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Back Where it Belongs, WJC 2023 Gets Underway Monday

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By Scott Lowe - 

So far, so good. 

Knock on wood.

To date, the 2022-23 North American hockey season has resembled what we had come to recognize as normal prior to the onset of the COVID pandemic during the spring of 2020. Youth and junior hockey have been going strong since the late summer, and for the first time since the 2019-20 campaign, the National Hockey League began play in early October and appears on track to conclude its regular season by mid-April. 

Assuming everything remains on schedule, that means there will no summer playoff hockey for the first time in three years since the Stanley Cup Finals are slated to end on or around June 18. And after plenty of high-level hockey, including the last two International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) Women’s World Championships, last year’s U18 Women’s World Championship and last year’s World Junior Championship, to help us get through the dog days of the past few summers, the international hockey schedule also is set to return to normal for the 2022-23 campaign.

Thus, the IIFH men’s and women’s world-championship tournaments are scheduled to be played in April and May, respectively, and the U18 Women’s World Championship, to be held Jan. 8-15 in Ostersund, Sweden, is right around the corner. And of course, after a disappointing postponement in 2022 as the COVID Omicron variant surged about this time last year, the World Junior Championship returns to its usual winter-holiday calendar slot as U20 men’s team’s begin play in the 2023 WJC Monday.

WJC 2023 runs from Dec. 26, 2022, through Jan. 5, 2023, and is being hosted in the Canada for the third straight year. Games will be played at both Scotiabank Centre in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and Avenir Centre in Moncton, New Brunswick, with the United States playing its four preliminary-round games in Moncton while Canada will call Halifax home for its four opening-round contests.

Being able to watch the Stanley Cup Playoffs and the highest level of international hockey during the summer was at first a welcome diversion for North American Hockey fans, especially during the summer 2020 lockdown. And the rescheduling of events for safer times and locations – instead of just canceling them – allowed players from all over the world who had spent most of their lives working toward an opportunity to represent their countries a chance to realize their dreams and compete against the best players in the sport.

That part was wonderful, especially for the players and diehard hockey fans who were being treated to amazing hockey throughout the calendar year. But by last August, with almost all COVID restrictions removed and many other options for spending free time available to most people, it seemed as though the novelty of summer hockey had run its course.

When hosted in Canada, the WJC usually features rabid crowds that fill the host arena to support the home team whenever Canada plays and vociferously root against bitter rivals such as the United States and Russia. That was not the case last summer in Edmonton, which hosted the rescheduled 2022 WJC, even as Team Canada made a run to the gold medal. The preliminary-round games were played in mostly empty arenas, and even the epic gold-medal game between the hosts and Finland wasn’t sold out.

So, it only seems right that the WJC returns to Canada for the winter holidays, the time of year that so many hockey fans have grown accustomed to watching the next generation of NHL superstars competing against each other with national pride at stake.

Because of the pandemic, the Canadian Maritimes have waited a long time to host the WJC, which should drive ticket sales and ramp up the excitement inside the arenas. And with as many as four games per day scheduled beginning Monday, NHL Network will be on hand to provide live coverage of every game to viewers in the United States, while Canadian fans will be able to watch, as usual, on TSN and RDS.

The 2023 WJC gets underway with a Boxing Day quadruple-header Monday. Finland, winner of the 2022 silver medal, opens play against Switzerland in Moncton at 11 a.m. Eastern Time, followed by Austria vs. Finland in Halifax at 1:30 p.m., the USA vs. Latvia from Moncton at 4 p.m. and Canada vs. Czechia at 6:30 p.m.

Ticket demand has been high for the 10-team tournament, and the atmosphere for the 2023 event is expected to be at the fever pitch we have come to expect from Canadian-hosted international hockey championship events. Nearly 50,000 fans entered an initial priority-draw ticket lottery during the summer, and one website that sells tickets online posted a disclaimer Sunday stating that “less than 1% of total tickets in the venue {are} currently available” for Canada’s opener. The cheapest tickets on that site were listed at $139 each for that contest.

“The 2023 World Juniors will be an unforgettable celebration of hockey across the Maritimes, and we cannot wait to drop the puck on Boxing Day,” Dean McIntosh, vice-president of events and properties with Hockey Canada, said when announcing the WJC schedule in September. “From the opening-day matchups to the rivalry games on New Year’s Eve, this year’s schedule is extremely competitive and will showcase the best under-20 hockey players in the world in a return to the tournament’s traditional holiday format.”

Unfortunately, since Canada and the United States have been placed in different groups because of their finishes in Edmonton – the U.S. was upset by Czechia, 4-2, in the quarterfinals – the two teams will not face each other on New Year’s Eve, the day when traditional international rivals play, as they have many times in the past. In fact, there is no guarantee they will play each other at all, but as two of the tournament favorites, just like in any year there is a pretty good chance they could meet in the semifinals or gold-medal game.

Canada is in Group A along with Sweden, Czechia, Germany and Austria. All Group A preliminary-round games will take place in Halifax. Canada and Czechia met in one of the semifinals contested in Edmonton, while Sweden faced arch-rival Finland in the other semi. The Swedes went on to capture the bronze medal by beating Czechia in the third-place game. Canada and Sweden are slated to meet on New Year’s Eve at 6:30 p.m.

Group B, which will play its opening-round contests in Moncton, features the United States, Finland, Slovakia, Switzerland and Latvia. Despite their disappointing showing in August, the Americans and Finns will be overwhelming favorites to earn the top-two playoff seeds from Group B. Finland dropped an overtime thriller against Canada in the 2022 WJC gold-medal game. The U.S. and Finland will play at 4 p.m. New Year’s Eve in the top Group B matchup of the preliminary round.


It's Like Déjà Vu but Not Really

Although the 2022 WJC was completed just four months ago, there won’t be as many familiar faces competing as might be expected when the tournament gets underway Monday. But the biggest name of all, projected top NHL draft-pick Connor Bedard, returns after recording four goals and four assists in Edmonton. Bedard became just the seventh 16-year-old to represent Canada at the WJC, joining names such as Wayne Gretzky, Sidney Crosby, Eric Lindros and Connor McDavid on that list.

Eight returning players join Bedard for Canada, including players already drafted by NHL teams such as forward Shane Wright (Seattle), forward Dylan Guenther (Arizona), defenseman Ethan Del Mastro (Chicago), defenseman Olen Zellweger (Anaheim), forward Nathan Gauther (Anaheim), forward Zack Ostapchuk (Ottawa), forward Brennan Othmann (New York Rangers), forward Joshua Roy (Montreal) and forward Logan Stankoven.

With three returning drafted players manning the blue line, Canada figures to be strong defensively, but a potent offensive attack that outscored its opponents, 27-7, in preliminary-round play last time around will be bolstered by Adam Fantilli, another projected top-five NHL draft pick who plays for the University of Michigan and is tied for third in the NCAA scoring race with 26 points. Guenther and Wright already have NHL experience with the teams that drafted them; Guenther has recorded 11 points in 21 appearances for the Coyotes, while Wright has collected two points in eight contests with Seattle. 

Five teams advance to the quarterfinals from each group, while the fifth-place teams will play a best-of-three series to avoid relegation. There was no relegation series in August, so the same 10 teams from Edmonton will be competing in the 2023 tournament. The Canadians are looking to become the first repeat gold-medal winner since they won the last of their five-straight golds in 2005.

Canada and Sweden are favored to earn the top-two quarterfinal seeds in Group A, but up-and-coming Czechia figures to push the top teams coming off a surprising fourth-place finish in Edmonton that saw the Czechs upset the U.S. in the quarterfinals before falling to Canada, 3-1, in a competitive semifinal. They return 16 battle-tested players and will look to win their first medal in 18 years. Included among the returners is the goalie who made 28 saves in the upset of the United States (Tomas Suchanek) and the defenseman picked sixth in the 2022 NHL draft by Columbus, David Jiricek. Jiricek has 20 points in 19 American Hockey League games this season.

Sweden will have to find more offense to contend for gold, but the Swedes’ New Year’s Eve game against Canada likely still will determine Group A’s top quarterfinal seed unless the Czechs can muster another upset. The Swedes only scored two goals in a 2-1 quarterfinal win over Latvia and a 1-0 semifinal loss to Finland during the 2022 WJC although their roster if full of skilled offensive players who are NHL draft picks. Buffalo selection Isak Rosen, who tied for the team lead with four goals in Edmonton, returns up front along with several other players who have been drafted, but Florida pick Ludvig Jansson is the only returning defenseman.  

Germany and Austria will hope to finish third or fourth and avoid the relegation series. Austria returns 14 players from its 2022 tourney team, while the Germans likely will have to bounce back from two losses to avoid relegation after opening the 2023 WJC against Canada and Sweden. Germany and Austria meet in the final game of the preliminary round in what could turn out to be a matchup of emormous importance. Bennet Rossmy, who led Germany with five points in Edmonton, returns to lead the German forward contingent.  


Red, White and Blues

The Americans appeared to be a juggernaut primed for a gold-medal matchup against the powerful Canadians in Edmonton before the upstarts from Czechia ended those dreams. They rolled to a perfect 4-0 preliminary-round record, outscoring their opponents by an astounding 22-4 margin before scoring early to take a 1-0 lead against the Czechs. The U.S. appeared to get complacent after its dominant opening round and the fast start against Czechia, and the young and energetic Czechs took advantage of that to record the enormous 4-2 upset and advance to the semifinals.

With that memory fresh in their minds, the Americans hope to use the disappointing August result as fuel for a run to the gold medal at the 2023 WJC. The U.S. still is considered one of the tournament favorites, along with Canada and Finland, and its matchup against Finland on New Year’s Eve likely will determine the order of the top-two Group B quarterfinal seeds.

Logan Cooley, a freshman forward for the University of Minnesota and the third pick of the 2022 NHL draft, returns for the United States and is ready to wash the bitter taste from August out of his mouth forever during the next two weeks.

"I mean, obviously not getting out of the quarterfinals in the 2022 WJC was disappointing," Cooley told NHL Network. "I was sick seeing Canada win it, too, so I'm really looking forward to getting back at them. We want to get back on the winning track here."

Those two teams are joined by Switzerland, Slovakia and Latvia in Group B, with the Swiss, Slovaks and Latvians looking to finish among the top four and avoid the relegation series. Latvia, in somewhat of a surprise, finished seventh overall in Edmonton, with Switzerland placing eighth and Slovakia ninth. If one of those teams can steal a point vs. the U.S. or Finland, that likely would keep them out of a possible relegation scenario.

Switzerland and Finland face off in the first Group B matchup at 11 a.m., while the U.S. also gets its tournament underway Monday at 4 p.m. against Latvia.  

The Finns had Canada on the ropes in the 2022 gold-medal game, literally coming with inches of scoring the golden goal only to see the Canadians take the puck right back down the ice after Mason McTavish’s miracle goal-line save to net the overtime game-winner. Finland has won five WJC gold medals, the last coming in 2019. While the Finns may not boast the star power of the other top teams, they are brought up playing a responsible and rugged two-way system that makes them difficult to play against and always seems to make the team a more formidable group than the individual player resumes might suggest.

Joakim Kemell, Nashville’s 2022 first-round pick, the second-leading overall scorer in Edmonton with 4-8-12, returns along with the speedy Brad Lambert, a three-time WJC participant who hopes to add a gold medal to the silver and bronze he already has won. Lambert, property of the Winnipeg Jets, has scored two goals in his 12 career WJC appearances and appears poised for a breakout tournament. Finland is always strong in goal, and this year should be no different with Seattle Kraken draft-pick Niklas Kokko competing for time between the pipes. On the blue line, Aleksi Heimosalmi returns as a two-way threat after notching seven points in Edmonton. He will be joined by one of the tournament’s most-intriguing players, 16-year-old defenseman Aron Kiviharju. Kiviharju already has played games in Finland’s top professional league even though he won’t be draft-eligible until 2024.

Cooley is one of seven NHL first-round draft picks on the U.S. roster – six of those players are forwards – so there’s no reason to doubt the Americans’ status as a favorite to compete for Maritime gold. A roster filled with as much talent as any in the tournament combined with the motivation provided by the disappointing performance in Edmonton makes the U.S. extremely dangerous and the favorite to finish first in Group B.

Cooley, the No. 3 overall 2022 draft pick, is joined by New Jersey’s overall No. 4 2021 selection Luke Hughes, he of the famous Hughes clan. The younger brother of Jack and Quinn, Hughes is having a big year on defense at the University of Michigan and played for the U.S. in the World Championship last May as well as at the 2022 WJC. He is one of five Michigan players on the United States roster.

Despite all the talent up front and on the blue line, how far the Americans go likely will depend on how their trio of draft-eligible goalies performs. Colorado College netminder Kaidan Mbereko was in goal for the August quarterfinal loss but has rebounded to have a strong college season. Mbereko likely will get the first shot, while Andrew Oke, only played briefly in Edmonton, hopes to push for playing time along with youngster Andrew Oke. Goaltending may be what separates the U.S. and Canadian teams and determines who wins gold if the two nations ultimately meet in the playoff round. 

Switzerland figures to be an improved group from the team that competed in August with the addition of Dallas 2022 first-round pick Lian Bichsel, who missed the 2022 tourney, back on the blue line. Goaltender Kevin Pasche, who dropped three decisions in Edmonton, returns to help anchor the defense and should benefit from that experience. Still, the Swiss must figure out how to score more goals after finishing near the bottom of the 2022 tournament in that category. 

A surprising 2022 Olympic bronze medal put the spotlight on hockey in Slovakia and resulted in two of its players being selected at the top of the subsequent NHL draft. One of those players, defenseman Simon Nemec, was the second overall pick by New Jersey in the 2022 draft. He returns to anchor the Slovakian blue line while in the midst of a strong initial American Hockey League campaign. Montreal first-round pick Filip Mesar, New York Rangers second-round selection Adam Sykora and potential 2023 first-round pick Dalibor Dvorsky should lead the forward contingent.

Latvia has the misfortune of opening the 2023 WJC against the United States after finishing among the top-eight for the first time in five years last August. The Latvians seventh-place finish was their best to date and gives them reason to be optimistic in their return to Canada for the 2023 WJC. Still, it will be difficult challenge for them to return to that perch and avoid the relegation series.

Latvia brings back its three NHL draft picks at forward for this edition of the WJC in Dans Locmelis (Boston), Klavs Veinbergs (Tampa Bay) and Sandis Vilmanis (Florida). They didn’t produce much in Edmonton but should benefit from the experience and add more offense this time around. Patrik Berzins, who plays in the North American Hockey League for the Danbury Hat Tricks, returns in goal after appearing in just one game and making 39 saves vs. Canada in Edmonton. He seems to be the likely choice to get the initial starting nod between the pipes, and his performance will go a long way to determining how Latvia fares.

The teams that come away with the most points in the matchups featuring Latvia, Switzerland and Slovakia likely will be the ones who avoid fifth place in Group B and advance to the quarterfinals.


Here is the full tournament schedule for the 2023 World Junior Championship:

Monday, December 26
Switzerland vs. Finland 11 a.m. ET
Austria vs. Sweden 1:30 p.m. ET
USA vs. Latvia 4 p.m. ET
Canada vs. Czechia 6:30 p.m. ET

Tuesday, December 27
Slovakia vs. Finland 11 a.m. ET
Sweden vs. Germany 1:30 p.m. ET
Latvia vs. Switzerland 4 p.m. ET
Czechia vs. Austria 6:30 p.m. ET

Wednesday, December 28
USA vs. Slovakia 4 p.m. ET
Canada vs. Germany 6:30 p.m. ET

Thursday, December 29
Finland vs. Latvia 11 a.m. ET
Czechia vs. Sweden 1:30 p.m. ET
Switzerland vs. USA 4 p.m. ET
Canada vs. Austria 6:30 p.m. ET

Friday, December 30
Latvia vs. Slovakia 11 a.m. ET
Austria vs. Germany 4:30 p.m. ET

Saturday, December 31
Slovakia vs. Switzerland 11 a.m. ET
Germany vs. Czechia 1:30 p.m. ET
Finland vs. USA 4 p.m. ET
Sweden vs. Canada 6:30 p.m. ET

Monday, January 2
Quarterfinals TBD

Wednesday, January 4
Semifinal 2:30 p.m. ET
Semifinal 6:30 p.m. ET

Thursday, January 5
Bronze Medal Game 2:30 p.m. ET
Gold Medal Game 6:30 p.m. ET

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