The NHL gave us all an early present over the weekend by announcing a Jan. 13th return to play plan to get hockey back on the ice. But that’s nearly a month away. What are we supposed to do between now and then? Thankfully, the World Junior Championship is here to fulfill your hockey needs.

Since 1977 the International Ice Hockey Federation has held the World Junior Championship during December and January. The tournament pits the best international players under 20 years old against each other for the ultimate worldwide bragging rights.

Every winter the World Juniors are must-watch in Canada and it receives intense media scrutiny. The pressure on the players and coaching staff is real. The Canadian team has responded and leads all nations with 18 gold medals, including a win last year when the tournament was held in the Czech Republic.

Here in the U.S., the World Junior Championship hasn’t taken as great a hold as it has to our friendly northern neighbors. It should.

The word ‘junior’ hurts the marketability of this tournament to American audiences. To us, ‘junior’ has come to mean inferior or lessor and brings up images of watching kids still learning how to play the game. But that is selling junior hockey and the World Junior Championship short. Don’t be fooled.

This is quality hockey and must-watch for hockey fans, no matter where you are from.

Starting Christmas Day, this year’s World Junior Championship will entertain and delight. The tournament is being played in the same Edmonton bubble in which we saw the Stanley Cup raised in September.

Here are the reasons you should be tuning in.

NHL’s Future on Display at World Junior Championship

When watching the World Juniors, you’re watching the next wave of NHL stars.

Wayne Gretzky? Yeah, he played in the tournament as a 17-year-old in 1978 – and of course had 17 points in six games. Edmonton Oilers star Connor McDavid? Yeah, he played for Canada twice and was part of a gold medal squad in 2015.

It’s not just Canadian stars. American-born players like Patrick Kane and T.J. Oshie played for the U.S. in this tournament. Former Vancouver Canucks stars Daniel and Henrik Sedin played – on the same line of course – for Sweden.

Those names are just the tip of the iceberg and this year’s tournament is no different.

All but two of the players suiting up for the United States this year have already been drafted by NHL teams. Of those 25, nine were taken in the first round and nine more went in the second. As expected, the Canadian roster is loaded, with only one undrafted player – Prince George Cougars goalie Taylor Gauthier – while 20 others were selected in the first round.

This year’s tournament is a bit different because of Covid and we’re not talking about the bubble or testing. Because the NHL has yet to start, there are players in this tournament that might otherwise be in the NHL and not available to play.

The headliner of that group is Kirby Dach of the Chicago Blackhawks. Dach, 19, played full time in the NHL last season but is still eligible for the World Juniors. Chicago gave him permission to play and Dach was named captain of Team Canada last week.

Quinton Byfield is on Team Canada with Dach after being drafted second overall by the Los Angeles Kings in October. He most likely would be in the beginning stages of his rookie year in the NHL and not available. The same is true for Ottawa Senators pick Tim Stutzle, who was the third pick in the draft. Stutzle will compete for the German team, something he did during last year’s tournament as well.

International Rivalries Come to Life at the World Junior Championship

Russia and Canada have dominated the tournament since its inception. The two countries have combined for the most medals and Russia – then known as the Soviet Union – won the first four golds. The two nations have long been hockey rivals and have provided memorable moments in the World Juniors, including last year’s gold medal game.

Most of those Canadian-Russian moments have been about exciting hockey but they also got together for the most infamous moment in the tournament’s history. Things got out of hand in 1987 with an all-out brawl that is simply known now as the ‘Punch up in Piestany’.

The United States won its first gold in 2004. Led by Zach Parise, the Americans beat the Canadians in Helsinki to win the tournament and birth an intense rivalry.

As American hockey has grown, its World Junior clubs have improved. The U.S. has won three golds since 2004 and has given the Canadians fits. Games between the two nations have become the highlight of the tournament.

One of the most memorable moments came in a 2007 semifinal game that was decided by shootout and featured names like Carey Price, Kane, and Jonathan Toews.

The Canadians came out on top in 2007 but the roles were reversed in another star-studded shootout, this time for the gold, in 2017.

Northwest Connections at the World Junior Championship

Fans of the local WHL’s U.S.Division clubs will have some rooting interest this year.

Goalie Dustin Wolf of the Everett Silvertips will be with the United States team for the second straight season. He’ll be platooned with Florida Panthers prospect Spencer Knight to give the Americans a goalie tandem that’s as good as it gets at this level.

Everett Silvertips goalie Dustin Wolf is back with Team USA at the World Junior Championships. (Brian Liesse photo)

Simon Kubicek of the Seattle Thunderbirds will be making his second straight appearance with the Czech team, and he’s joined by goalie Lukas Parik of the Spokane Chiefs and the Silvertips’ Michal Gut.

Defenseman Kasper Puutio is playing for Finland and gives the Silvertips a third representative at this year’s World Juniors. Portland Winterhawks forward Simon Knak is skating for Team Switzerland.

Seattle Kraken Interest

Most of the players in the tournament have already been drafted, but there are some 2021 NHL Draft eligibles that Seattle Kraken scouts will be watching.

Most prominent of those is Michigan freshman Matthew Beniers who will be playing with the United States. Depending on what online scouting service you subscribe to, Beniers is being projected as a potential top-ten pick. The Kraken will be selecting somewhere in the top six.

If you’d like to learn the names of future Pacific Division rivals, there will be plenty to watch.

Byfield leads the way for nine Kings’ prospects appearing in the tournament. He’ll be with the Canadians while Alex Turcotte should be one of the key players for the Americans. Both players could be appearing at Climate Pledge Arena with Los Angeles next season.

The Anaheim Ducks have six prospects playing this month, including an NHL-best four with the United States. That list is topped by former first-round pick Trevor Zegras, another player we could be watching against the Kraken next fall.

The 2021 IIHF World Junior Championship gets under way Christmas Day with a big United States-Russia match-up and can be seen on the NHL Network. To see the full schedule for the tournament, which concludes with a Gold Medal game on January 5th, check here.