Christmastime has come and gone.
For most people, the end of the Christmas season is a time to take down the tree, put away the lights and buy a gym membership that will be used once between now and next December.
For hockey fans, on the other hand, the days and weeks following the Christmas season are time to put on a Team Canada jersey and settle back into a recliner (or bar stool, I’m not judging) to watch the World Junior Championships.
The IIHF’s annual U20 Championship tournament is probably one of my favourite hockey-related events of the year because of its universal appeal to all kinds of hockey fans.
It is an international tournament — much like the Olympics or the NHL’s World Moneygrab (sorry Gary. I mean Cup) of Hockey — which allows fans to unite and cheer on their country.
It is also one of only a handful of events which allows the stars of tomorrow to showcase their skills to a large, mainstream audience. The only other things that really give them that opportunity are the CHL Prospects Game, the Memorial Cup tournament and, to some extent, the Subway Super Series.
This is something you appreciate a lot more if, like the majority of hockey fans in larger markets like Calgary or Edmonton, you don’t closely follow major junior hockey.
But after spending a season covering the Red Deer Rebels, I’ve come to appreciate another reason the WJC is so much fun – because it completely flips the established dynamic in the WHL on its head for a couple of weeks.
You see, despite the fact that the WJC draws players from teams all over world, including the WHL, the league doesn’t stop playing during the tournament.
That means that for a period of about a week in late December to early January, many teams in the league will be without their leading scorers or starting goaltenders, which can lead to some very interesting results.
For example, last season the Red Deer Rebels hosted the Brandon Wheat Kings for a regular season game during last year’s tournament.
At the time, the Wheat Kings were one of the top teams in the WHL and would eventually go on to knock the Rebels out of the playoffs on their way to winning the league championship.
But for that game, none of that mattered because the Wheat Kings were missing not only star players Jayce Hawryluk, John Quenneville and CHL Top Defenseman Ivan Provorov due to the World Juniors; they were also without Head Coach Kelly McCrimmon.
The Rebels, meanwhile, were playing with a nearly-untouched roster which included newly-acquired snipers Jake DeBrusk and Adam Helewka.
What this all added up to was one of the most dominating games I have ever seen. Led by DeBrusk’s five-point night and Helewka’s four-point effort, the Rebels stomped to a 10-0 victory over the eventual WHL champions.
Now, I’m not saying that the Rebels only won because of the fact that Brandon was missing those players.
Far from it — they proved throughout the season, playoffs and, memorably, the Memorial Cup that they could keep pace with the Wheaties. But I am saying that had Brandon been at full strength, the game probably would have been a lot closer.
This season, three key members of Red Deer Rebels will be making the trip out to the tournament: Michael Spacek and captain Adam Musil will suit up for Team Czech Republic while goaltender Lasse Petersen dons Denmark’s colours. Personally, I’ll be interested to see who is going to step up to fill the gaps those players leave on the team’s roster.
So while you’re taking in the WJC action from your living room or your favourite pub, don’t forget to keep an eye on what’s going on in the ‘Dub.
After all, anything can happen in Junior hockey, and that’s what makes it so much fun.