Photo by: Anders Krogh Jorgensen
On Jan. 5, the 2023 edition of the World Junior Hockey Championship, the most significant U20 hockey tournament in the world, concluded in Halifax. The edge-of-your-seat excitement that came with both of the tournament’s final games capped off a historic World Juniors, but this time around, it felt like a lot more than just a tournament for teenagers.
This World Juniors sticks out from the rest for a variety of reasons, but many had to do with factors off the ice before the tournament even commenced. After last year, this was going to be the International Ice Hockey Federation’s (IIHF) first attempt at a normal tournament: no bubbles, no game cancellations and no summer hockey. 2022-23 also saw the return of the relegation round, adding some additional intrigue for the bottom of the pack. Of course, it also featured a Canadian side that threatened to repeat as champions with generational talent Connor Bedard. The World Juniors were so back.
Well, kind of.
Originally supposed to be hosted in Russia, support for this crumbled following Russia’s invasion of the Ukraine, forcing the tournament to be relocated to Halifax, Nova Scotia and Moncton, New Brunswick. Ultimately, this seemed like the right call. Though Canada is the predominant host of the World Juniors, fans, athletes, and broadcasters alike all commented on the electric atmosphere the Maritimes hockey fans brought to the World Juniors.
Unfortunately, Russia wasn’t only nixed as a host, but also a participant, leaving one of the major hockey powers on the sidelines. A huge hit, especially considering the high-end NHL prospects that Russia already boasts, like Washington’s Ivan Mirosnichenko or Minnesota’s Danilla Yurov. That doesn’t include likely top-five pick in this year’s draft, offensive phenom Matvei Michkov. Though missing some of these star players was guaranteed to be an issue, many other players and teams stepped up to take their place. Draft eligibles in particular made a splash, but this, along with a variety of other reasons we’re going to pour through, was a very special tournament.
Connor Bedard and the kids
Going into this tournament, Canadian boy-wonder Connor Bedard hadn’t just threatened to steal the show — he was the show.
After winning gold over the summer, Bedard spent the next five months or so making everyone in the Western Hockey League (WHL) look completely outclassed enroute to his likely first-overall selection in the NHL draft in June. In about seven less games than the rest of the competition, Bedard is first in assists, points and shots, and is second in goals.
Throughout interviews with Canadian players, whenever someone was asked about Bedard, their answer was almost always prefaced by a laugh and a headshake, “he’s just good at everything,” said teammate Kevin Korchinski in an interview. On top of this, Bedard is only in grade 12. Basically, this was supposed to be the Connor Bedard show, and he did not disappoint. He set Canadian records for most points and assists in one tournament, claimed Canadian records for most career goals and points in the World Juniors, and moved up to second all-time in World Junior points by a 17- year-old. The graphic below puts into context just how dominant Bedard was.
He led in virtually every offensive category. He even led in offensive zone retrievals which is a forechecking statistic. Absurd stuff from one of the youngest players in the tournament.
Bedard was not, however, the only draft-eligible star to make a name for himself this tournament. Fellow Canadian Adam Fantilli had a strong-but-unspectacular tournament, posting two goals and five points in seven games, while settling into a two-way checking role that speaks volumes about his NHL upside. In what thus far has been a superlative college hockey season for Fantilli, he is on track to go second overall this year.
Though with only one more goal than Fantilli, Sweden’s Leo Carlsson put up an impressive showing. Like Fantilli, Carlsson was moved away from his primary position of centre to play a more forechecking-focused wing slot, in addition to taking on increased responsibility, playing on Sweden’s second line. Carlsson finished as one of the World Juniors’ better all-around players, with big goals against the States and against Finland. Sweden also featured one of the top defenseman draft-eligibles, Axel Sandin-Pellika, who played an understated but effective game throughout.
Other draft eligibles who played included Czechia’s Eduard Sale (who also had six points), America’s Gavin Brindley, Slovakia’s Dalibor Dvorsky and Austria’s David Reinbacher. All are expected to be first round picks.
The Rise of Czechia
The Czech’s are not normally known as a top-flight hockey power. In the last World Juniors, Czechia left the group stage with only one win. This year, their fortunes were completely reversed.
Czechia started off their tournament in surprising fashion, defeating the top-ranked Canadians 5-2 on day one. The huge upset helped power Czechia to the top spot in a tough Group A containing Canada, Sweden, Germany and Austria. Although they eventually fell 3-2 to Canada in overtime of the gold medal match, Czechia’s tournament was filled with gutsy, comeback efforts. The gold medal game was the most notable of these, scoring two goals in less than a minute to force overtime.
Though, looking at their roster, it’s not tough to see how Czechia did it: 2022-23 was one of the best Czech crops of all time. The 2022 NHL Draft was a particularly strong one for Czechia, and many of these players filled out their roster.
They were led by their two-headed monster on defence, Columbus Blue Jackets sixth-overall pick David Jiricek, as well as their third-rounder Stanislav Svozil, who were likely the two best defensemen in the whole tournament. Jiricek, hovering around a point-per-game in the American Hockey League (AHL), is having an unprecedented campaign, solidifying himself as one of hockey’s top prospects. Other 2022 selections Tomas Hamara and David Spacek rounded out a big, strong, and offensively capable blueline.
Though defense was Czechia’s strength, they also had some weapons up front. In addition to the previously mentioned Eduard Sale, Czechia’s main weapon was Buffalo Sabres first-rounder Jiri Kulich, who had seven goals and nine points in seven games. Like Jiricek, Kulich is having an impressive season in the AHL, the third-best league in the world, using his speed, smarts, and pro-ready frame to adjust to the North American game.
Forwards Gabriel Sztrurc and Marcel Marcel also had notable performances.
Goaltender Tomas Suchanek was the biggest key for the Czechs. WHL Goalie Suchanek stood tall throughout every contest, and was also likely the best goalie in the World Juniors.
Though it would be tough (and unrealistic) to expect a similarly strong group next year, Czechia’s silver medal finish bodes extremely well for the health of their national program.
Level of Competition
Though the Czechs were the underdogs who made the biggest splash, they were by no means the only one who had a strong tournament.
Historically, the World Juniors have had a distinct lack of parity, leading to lopsided losses and calls to reduce the number of teams. Though with programs like the United States’ and Canada’s, there will always be some of these lopsided losses, 2022-23 stood out as a very competitive tournament.
Finland did not ice one of their stronger sides, leaving room for a slept-on Slovakia to pick up two wins and tie them for second in Group B. Slovakia was led by two 2022 selections, second overall pick Simon Nemec, and second rounder Filip Mesar.
There were a number of upsets (Czechia over Canada, Slovakia over the States, Switzerland over Finland) and tight games that went down to the wire.
Even relatively meaningless games like Switzerland v. Slovakia were wildly entertaining, featuring a multi-goal, third period comeback to force overtime, and eventually a shootout. Switzerland’s Rodwin Dionicio capped it off in dramatic fashion, sealing the game with a beautiful poke move. The celebration may have been just as much of a highlight, with Dioncio hitting a griddy in front of a wild Moncton crowd.
The World Juniors delivered in the big moments too. Czechia’s semifinal match against Sweden was a dramatic 2-1 overtime win for the Czechs. The US and Sweden’s consolation match was an absolute gunshow that ended 8-7 in favour of the States. The final may have been the best of all, with Canada’s electric 3-2 overtime win in front of their home crowd.
Bedard put it best during his post-game interview as throngs of Haligonians chanted “MVP” towards him. “I don’t want to talk about myself right now. We’re not talking about me,” Bedard said, humbly. “We just won the biggest tournament in the world, and man, I love this group, I love this country. And this city right here has been unbelievable.”
By all accounts, the 2023 World Juniors were one of the best in recent history. From the games, to the storylines, to the star players, to the incredible atmosphere—this year should be seen as the benchmark for this event going forward. Hopefully we get to see many more tournaments that can emulate this year’s level of competition.