The men’s World Junior Championship begins on Friday. In normal times, this is arguably the most exciting event on the hockey calendar. The international tournament features (most of) the top teenagers in the world, who are playing for nothing beyond national pride. Some of these players will be foreshadowing what’s to come when they soon make the NHL. For others, this tournament will be the summit of their hockey careers. Fans from many countries come to games and create an electric atmosphere, and the games between rival countries always deliver.
It’s not so easy to feel giddy about the tournament’s commencement this year. There is the reality that the tournament is a watered-down version. The tournament will be taking place in a bubble in Edmonton, which means empty arenas and no fans in attendance to provide the atmosphere which really makes the tournament what it is. The rosters are also not at their best, with COVID-19 diagnoses making some fairly notable names ineligible. Rangers’ prospect Karl Henriksson, who would have almost certainly centered Sweden’s top line, is among them.
More pertinently, it’s incredibly difficult to justify that the tournament is happening at all. To state the obvious, we’re in midst of a global pandemic and cases are rising at alarming rates. Players and staff have flown in from all over the world, creating many avenues of potential infection and spread.
The IIHF could at least have a wobbly leg to stand on if they took every measure possible to ensure everyone remains as safe as realistically possible, as the NHL, NBA, and MLS did when they held bubble tournaments during the summer. The IIHF attempted to have players and personnel from multiple countries travel in the same small plane, with their equipment, despite the obvious health risks that posed. Only when coaches and other execs refused to board the plane did the IIHF make alternate plans.
In preparations for the tournament, a whole bevy of people caught the virus. Sweden’s entire coaching staff was basically decimated and had to be replaced, with multiple players testing positive in their camp as well. Five USA players were sent home for good because of either positive tests or proximity to someone who tested positive. Multiple players were prematurely cut from Canada’s camp as a result of contracting the virus and the entire team was forced to quarantine before resuming activities.
That would be reason enough to regret this shameful spectacle. What’s worse, the Edmonton bubble has already been penetrated by the virus. Eight German players, or a third of the team, have tested positive so far, as well as multiple Team Sweden staff members. The IIHF has already had to cancel certain pre-tournament games while it waits for players to return from quarantines and hopes for the best.
The IIHF is taking the future of hockey and risking their health. Not just now, but long-term. Surviving COVID does not mean a person is out of the woods. Scientists are still trying to figure out the full ramifications of contracting the virus, but early studies show a non-negligible number of athletes who suffer from myocarditis, a heart disease. Multiple athletes in various sports, pro and college, have had their seasons (possibly careers) ended by this. Very recently, a University Florida basketball player collapsed mid-game and had to be placed in a medically-induced coma after contracting COVID and experiencing heart inflammation.
I’m not about to defend professional sports leagues who are throwing caution to the wind and conducting their seasons currently, but those athletes are adults who are at least compensated with more money than most will ever see for their troubles. These teenagers at the World Juniors receive nothing except the abstract possibility of patriotism and existential fulfillment from playing in and winning a handful of hockey games.
This is a 12-day tournament that could have been postponed to the spring in hopes of conducting it when the spread is mitigated and there has been time for more people to get vaccinated. The only reason the IIHF has powered on is because of some combination of arrogance, delusion, or a morbid desire to appease advertisers and TV networks.
I’ve gone back and forth on what my role in this situation needs to be. I don’t think I’ll be able to watch the games without some level of guilt, but I also suppose I am hoping that this preface of the tournament, which highlights the cynical and negligent circumstances under which it is happening, is enough to clear me to otherwise do the duty of reporting on the games themselves. Whether that’s true or not is for you to decide.
The Rangers have four prospects participating in the 2021 World Junior Championship. Here is a preview of their roles entering the opening games.
Braden Schneider, Right Defense
The Rangers’ 19th-overall pick was a virtual lock to make Canada’s top-six. Such a distinction is usually reserved for either draft-plus-two players or the 18-year-old’s who were lottery picks. That Schneider was a sure thing speaks to how mature his game is. The top pair of Bowen Byram and Jamie Drysdale figure to be the heavy minute-getters on Canada’s blueline, but after that Schneider should be as utilized as anyone.
He enters the tournament on the team’s presumed second pairing with Dallas Stars’ defenseman Thomas Harley. At least in theory, Harley is a perfect partner for Schneider. He is an
undersized creative offensive defenseman who loves to have the puck on his stick and get involved in the offensive zone. Schneider can make outlet passes when needed but will be happy to defer to his partner. Schneider, meanwhile, is very good at snuffing out odd-man rushes when his partner is caught and will be able to do the heavy lifting in the defensive zone that Harley can’t.
Schneider will assuredly also be leaned on for penalty killing duties and frequently shifted if and when Canada is protecting close leads.
Dylan Garand, Goaltender
Taken by the Rangers in the fourth round in 2020, a strong majority of scouts would regard Garand as the best prospect Canada currently has in net. Those in charge of Hockey Canada seemingly are among the dissenters, as they appear set to name Florida Panthers’ seventh-round pick Devon Levi the starter for their opening game against Germany.
In fairness, the competition in camp was always regarded as wide open, and Levi played exceptionally well in their warm-up game against Russia, coming away with a 23-save shutout. Still, Garand is likely to see at least one game in the group stage and Levi’s hold on the starting job is likely only as strong as his previous performance. Garand will likely start the tournament as Canada’s number-two, but could easily end the tournament in the crease depending on Levi’s performances.
Brett Berard, Wing
Berard was a worthy invite to the USA’s preliminary camp, but he was probably fortunate to make the final roster. The fifth-round pick would have likely been one of the final cuts if not for forwards John Beecher, Thomas Bordeleau, and Robert Mastrosimone all being forced to leave camp due to COVID-related concerns.
Berard enters the tournament as the USA’s thirteenth forward. Because lineups are expanded for the WJC, he’ll be on the bench and available to use for every game. Furthermore, the US are only carrying 13 forwards on the entire roster. That means Berard will be next in line in the event of an injury, suspension, or roster shakeup. He’ll see some icetime over the course of the tournament, but perhaps not much unless the state of the team changes for one reason or another.
If nothing else, it will be an interesting experience for Berard, who will likely be a more meaningful contributor to the 2022 team.
Hunter Skinner, Right Defense
Skinner was an initial omission from the US pre-tournament camp before COVID forced one of the team’s top defenseman, Alex Vlasic, to depart. Skinner was added to camp and seems to be ninth in the pecking order of the USA’s crowded depth chart on defense.
He might get a game in the round-robin portion of the tournament against a weaker opponent such as Austria. It wouldn’t be surprising if he spends the entirety of the event from the press box.