Sorry, Canada: Parity Reshapes the World Junior Championship

Santeri Virtanen of Finland celebrating winning the gold medal on Saturday at the World Junior Championship in Vancouver, British Columbia.

VANCOUVER, British Columbia — Canada can deliver the crowds, but the rest of the hockey world is catching up when it comes to delivering on-ice results at the World Junior Championship, the top international under-20 men’s hockey tournament.

On Saturday, Finland earned its third gold medal in the last six years in the event, beating the United States, 3-2, in the championship game.

Saturday’s matchup was the first gold medal game between Finland and the United States at the World Junior Championship, but those teams have regularly been on the podium in recent years in an event once dominated by Canada.

Since 1977, Canada has won 17 gold medals, including two runs of five straight titles: from 1993 to 1997, and again from 2005 to 2009.

But this year’s tournament now will live in infamy — at least in Canada — as the first time the Canadians failed to earn a medal when serving as the tournament’s host. Finland eliminated Canada, 2-1 in overtime, in the quarterfinals. Canada has won the event only twice in the last 10 years, while Finland and the United States have each brought home three golds.

The United States is the only country to have reached the podium in each of the last four years (gold in 2017, silver in 2019 and bronze in 2016 and 2018). The Americans’ seven podium appearances in the last 10 years (three gold, one silver, three bronze) are second only to Russia’s eight (one gold, three silver, four bronze).

Finland’s gold was its fifth in tournament history and the federation’s first victory in North America, where games are played on a smaller ice surface than they are in Europe.

“You’re starting to see some teams get into this portion of the tournament regularly,” United States Coach Mike Hastings said. “I think that says a lot about all the programs that we’re talking about — all the countries. This is a very difficult tournament. Seeing who was here at the end — it’s hard to get here. For the countries that are doing it on a consistent basis, I think that says something about where they’re at.”

Dave Starman, an analyst for the tournament for NHL Network, is also a member of the coaching education program with USA Hockey. He said the recent success of American teams could be attributed in large part to a new development model that was introduced 10 years ago.

“We have absolutely reshaped how we’re teaching the game and how we’re teaching coaches how to teach the game,” Starman said. “We have really emphasized small-area games, and it goes along with age-appropriate practices.

“If we play a lot more 3-on-3, 2-on-2, where younger kids are touching the puck more, they’re in an environment where they’re going to have more fun and be more involved,” he added. “Not only are they going to have more fun and want to come back, they’re going to get better because they’re constantly involved in the play.”

The emphasis is the same in Finland, Starman said.

“A lot of their parents and their organizations don’t care who wins the average game by shortening a bench so they can win a game,” he said. “Their players play, and they use their bench. They believe in player development.”

The trends from the World Junior Championship are now showing up in the N.H.L., too. Over the last decade, the American and Finnish federations have increased the number of players they have delivered to the N.H.L.

In 2009-10, the season that John Carlson’s overtime goal in Saskatoon gave the United States a 6-5 win over Canada in the final, 22 percent of N.H.L. players (212) hailed from the United States, while 4 percent (38) came from Finland, according to Quant Hockey.

This season, the N.H.L. is up to 240 American players (26.8 percent) and 49 Finns (5.5 percent). With Finland’s Mikko Rantanen and the Americans Johnny Gaudreau and Patrick Kane among the league’s top scorers, it is not surprising to see that the number of points produced by players from the two nations also has increased — to 26.2 percent from 19.4 in 2009-10 for Americans and to 5.7 percent from 3.8 for Finns.

Jack Hughes, 17, a forward on this year’s American team, is expected to be the No. 1 pick in the N.H.L. draft in June. Kaapo Kakko, 17, who scored the gold medal-winning goal with 1 minute 26 seconds left Saturday, and his teammate Anttoni Honka will be looking to follow in the footsteps of Patrik Laine of the Winnipeg Jets, Jesse Puljujarvi of the Edmonton Oilers and Olli Juolevi of the Vancouver Canucks from Finland’s gold-winning team in 2016; all were selected in the top five at that year’s N.H.L. draft. (A Canadian player has not been chosen No. 1 over all since Connor McDavid in 2015.)

Hockey Canada’s chief executive, Tom Renney, said he recognized the value of increased parity.

“I think if we want this game to be global, we have to recognize it has arrived — that other federations can compete and compete very well,” he said. “I think it’s healthy.”

He added: “You can look at any number of games that we’ve had up to this point in time and recognize that it’s millimeters or milliseconds that can change the outcome of the game. That is certainly fan-friendly, and in my mind, it encourages children to play.”

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