It’s a holiday tradition unlike any other, in certain countries anyway. The IIHF 2023 World Junior Championship gets underway on Dec. 26 in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and Moncton, New Brunswick.
In Canada, the tournament is must-watch television for hockey fans of all ages. It hasn’t reached that level here in the United States, and hockey fans are missing a good time.
The tournament, which features the best players under 20 years old in the world, is filled each year with compelling games that highlight top players on their way to the NHL, and this year, fans of Pacific Northwest hockey have plenty of reasons to watch and enjoy the tournament.
Seattle Kraken forward Shane Wright is playing for Canada and has been named captain of the squad. Canada also has rostered four guys who play for the Seattle Thunderbirds and Olen Zellweger of the Everett Silvertips. As well as six local players, the Canadians are coached by Everett head coach Dennis Williams. Perhaps the team should change its name to Team Puget Sound.
As the captain of Team Canada and playing in Canada, the pressure and scrutiny that Wright will experience is as great, if not greater, than what he’s faced so far in the NHL. Luckily, the guy whose locker stall in the Kraken dressing room sits next to Wright is Jordan Eberle, who is well versed on what comes along with playing for Team Canada.
“Enjoy the pressure,” Eberle said last week. “It’s a quick tournament that goes by fast. You don’t play many games so just try and sit back and enjoy the atmosphere and the energy of the games. I think for me, it’s still one of the funnest tournaments to watch. You know, just based on how hard the kids are going, to big hits, celebrations, I suppose that kind of stuff makes the viewership high, so just enjoy the experience.”
Eberle played for Team Canada twice when he was coming up in the hockey ranks. In 2008 he was part of a gold-medal winner, and in 2009 he returned to the tournament as a 19-year-old and won a silver medal.
With a flair for the dramatic, he scored one of the most memorable goals in 2008 to save Canada during a semi-final against Russia which allowed Canada to win in a shootout and ultimately win the gold medal.
That goal lives on and is cited by many of the younger players who came after Eberle. It’s a play that gets pointed to as an inspirational moment for Canadians and has spawned World Junior dreams for many.
“I look back on that tournament, and for me, it was kind of a stepping stone to get confidence to get into the NHL,” Eberle said. “I’m sure Wrighter will use it the same way. As a kid you dream of playing in the tournament so when you get the chance to do it, you want to take advantage of it and just enjoy the moment.”
Sitting in the stall on the other side of Eberle is rookie Matty Beniers who has his own World Junior Championship story.
Raised outside of Boston, Mass., Beniers played for the U.S. on the World Junior team in 2021. That tournament was in the COVID bubble at Edmonton, and Beniers was part of a team that upset the Canadians in the gold-medal game, something that seemed unlikely for the Candians who were packed with NHL first-round picks.
While Eberle grew up in Canada dreaming of playing in the tournament, it was a bit different for Beniers.
“I watched ‘er growing up,” he said. “I wasn’t a huge sports watcher outside of like Boston teams. So growing up I didn’t watch a ton of hockey and stuff like that. I just kind of watched, obviously the Bruins, but I grew up in other sports, so I didn’t watch it much, but I remember getting older, then I started watching a little bit more.”
It wasn’t a near religious experience for Beniers like it was close to being for Canadian youngsters like Eberle, but he had similar advice for Wright as he prepares to win gold for the Canadians, something they’ve done 19 times before.
“Have fun, it’s a great time,” Beniers said. “Playing for your country is always super fun. He’s playing for Canada so I don’t know if I can totally root for the team, but for him and hoping he does well, I think it’d be fun and you know the role that he’ll be in, it’s awesome.”
A quick look at Team Canada
Wright will be an obvious player to watch, especially here in Seattle but he’s far from alone. He leads the Northwest contingent and will be joined by Thunderbirds Kevin Korchinksi, Nolan Allen, Reid Schaefer, and goalie Thomas Milic.
Zellweger will be in the top Canadian defensive pair and on their power play so he’ll see plenty of ice time.
The Canadian team will be fun to watch for other reasons though. Wunderkind Connor Bedard, who is the presumptive first overall pick in the 2023 NHL Draft and just 17, is a human highlight reel. So far, in their camp, Bedard has been playing on Wright’s wing, which will be fun and near impossible to stop.
Wright isn’t the only player on the roster with some NHL experience. The Los Angeles Kings have loaned defenseman Brandt Clarke, and the Arizona Coyotes sent forward Dylan Guenther, which only adds to the quality of talent they’ve assembled.
Once again, Canada will be the favorite to end up with a gold medal.
A quick look at the U.S.
The United States team this year is not devoid of star players either. They are not as loaded as the Canadians, but they can play and won’t be an easy out at the tournament for anyone, including the Canadians.
The U.S. has their share of players with NHL draft pick credentials. USA is led by defenseman Luke Hughes, who plays for the University of Michigan and was the fourth overall pick in 2021 by the New Jersey Devils. He’s not alone, as Logan Cooley, selected with the pick just prior to Wright in this past summer’s draft by Arizona, will add his speed to the U.S. top six.
Tyler Boucher, who was a first-round pick (10th overall) by the Ottawa Senators will also be a forward to watch and is the lone CHLer on the roster. He currently plays for the Ottawa 67’s of the OHL. Currently playing professionally for the Manitoba Moose of the American Hockey League, Chaz Lucius will be another formidable player.
The U.S. doesn’t have a Beniers-type player on its roster this year, but that doesn’t take them out of medal contention. World Juniors may not be as big a deal for American players growing up as it is for their northern counterparts, but this team will be good and a must-watch for U.S. hockey fans everywhere.