I’ve always thought of the World Junior Championship as hockey’s version of March Madness. And like the NCAA basketball tournament that is synonymous with momentous upsets and competitors on the cusp of pro careers, the WJC gets its share of plucky underdog teams.
Back in my day, I’d watch March Madness to see what a then-unknown program like Gonzaga could do or marvel at the fact there was a team called the Campbell University Fighting Camels. At the world juniors this year, the good folks in Victoria fell in love with the newest team to participate in the top rung of the under-20s: Kazakhstan.
Now, Kazakhstan was a minnow in this tournament, to be sure. The team had no NHL draft picks – even Denmark had a couple – and no one was even sure if it had a goal song until the second game of the round-robin when Andrei Buyalski tallied against the Americans in what would become an 8-2 loss. Neil Diamond’s red wine anthem Sweet Caroline came over the loudspeakers in Victoria, and a city fell in love.
As the round-robin progressed, the tournament actually sold out of Kazakhstan jerseys, and though the team wasn’t winning, it was getting scrappy performances throughout its lineup, including from goaltender Demid Yeremeyev, who faced an average of nearly 37 shots a game in the tournament.
Inevitably, Kazakhstan headed to Vancouver to face Denmark in the relegation round: a best-of-three to survive, with the loser replaced by Germany in next year’s tournament. Though Denmark had more of a track record at the WJC, I couldn’t help but feel Kazakhstan was in a better place this year and, sure enough, the Kazakhs swept the Danes in two straight. Fans from Victoria travelled to Vancouver to cheer on their adopted boys a couple more times, and there were multiple Kazakhstan flags at Rogers Arena when the Kazakhs clinched. “It’s hard to explain, but it’s a big pride for our country and the work we’ve done,” said Yeremeyev through a translator. “We hit the target.”
And this is yet another reason to love the world juniors. Sure, Kazakhstan couldn’t hang with the Americans or the Finns, but it stuck with its program and survived. The Kazakhs were fan favorites and brought a different vibe to a tournament that can be overly serious. Canada’s Maxime Comtois faced a barrage of vitriol on social media after his missed penalty shot, for instance. Russia’s Klim Kostin had to deal with fans booing him because he was too upset to pose for a nice picture after his dreams of gold were dashed in the semifinal (granted, he had to apologize for his blue response, but again: these are teenagers).
Meanwhile, the Kazakhs bathed in the glow of adulation from fans who didn’t know their names weeks ago and maybe can’t pronounce them now. But that’s the fun in a tourney like this: you find unlikely heroes, from Slovakia’s Denis Godla in 2015 to Nino Niederreiter’s Swiss army in 2010.
Is it harsh these smaller hockey nations often get blown out by double-digits, as Denmark did at the hands of Canada in the opener? Well, yes. But not long ago, Denmark was a dangerous team at the WJC thanks to Nikolaj Ehlers and Oliver Bjorkstrand – the margin of error is just super thin when it comes to still-developing programs. Some have suggested we cut down the world juniors to eight teams and, sure, that would make things more competitive – but then where does the growth come from?
Germany, which earned promotion from Division 1-A, will likely have an NHL first-rounder on its roster next year in St. Louis pick Dominik Bokk, and defenseman Moritz Seider may also claim that status when he’s drafted this summer. The Kazakhs will return up to nine players to the tournament next year in the Czech Republic, but for the players who will be too old, they can pat themselves on the back for doing their country proud in B.C. “For a lot of the guys, it was the first time ever at the world juniors, but when they come back next year they will approach the task a lot differently,” said 19-year-old captain Sayan Daniyar through a translator. “They’ll have confidence. They won’t just think about not getting eliminated. They’ll actually think about moving forward and getting out of the group stage.”
These days, Gonzaga is a college basketball powerhouse, while the Fighting Camels have yet to return to the NCAA tournament since that one appearance in 1992. But that’s the fun of March Madness and the world juniors: you never know where the good stories are going to come from.