Hope you enjoyed your summer vacation, because it's time to start talking pucks again. The somewhat neglected U18 circuit of international hockey has one of its two major tournaments in the calendar year begin today in Breclav, Czech Republic and Piestany, Slovakia. What was once called the Junior World Cup will see a lot of the best players born in the year 1994 take part in the first international hockey of the 2011-12 season.
Hockey in Europe starts and ends about a month earlier than in North America as a general rule, so while this tournament may be the first major tournament of the season, its important to note that there is pre-season professional hockey and training camps running throughout the continent at this point in time. For super talented North American teenagers, this is just part of the deal for them: hockey is a year round pursuit for the best of the best, as the U20 players are also going through intense summer training camps as well as preparing for NHL rookie camps before joining their regular junior clubs around mid-September.
The Ivan Hlinka is notable on the U18 calendar mainly due to Canada's ability to send a completely stacked roster of their best players. It is the only time outside the Olympics (or World Cup) that Canada truly can choose from every eligible player to make their men's roster, and it shows. Since becoming a 6-8 nation annual tournament in 2001, Canada has won the gold eight times, with USA and Sweden each winning once. For the USA, the Ivan Hlinka is a chance to integrate players outside their National Team Development Program into the national team, in a potential preview of how their U20 team might look in a year or two.
For other nations, the Hlinka is not treated with the same zeal. Last year, the host Czechs didn't even send their top player, Martin Frk, to the tournament. However, most top players do participate (Finnish defender Olli Maatta is a notable absentee, playing in U20 exhibitions in the USA instead), while some nations may bring some roster decisions that are a bit more experimental in nature, to gain exposure at this level for future purposes. The real prize for most European nations is the IIHF's U18 tournament held in April.
What makes the 2011 edition of this tournament is the European flavour to the 1994 birth year. This isn't considered a necessarily strong Canadian or American contingent, and so we might have the makings for a rare upset as a result. Russia boasts by far the top forward prospect of the teams in Mikhail Grigorenko. Grigorenko is truly a special talent, a playmaking centre with good size and tremendous puck skill. He projects as an elite player, probably the best Russian centre since Evgeni Malkin (in fact, he's probably pacing ahead of Malkin in terms of accomplishments at 17). Filip Forsberg of Sweden is another top ranked 1994 prospect to watch. The tournament will end on Forsberg's 17th birthday, and he's already been a top player in the J20 SuperElit in Sweden as well as has 10 games of professional hockey under his belt playing for Leksand in the Allsvenskan.
The Americans will boast quite likely the second most hyped forward at the tournament in Alex Galchenyuk. He's a dual citizen of Russia and the USA, and his father was a former Olympian on Belarus' national hockey team, so he had significant options in choosing his international side. This does not mean that Galchenyuk is officially an American in future international events, but it certainly looks like he's leaning that way. Such is the case for the sons of professional hockey players: they get to carry more than one passport and can choose the national team that they feel most comfortable with. Galchenyuk had 83 points with Sarnia of the OHL last year, playing on the same team as Russian star Nail Yakupov (who has a late '93 birthdate and isn't eligible for this tournament).
That being said, it'll be tough for anyone to knock off the Canadians. A lack of elite player up front can be made up for by scoring by committee and tough defensive hockey, which the Canadians should be very strong at. Their defence corps is anchored by likely 2012 NHL first round draft picks Griffin Reinhart, Morgan Rielly, Matthew Dumba, and Slater Koekkerk. It will be interesting to see if there is indeed a forward that emerges from the pack for Canada, more for the 2012 Draft Watch than anything else.
HF Boards has all the rosters for the teams. There is no real official website for this, so it's best to look at the national federation's webpages for more information. And as per usual, TV coverage of this event is very minimal, likely just for hilite purposes though I have heard there might be some games broadcast in the Czech Republic.
EDIT: While there is no official site for the whole tournament, Slovakia's federation website has a stat website for the Group B action taking place in Piestany here.
Here's a schedule for the tournament, courtesy of Hockey Canada. Listed below is the preliminary round schedule, with the playoffs going on Friday and Saturday (the 12th/13th):
|Aug 8||Finland vs. USA||08:00 EST||B||Piestany|
|Aug 8||Canada vs. Sweden||09:30 EST||A||Breclav|
|Aug 8||Slovakia vs. Russia||11:30 EST||B||Piestany|
|Aug 8||Czech Rep. vs. Switzerland||13:00 EST||A||Breclav|
|Aug 9||Russia vs. USA||08:00 EST||B||Piestany|
|Aug 9||Switzerland vs. Sweden||09:30 EST||A||Breclav|
|Aug 9||Slovakia vs. Finland||11:30 EST||B||Piestany|
|Aug 9||Canada vs. Czech Rep.||13:00 EST||A||Breclav|
|Aug 10||Russia vs. Finland||08:00 EST||B||Piestany|
|Aug 10||Canada vs. Switzerland||09:30 EST||A||Breclav|
|Aug 10||Slovakia vs. USA||11:30 EST||B||Piestany|
|Aug 10||Czech Rep. vs. Sweden||13:00 EST||A||Breclav|
If you couldn't tell from there, Group A is made up of Canada, Sweden, Czech Rep., and Switzerland and will play their games in Breclav, Czech Rep. Group B is made up of USA, Russia, Finland and Slovakia, and will play out of Piestany, Slovakia. The playoffs will feature a 5th and 7th place game, plus two semifinals on Friday, followed by the gold and bronze medal games on Saturday. The locations of the Friday games will be determined after the preliminary round, while the gold medal game will take place in Breclav and the bronze medal game will be in Piestany.
I'll be providing updates of the action when possible on Twitter @puckworlds and by posting recaps on here.