Ah, to compare sporting greats across generations. Debating old and older versus new and newish is thankless in pretty well every form of decade-enduring competition, but it seems especially difficult in hockey — a sport that has evolved into something that barely resembles its early beginnings, when folks on clunky, rusted-out blades swatted around frozen chunks of manure with heavy pieces of lumber.
There are tools that help us account for era adjustment, but these require careers’ worth of data points to work effectively. It goes without saying, then, that there is little in the way of assistance when examining the short (sometimes non-existent) window to compete in what serves as the launch point for many brilliant careers: the world junior championship.
It is, for a variety of reasons, immensely difficult to parse through the near half century at the event to confidently pinpoint the greatest single-tournament performances in the history of U20 international play. The fact that the competition was far more imbalanced in the beginning is one huge factor, and so is the format of the tournament, which once incentivized blowouts in the absence of a knockout round. We also have to consider the fact that opportunities have changed considerably, with stars at the peak of their eligibility from across the globe now often outgrowing the tournament, and therefore without the opportunity to dominate it.
But maybe the most significant factor when trying to identify these single-most dominant performances in world juniors history is the light TSN has shone on the event over the last 30 years. It is just so much easier to recollect — and appreciate — Jordan Eberle’s feats as compared to, say, Viacheslav Fetisov, who TSN named as the third greatest world junior player in history for his two dominant tournaments for the Soviet Union in 1977 and 1978.
For that reason, there’s some serious recency bias, or at least a considerable slant toward the new on the following list. Perhaps how it should be put most accurately, though, is merely an attempt to distill a collection of the greatest single-tournament performances in the history of the world junior championship.
12 - Viacheslav Fetisov, Soviet Union, 1978
If you weren’t in the buildings for the 1977 and 1978 tournaments in Czechoslovakia and Canada, respectively, then it’s understandable to not completely appreciate the work of Viacheslav Fetisov, who was recently named the best defenceman in world junior history, and put in the company of Peter Forsberg, Pavel Bure and Wayne Gretzky in a recent expert poll.
In itself, that distinction is enough to include Fetisov at the end of this list, even in doing so with an admitted level of ignorance. We’ll give Fetisov credit for the 1978 tournament, when he returned as a 19-year-old and became the first and only player in history to win the gold medal and top defenceman distinction in consecutive tournaments.
11 - Thomas Chabot, Canada, 2017
The 2017 world junior championship seemed like a showcase for future star defencemen. Charlie McAvoy and Mikhail Sergachev dominated in their shifts for the United States and Russia, respectively, but it was Canada’s Thomas Chabot who raised his game beyond anyone else in the tournament. Chabot became the first defencemen in the history of the tournament to take home MVP honours — and he earned it despite Canada coming up short in the gold medal game.
While the most valuable player doesn’t always belong to the eventual champion, it was almost like an exception was made for Chabot, who barely came off the ice for Canada. He logged over 70 minutes in the semifinal and gold medal games contested on consecutive days, and he seemed to completely dictate the proceedings over the balance of those shifts.
He finished the tournament with 10 points, which only one defender — Alex Pietrangelo — has exceeded in the modern era.
10 - Jordan Eberle, Canada, 2010
Jordan Eberle elevated himself from the author of a legendary moment to one of the greatest performers in world juniors history with his MVP tournament in 2010. It was high drama with Eberle again, as his two goals in the final three minutes in the gold medal game forced overtime versus the United States. Spearheading his second incredible Canadian comeback in as many tournaments this time fell short, however, with the Americans winning in overtime on a John Carlson goal.
Still, Eberle was named MVP with with a tournament-high eight goals, while adding 13 points to double his career total in his third appearance.
9 - Patrice Bergeron, Canada, 2005
The roster featured Sidney Crosby, Ryan Getzlaf, Jeff Carter, Corey Perry, Mike Richards, Dion Phaneuf and Shea Weber, but the centrepiece on the team many consider to be the best assembled in Canadian world junior history was Patrice Bergeron.
Bergeron had already completed his rookie season with the Boston Bruins and helped Hockey Canada capture a gold medal at the world championships the previous spring when he was loaned back to the U20 team during the NHL’s lockout season in 2005. He parlayed that experience into six goals and a tournament-high 13 points in six games, and was named the most valuable player of one of the most talent-rich editions in the history of the event.
8 - John Tavares, Canada, 2009
The 2009 world junior championship will be best remembered for Eberle’s unforgettable last-second goal versus the Russians to force overtime, before winning the semifinal clash himself later in the shootout. But John Tavares was the driving force from start to finish that winter for Canada, which went on to win its record-tying fifth title on home soil.
Tavares’ hat trick in a thrilling come-from-behind win over the Americans on New Year’s Eve remains one of the most memorable performances in world juniors history. The captain scored another five goals in the remaining five games and finished one point behind teammate Cody Hodgson for the tournament lead with 15 total. Both Tavares and Hodgson eclipsed the modern-era points record at the event, and Eberle was also very important as well, but Tavares correctly earned MVP honours in one of the single-greatest performances from a Canadian at the event.
7 - Carey Price, Canada, 2007
It’s not hard to rate Carey Price’s performance in his only world juniors appearance back in 2007. Not only is it the greatest statistical performance by a netminder in the tournament’s history, but he also played an integral part in one of the most memorable moments over the 45-year tradition as well.
Squared at one apiece, and after overtime solved squat in the semifinal between Canada and the United States, the rival programs needed 14 attempts in the shootout to decide a winner. Jonathan Toews built his legendary status for converting on all three of his tries in the skills competition, but Price’s performance in that white-knuckle situation was the shining moment from what was a brilliant tournament. He made two stops on Patrick Kane in the shootout, and sealed the survival for Canada in the seventh round with a stop on Peter Mueller.
After 25 saves versus the Russians in the gold medal game, Price was named the tournament’s MVP with a 6-0 record and a record .961 save clip.
6 - Jaromir Jagr, Czechoslovakia, 1990
Robert Reichel had the better world junior career, but when the second-highest scorer in the history of the tournament was at his best for Czechoslovakia, he was being elevated by a long-haired 17-year-old linemate.
Jaromir Jagr was the most dominant individual force on one of the best lines assembled in world juniors history when he teamed up with Reichel and Bobby Holik back in 1990. Jagr had five goals and 13 assists in seven games in his lone tournament appearance before continuing his everlasting career at the NHL level the following season.
5 - Pavel Bure, Soviet Union, 1991
There’s a strong argument in favour of Bure as the greatest player in world junior history. He is unquestionably the most dominant goal scorer the tournament has ever seen, holding the record with 27 goals while averaging well over one for every outing in his 21-game career. But what was most special about Bure is also what hurts him on this list: his world junior resume isn’t propped up by a single extraordinary performance.
Bure did not win the scoring title once in his three appearances, and lost out on all-tournament honours from the IIHF or the media in his final two events after being named the top forward in 1989 for his eight-goal, 14-point tournament debut in Anchorage, Alaska. It’s possible that his efforts as a 17-year-old were his best, and they were the only ones that contributed to a gold medal for the Soviet Union, but he benefitted in his debut from a partnership with two future Hall of Famers in Alexander Mogilny and Sergei Fedorov. Two years later in his final appearance in Saskatoon, Sask., Bure had to shoulder more of the load, and he matched the record at the time with 12 goals for a Soviet Union side that placed second behind Eric Lindros’ Canada.
4 - Manny Legace, Canada, 1993
What’s that line about an unstoppable force meeting an unmovable object? Despite Sweden’s 1993 team featuring the single-best partnership in the history of the tournament with Forsberg and Markus Naslund combining for 55 points in seven games, the host nation failed to claim the gold medal in Gavle, Sweden. That is nearly entirely because Manny Legace put on arguably the greatest goaltending performance in the history of the tournament — which included doing just enough for a 3-2 round robin win over the Swedes, which proved to be the difference between gold and silver.
Legace also shut out the United States, stopped 43 of 44 shots versus the Russians, as well as 58 of 60 shots versus Finland. He finished with an incredible .955 save percentage in a tournament that averaged more than 8.5 goals per game.
3 - Markus Naslund, Sweden, 1993
It might not be etched in stone like Forsberg’s points record, but Naslund set a benchmark that may never be matched while starring on a line with the tournament’s all-time leading scorer in Sweden’s memorable 1993 bid. His 13 goals in seven games is a record that has gone virtually unchallenged more than a quarter century later. Naslund also had 11 assists to give him 24 points for the tournament, which trails only Forsberg in total single-tournament production.
2 - Wayne Gretzky, Canada, 1978
The 1978 world junior tournament was an introduction to two things for Canadian hockey fans. It was the first time the country selected the best players available instead of sending the reigning Memorial Cup champions. And second, it was the first glimpse many had of the player that had achieved legendary status in his minor hockey career and would progress on to change the game.
Gretzky introduced himself to the masses with his first and only appearance at the U20 national championship in 1978. The youngest player in the tournament at just 16, Gretzky was the star and eventually named the top forward, scoring eight goals — including two hat tricks — and chipping in with nine assists in six games. Gretzky’s production worked out to 2.83 points per game, which remains the most by a Canadian in the event’s history.
1 - Peter Forsberg, Sweden, 1993
Forsberg’s record 31 points on home soil for Sweden at the 1993 world junior championship will never be threatened — because his performance was extraordinary, but also because he was the benefactor of just about every generational variable. In the first quarter century of the event, there seemed to be at least one entry that simply did not belong on the same sheet of ice as the true world powers, which at the time included Canada, the Soviet Union, Sweden and Czechoslovakia. However in 1993, Japan, making its first appearance at the tournament, was possibly more unprepared than any nation to that point — at least in its ability to keep the puck out of its own net. Japan conceded 83 goals in seven games in the tournament, 10 of which Forsberg had a hand in in Sweden’s 20-1 preliminary round drubbing.
The damage done in the Japan game is what will likely allow Forsberg’s record to stand forever, but it is far from the reason that his third appearance at the event remains the single-greatest of all time. Forsberg counted 21 points in the remaining six games played against all the legitimate teams, which works out to 3.5 points per game — or still more than any other player has averaged in tournament history.
A three-year veteran of the event who was just six months removed from his 20th birthday at the time, and who was also competing in an era where there was an incentive to run up the score, Forsberg had the opportunity to put on a record-setting performance, and eclipsed everyone else in doing just that.
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