Sweden, Russia and the U.S. are the challengers to Canada’s drive for five at the world under-20 men’s hockey championship.
Canada, the winner of four straight titles, opens the 2009 world junior championship Friday in Ottawa against the Czech Republic.
The Canadians’ pool is the easier of the two with the Czechs, Germany, Kazakhstan and the Americans their opponents in the preliminary round.
Finishing in the top three and advancing to the medal round shouldn’t be a problem for the defending champions.
The pivotal game of the round robin for Canada will be its New Year’s Eve matchup with the U.S., as it will likely determine which country finishes first in that group and gets the bye to the semifinal.
The medal round can often be a minefield of mistakes and missed chances, so a quarter-final against an opponent coming out of the other, tougher pool is best avoided.
The Swedes and Russians must contend with each other and pesky Finland in their pool, so it looks to be a more tiring road to the medal round for those countries. Slovakia and promoted Latvia rounds out that group.
The Canadians have both home fans and home ice at Scotiabank Place in their favour, which should offset a youthful roster that includes eight 18-year-olds and two 17-year-olds.
“This group here has some talent,” Canadian head coach Pat Quinn said. “It’s our job now as players and coaches to try and come together so we make the best effort we can to win a gold medal.
“The teams that becomes a team better than the other guys, generally win. It’s not always skill.”
The smaller North American ice surface gives Canada a minor advantage. The dimensions aren’t daunting, however, to Europeans who already play junior or pro on this continent.
Going into the tournament, Canada is not as deep at forward as some other countries. Kyle Turris, Sam Gagner, Colton Gillies or Brandon Sutter would have provided some star power, but all four centres are currently playing in the NHL and unavailable to the Canadian team.
Centre John Tavares, 18, can stake his claim as the No. 1 pick in the 2009 NHL draft with his performance in Ottawa. That’s a subplot to this tournament as Swedish defenceman Victor Hedman has also been projected as a potential first overall pick.
The Russians have forwards Nikita Filatov, this year’s No. 6 pick, and Maxim Mayorov who both play for the Columbus Blue Jackets’ farm team.
The fast-attacking Swedes, who lost in overtime to Canada in the previous final, boast Mikael Backlund, a first-round NHL draft pick of the Calgary Flames, and Oscar Moller, released by the NHL’s Los Angeles Kings for the tournament.
The U.S. won its first gold in the tournament in 2004 and has had enough talent annually since then to win it again. Forward James vanRiemsdyk, the No. 2 selection in the 2007 draft by Philadelphia, will play in his third world junior tournament.
Team cohesion and chemistry, plus smart coaching, has been the difference in Canada’s gold streak. Quinn is the key figure in Canada’s bid to tie the country’s record for consecutive gold medals won between 1993 and 1997.
Painting your own team as an underdog is an established motivational tactic. Quinn admits hockey pundits wouldn’t pick his team as the most talented in this field, so another gold requires all hands on deck from the goaltender out.
“We’re probably not ranked up at the top,” Quinn said. “We’ll be favourites simply because we’re Canada and we’re expected to win all the time.
“Hopefully we’ve got good balance here because I don’t want to depend on five guys to win a gold medal. It won’t happen.”
Quinn has the longest and most prestigious resume of any coach in the tournament. The coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs from 1998 to 2006 was behind the bench when Canada won Olympic gold in 2002 to end a 50-year drought, as well as navigating Canada to victory in the 2004 World Cup of Hockey.
But the 66-year-old is playing catch-up in getting to know the strengths and weaknesses of these young players. Quinn was named to the post in September after Benoit Groulx stepped down to pursue a pro career.
Canada will play all its games at the 19,000-seat Scotiabank Place, sending the NHL’s Ottawa Senators on an extended road trip. The Ontario Hockey League’s Ottawa 67’s will likewise vacate the 10,000-seat Civic Centre for pool games.
A total of 463,249 tickets were available for this tournament. The organizing committee announced back in January that the tournament was 95 per cent sold. About 15,000 single-game tickets, which still included medal and Canadian games, were released for sale earlier this month.
Starting with Ottawa, Canada hosts the world junior tournament three times over the next four years with Regina-Saskatoon the 2010 co-hosts and Calgary-Edmonton taking over in 2012.