World Juniors: Evaluating The Tournament Format

The World Junior Hockey Championship has come and gone, and the thrill of best-on-best competition is behind us. 

Hockey fans were once again treated to plenty of excellent hockey games and some not so excellent hockey games. Unfortunately, not all countries at the tournament have hockey programs of equal caliber and cannot ice equally competitive teams. In the 20 World Junior Hockey Championship tournaments, prior to 2019, there were eight different countries that won at least one medal. Assigning three points for gold, two points for silver and one point for bronze those countries rank as follows;

1. Canada, 38
2. Russia, 31
3. USA, 16
4. Sweden, 14
5. Finland, 12
6. Czech, 7
7. Slovakia, 2
8. Switzerland, 1

Limiting Blow-out Games

If you were to ask most junior hockey fans which five countries ice the best teams, undoubtedly their answer would concur with the previous list. There is a decided drop off after the top five. The problem that seems to exist are games like the Canada vs. Denmark 14-0 blowout, where Denmark matched Canada’s goal total with 14 shots on net. Fans find it painfully difficult to watch these games and many would say there is a need to reduce the number of these first-round mismatches.

Proposing A New Structure

When asked about the matter, Peter Loubardias (@fan960lou) of Sportsnet The Fan 960 radio, color commentator for the Calgary Flames games and arguably the biggest and most knowledgeable junior hockey fan and broadcaster around, suggested that a format similar to what is done in the women’s game at the winter olympics might be the answer. For those unfamiliar with that system, the two groups of teams for the preliminary round are tiered. The better teams in one group and the lesser teams in the other group. This hockey fan was inspired by that suggestion and came up with the following.

Based on the results of the previous year’s tournament Group A, or as I would rename it, Tier 1, will be composed of the five best finishing countries. Group B will become Tier 2 and would be populated with the remaining four countries that were not relegated, and of course the one team that moves up from division 1A. In using this format, the preliminary round robin games would still be played amongst teams in the same tier. Having teams play within their tier would reduce the mismatches we see early in the tournament and as a result produce a greater number of exciting and watchable hockey games.

How teams advance to the quarter-finals will need to change as a result of this tiered system. All five Tier 1 teams will advance to the quarter-finals and would be playing for seeds one thru five. In Tier 2 the top three teams will advance and fill out seeds six thru eight. The remaining two Tier 2 teams will play for relegation. At this point and again to reduce the chance of mismatches the quarter-final matchups would see 1st seed vs. 5th seed, 2nd seed vs. 6th seed, 3rd seed vs. 7th seed and 4th seed vs. 8th seed. In other words, best in Tier 1 vs. worst in Tier 1 and three cross-over (Tier 1 vs. Tier 2) matchups.

The four countries that advance to the semi-finals by winning their quarter-final game would guarantee themselves a top four finish and a Tier 1 position to start the next year’s tournament. The four countries losing in the quarter-finals would now playoff on the B-side, whereby only the B-side winner claims the fifth and final Tier 1 slot for the tournament the following year. This means, of course, that the 3 countries not winning the B-side will join the winner of the relegation matchup in Tier 2 at the following year’s World Junior Hockey Championship.

featured image photo credit – Josh Tessler


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