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The world juniors, thankfully, are here
Yesterday’s announcement that NHL players will not compete in the 2022 Winter Olympics was a real lump of coal. Luckily, the world junior championship is here to lift our spirits. Exhibition games are taking place today — including Canada vs. Russia at 7 p.m. ET — before the tournament begins on Boxing Day in Edmonton and Red Deer, Alta. Here are some things to know about it:
Canada is favoured to win its third title in six years.
After taking gold in 2018 and 2020 (and missing the podium in between), Canada lost to the United States in the 2021 final in Edmonton. That tournament’s leading scorer, American Trevor Zegras, is now an NHL rookie-of-the-year candidate with Anaheim. Canada’s top scorer, Dylan Cozens, is also now playing in the NHL, with Buffalo.
In the group stage, Canada will face Finland (last year’s bronze medallist), the Czech Republic, Germany and Austria. The other group includes the United States, Russia, Sweden, Slovakia and Switzerland.
The top four teams in each group advance to the quarter-finals, which are crossover matchups. The No. 1 seed in each group plays the fourth-place team from the other group, No. 2 faces No. 3, etc. The winners advance to the semifinals. The semifinal winners play for gold, while the losers square off for bronze.
Canada has the projected No. 1 pick in the next two NHL drafts.
Centre Shane Wright is expected to go first overall this summer. He scored 38 goals in 58 games as an OHL rookie last season with Kingston, and was a late cut from the Canadian junior team a year ago. He isn’t scoring at the same clip this season (11 goals in 22 games) but his assist rate is up and his draft stock hasn’t really taken a hit. Wright turns 18 on Jan. 5 — the day of the gold-medal game.
Connor Bedard is the early favourite to go No. 1 in the 2023 NHL draft after doing what Wright couldn’t — make the Canadian junior team as a 16-year-old. The Regina Pats centre is just the seventh player to accomplish this, joining Wayne Gretzky, Eric Lindros, Jason Spezza, Jay Bouwmeester, Sidney Crosby and Connor McDavid. Pretty good company. Bedard has 24 points (including 14 goals) in 24 games this season in the WHL.
Canada’s team also features the No. 1 choice in this year’s NHL draft: defenceman Owen Power. The Buffalo Sabres pick opted to return to the University of Michigan for another season rather than go pro. He’s one of only two guys on the roster that play in the NCAA. Two others are from the AHL, and the rest from Canada’s three major-junior leagues (the bulk from the WHL).
There are some pretty interesting international players too.
Probably the most intriguing among the top teams is Russian forward Matvei Michkov, a dazzling scorer who might challenge Bedard for the No. 1 spot in the 2023 draft. Despite having just turned 17, Michkov is already playing professionally for SKA Saint Petersburg of the KHL. His NHL future, though, is complicated by the fact that he’s under contract in the KHL until 2026.
Finland has a couple of players to watch in forward Joakim Kemell (expected to be among the top picks in the upcoming NHL draft) and defenceman Topi Niemela (a Toronto draft pick who was named the top blue-liner at the world juniors last year). The defending-champion Americans have a trio of recent top-five selections in forward Matty Beniers (taken second overall by Seattle this year) and defencemen Luke Hughes (fourth by New Jersey this year) and Jake Sanderson (fifth by Ottawa in 2020).
There will be fans — just not as many as hoped.
After last year’s tournament was played in an empty Rogers Place in Edmonton, organizers seemed determined to pack the stands this time at the Oilers’ 18,000-seat building and the 7,000-seat venue in Red Deer. But on Tuesday, following new limits introduced by the Alberta government in response to the latest wave of the pandemic, Hockey Canada announced capacity would be reduced to 50 per cent for all games.
Sports leagues around the world have been hit with a spike in players testing positive, causing dozens of games to be cancelled, and the world juniors may have to contend with this too. Shortly before our publish time, it was announced that today’s exhibition game between the Czech Republic and Switzerland in Red Deer was cancelled “due to COVID-19 protocols.” Not a great sign.
Canada’s schedule (at least for now):
• Dec. 26 at 7 p.m. ET vs. Czech Republic
• Dec. 28 at 7 p.m. ET vs. Austria
• Dec. 29 at 7 p.m. ET vs. Germany
• Dec. 31 at 7 p.m. ET vs. Finland
The quarter-finals are on Jan. 2, the semis Jan. 4 and the gold-medal game Jan. 5 at 8 p.m. ET. Learn more about Team Canada by watching this video by CBC Sports’ Rob Pizzo:
What a year for Canadian soccer. The women’s national team won its first-ever Olympic gold medal in extremely memorable fashion, and the men’s squad put itself in position to reach its first World Cup since 1986 by shooting to the top of its regional qualifying standings with several thrilling victories. A nice cap to 2021 came today when the men received FIFA’s Most Improved Side award for being the team that added the most points to its total in the world rankings. Canada jumped 32 spots, to 40th, matching its all-time high set in 1996. The team’s next World Cup qualifier is Jan. 27 in Honduras. Then, three days later, a massive showdown vs. the United States in Hamilton, Ont. Read more about how Canada became a soccer powerhouse in 2021 in this piece by CBC Sports contributor John Molinaro. Relive the most memorable Canadian sports moments of the year in this piece by CBC Sports’ Marcus Rebelo.
This is our last newsletter of the week, so Merry Christmas and happy holidays! May your celebrations be as joyful as this:
A moment those kids will never forget 🥰<br><br>Third grade teacher Ms. Fitz promised her class hot chocolate if she made this shot ☕️<br><br>Way to go, Ms. Fitz!<br>🎥: htsgeorgetown/IG <a href=”https://t.co/wqnc22vNEZ”>pic.twitter.com/wqnc22vNEZ</a>
You’re up to speed. Talk to you next week.