skated away with gold against the Canadians last year. Scary-good offensive skills; he could be NHL-bound after the tournament with the Washington Capitals, as if they needed another Russian sniper.
Zemgus Girgensons, Latvia
Playing for the Dubuque Fighting Saints of the USHL, Girgensons is going to be one of the top 17-year-olds in the tournament for as long at his nation sticks around in the draw. Besides, how does one not make time for someone nicknamed the Lavian Locomotive?
One last note on the tournament: Please check out and support the USA vs. Canada fun cooked up by Sleeping Giant and Justin Bourne, which will benefit Right To Play.