The best under-20 men’s players from the Czech Republic, Finland, Sweden and the United States will compete for a place in the gold medal match during the semifinals of the 2024 World Junior Championship on Thursday.
The best women in that age group won’t get the chance. They never did.
Since 1977 the IIHF has sanctioned the men’s junior world championships. The world’s best female hockey players compete in the annual national under-18 and senior championships, tournaments that began years after their male colleagues. And even though the women’s game is growing rapidly – look no further than what will be a multimillion-dollar investment in the professional game with the PWHL – there is no women’s junior world championship yet.
That’s something Team Canada and Team USA general managers Gina Kingsbury and Katie Million want to change.
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“The U20 group is the missing piece,” Million said in an interview with Atletico. “It has been (our) dream to make this happen.”
There have been discussions with the IIHF about a potential women’s world juniors over the past year, Million said, but in recent committee meetings the idea was rejected largely because other nations outside the United States and Canada they are not ready to add another team to their women’s schedule.
It’s true that Canada and the United States have dominated at the under-18 level, just as their senior teams have: no other nation has won an U18 gold medal since the tournament began in 2008. But there is It was a remarkable growth. Last year, Sweden beat Team USA in the semifinals and won a second silver medal after reaching the gold medal for the first time in 2018. And it was Nela Lopušanová, a 14-year-old from Slovakia, who was the star of the 2023 tournament.
Lopušanová might be the clearest example of growth in international women’s hockey. If the IIHF had decided that women’s hockey wasn’t ready for an U18 tournament all those years ago, Lopušanová probably wouldn’t have become one of the most exciting young players to watch right now.
“We have to start somewhere,” Million said.
The main criticism leveled at all levels of women’s international hockey has generally been that Canada and the United States are going to win it all, so what’s the point? It’s a stale topic.
Because it is also true that two countries have dominated the men’s junior world over their almost 50-year history. Canada and Russia, or former Soviet Union and CIS teams, have won 33 of the 47 gold medals since the tournament officially began. Canada, with 20, has won nearly half of the possible championships and has missed the podium only 13 times. Only six teams have won in five decades of competition.
Since 2013, only Canada (5), Finland (3) and the United States (3) have won gold.
If you’re okay with two or three teams dominating a men’s tournament, why is it a problem when it happens with the women?
Team Canada has dominated the world juniors – despite its early elimination at this year’s tournament – and that has become intertwined with national pride and making hockey “Canada’s game.” Why do we celebrate this and then use the dominance of Canadian women as a reason not to play?
It is entirely possible, even with two teams at the top, to grow interest in a niche product. This is what the World Junior Men’s Championship was before TSN bought the rights to it in 1991. Now it’s must-see television, especially in Canada due to the team’s dominance and TSN’s investment.
“It’s a spectacle here in Canada,” said Canadian Olympian Sarah Nurse. “And I think that speaks to TSN and the media and how they were able to make a tournament into this Canadian tradition. “I think we can do the same thing with women’s events.”
With the right partners and, of course, with money.
But beyond all that, a Women’s Junior World Cup would be vital to the overall health of women’s hockey and provide a vital – but missing – opportunity for development.
Under 18 or -19 female hockey players, for the most part, are well served. There are championships for U18 club and national teams in Canada. USA Hockey has national championships for 19U girls. And, of course, there are the IIHF Under-18 World Championships.
But very few players in North America make the transition from U18 or high school hockey directly to the senior women’s national team: Marie-Philip Poulin, who transitioned from the U18 to senior worlds in 2008-09, is one of the few to do so fact – which creates a large opportunity gap for the sport’s best players. Team USA and Canada have played an under-22 series since 1999 — it’s now called the collegiate series — but it’s typically just three games played in August.
“Those kids that are on a U18 team, we won’t see them again until they’re maybe juniors, seniors in college or post-grad,” Million explained. “It just helps the development of these players to have that point of contact when they’re younger and keep them in our culture and playing our systems.”
An under-20 team would expose the game’s decision-makers to a potentially different group of players at a critical point in their careers, or provide more touchpoints for the development of stars from their under-18 years. Players are different at 19 than they were when they are 17 – some take off, others may go in the opposite direction – but there is no perfect way for national teams to track progress other than scouting college teams.
“There’s almost this forgotten group of players,” Nurse said. “You see girls at 16, 17, 18 and send them to college. And they have to hope that our GM or scouts are at the games at the right time and talking to the right people.”
Take Claire Thompson as a recent example. The Canadian defender did not make the national under-18 team before leaving for Princeton in 2016 and was only noticed by Team Canada scouts who were sent to watch her teammate Sarah Fillier. Thompson was immediately invited to the under-22 team and set a 2022 Olympics record for points scored by a defenseman.
“Imagine a player like that slipping through the cracks,” Nurse said.
It would also provide the opportunity for players who are too old for the U18s and As soon as out of the senior national team to continue playing important matches.
At 19 years old, Laila Edwards has already made history as the first Black woman to play for Team USA and is expected to become one of the faces of the game, in due course. She should be squarely in the mix to make the 2024 World Championship roster, but if she isn’t quite ready she won’t get any national team opportunities until USA Hockey’s annual training camp in August. And then she wouldn’t play in international competitions until the 2025 World Cup, she would have to be part of that roster.
Obviously someone like Edwards can continue to develop in college, but getting into competitive international games would only help his development.
Player development is no longer just about Team Canada and Team USA. Not with the first PWHL season officially underway. The World Junior Men’s Championship offers not only one of the most prestigious stages for young hockey players, but also the opportunity to significantly increase one’s draft stock ahead of the NHL Draft.
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Let’s consider TSN for a moment again. The network promotes world juniors as an opportunity to watch future legends of the game before they become legends. A promo for the 2023 world juniors said: “Before they were household names they were here on TSN.”
Women’s hockey players should be given the same opportunity, not only to grow as players, but to announce themselves on a big stage. Fans also deserve to know who to watch or hope for in their favorite team’s drafts in the first round of the PWHL Draft.
So what happens now? And how could it be?
At first, it could be as simple as Canada and the United States expanding their national team offerings. Each summer, the Canadian U18 and Collegiate teams face off in a miniseries. Perhaps they could add a next-generation, under-20 rivalry series to the mix.
Or perhaps instead of a 10-team tournament like the men’s junior world cup, it’s a smaller number of teams like a Four Nations tournament, but for the under-20 age group. Maybe it’s a World Cup-style tournament with teams from Canada, the United States and Europe. The latter option would allow top players – like Lopušanová – from countries that may not have enough U20 players for a full roster to be in the mix.
It remains to be seen what the women’s junior world championship might look like. The timing is even more difficult to predict.
However, we hope that these decisions will be made soon. Because every year that passes is another missed opportunity to grow the game.
(Photo: Dennis Pajot/Getty Images)