NHL lockout leaving you feeling like Hockey Santa left a lump of coal in your stocking?
Don't fret: there's hockey action fast approaching. While there is no equivalent for the speed and skill of the NHL, the upcoming World Junior Hockey Championships provide intense, exciting hockey that will help satisfy your hockey needs.
Considered by many hockey experts as one of the sport's most entertaining traditions, the annual tournament, which begins on Boxing Day, showcases most of the world's best hockey players under the age of 20 representing their home countries as they battle other nations in their quest for gold.
Whereas the NHL features mature professionals with years of experience learning the tougher defensive side of the game, junior aged players consistently exhibit high levels of energy and tend to lean towards the offensive side of the puck. Mix in the raw emotions of youth, the pride of representing your homeland, longstanding national rivalries and the balance of talent from multiple countries and you get a formula for hockey that is not only fast and physical, but is teeming with unpredictable, game-changing momentum rollercoasters and historic individual heroics.
Here's one recent memorable example of the kind of intensity and excitement that the WJCs can produce, featuring 2010 Dallas 1st rounder Jack Campbell:
Dozens of the NHL's biggest names starred in the WJCs while in their teens, and many of the sport's next wave of superstars will be playing again this year, offering a glimpse of what fans will be tantalized by in the future.
What's more, three Dallas Stars prospects - Brett Ritchie, Radek Faksa and Emil Molin - will be suiting up for their home nations this year, giving Stars fans a rare look at each player on the ice and what they might bring to the team in the future, much like Campbell, Jamie Benn, Loui Eriksson, Kari Lehtonen and other Dallas players did in these tournaments years ago.
Here is a quick rundown of the countries participating in this year's tournament, and some big names to keep an eye out for on each:
Ritchie is undoubtedly the hottest prospect right now in Dallas' system, with 50 points in 32 games for the Niagara IceDogs of the OHL, and will get to show off his impressive size and amazing shot playing on Canada's second line alongside Niagara linemate and 2011 5th overall draft choice Ryan Strome. The Canadians feature the deepest overall roster in the tournament with 11 first round draft choices, including big names like Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Jonathan Huberdeau, Mark Scheifele, Dougie Hamilton, Morgan Rielly and others. A perennial powerhouse, Canada will once again be one of the tournament's most dangerous teams.
The Swedes are this year's defending champions after defeating Russia in last year's gold medal game, and are expected to continue to be among the top contenders. Molin, drafted in the 4th round by Dallas in 2011, isn't one of the Stars' more well-known prospects, but will get a chance to shine on Sweden's top lines playing alongside talented forwards and high draft picks such as Filip Forsberg, Sebastian Collberg, Rickard Rakell and Victor Rask.
The Russians are always considered one of the best teams in the tournament, coming within a goal of winning gold last year, and will have the added benefit this year of home ice advantage. While the team is deep, it's success will primarily depend on the performance of a few individuals. Forwards Nail Yakupov and Mikhail Grigorenko are two of hockey's most explosive offensive prospects, and will lead the charge for Russia. Goaltender Andrei Vasilevski is one of the best goaltending prospects in the world, and after posting a .953 save percentage last year is considered arguably the best netminder in the WJCs this year.
The American WJC teams are getting better and better each passing year, and this year's roster is no different as it oozes with potential. Texas native and potential 2013 1st overall pick Seth Jones is having a monster season in the WHL and is expected to play a huge role on the blueline for the US. The team is well-balanced and features impressive talent at all positions, with the best 1-2 goaltending tandem in the tournament with John Gibson and Jon Gillies, Jacob Trouba and Connor Murphy on defense, and at forward with Alex Galchenyuk, Tyler Biggs, J.T. Miller and others.
2012 Dallas 1st rounder Radek Faksa is the obvious choice of who to watch out for on the Czech team, but other forwards Dmitrij Jaskin, Tomas Hertl and Martin Frk are also highly skilled and will help give the team a handful of options for their offensive attack. The Czechs haven't won a medal at the WJC since getting bronze in 2005, but have enough skilled individuals to turn games in their favor and generate upsets.
The Finns are often seen as being one of the second-tier contenders of the tournament behind the Big 4 (Canada, Russia, USA and Sweden), but are generating a lot of buzz this year after defeating both Canada and the US in the pre-tournament exhibition games. Joel Armia, Markus Granlund, and Teuvo Teravainen are all dangerous offensive weapons, but the most intriguing player to watch for Finland this year is 17 year-old Aleksander Barkov, a 6'2" center that is tearing up Finland's top league and is steadily becoming a stronger consideration for 1st overall in the 2013 draft.
Slovakia, Switzerland, Germany and Latvia are the other teams that round out this year's tournament ten, but are all longshots when it comes to medal hopes.
The tournament, which takes place this year in Ufa, Russia, begins on December 26, and the gold medal game is scheduled for January 5. The full matchup schedule can be found here, while full tournament rosters can be found here.
For watching the games, you can view them all on the NHL Network-US and on NHL.com in the United States, or via pay-per-view in Canada on TSN.ca at this link. I'll update this article if I can find other (hopefully free) online stream links.