For years, Sweden has been threatening to break through at international junior hockey tournaments, but it wasn't until last January that the nation finally reached the heights that had alluded them for two generations.
Mika Zibanejad's overtime goal finally saw Sweden take its place on top of the junior hockey world, in more ways than one. It was the nation's first gold medal at the U20's since 1981, and it was their first gold medal at any IIHF junior tournament since the European Junior Championships in 1998, before the U18 tournament was started to include North American teams. It's hard for any nation as small as Sweden to compete on a global sporting stage, but what they have accomplished over the past four years is incredible: 1 U20 gold, 3 U18 silvers, 1 U20 silver, and 1 U20 bronze medal.
In doing so, Sweden is clearly setting itself up to be the premiere European power in international hockey for the next generation, ready to match, and beat, Russia. More golden moments like the 2006 and 1994 Winter Olympics are well within this generation's grasp. Russia has been a consistent medal threat at both the U18 and U20 levels, with one of each medal at the U20 level, and a silver and a bronze at the U18s in the past four years.
Meanwhile, Canada is in a dry spell internationally at the junior level, with only 1 gold medal in the past four years at the U20 level, the tournament they usually dominate. Their U18 results have been pretty dimsal in recent years as well, with only a single bronze medal to show for the past four years in that tournament, to go with the 1 gold, 2 silvers and 1 bronze at the U20 level in that time span.
The Americans have continued to dominate the U18 tournament, sending their US National Team Development Program team that plays together all year to the spring tournament. Their cohesiveness and talent has been too tough to match for most nations, and they're notably lesser showings in the U20s show how much of an advantage familiarity really factors in success. Their fourth straight U18 championship is a record at that level, but their embarassing 7th placing showing at last year's U20s is probably fresher on the program's minds as they prepare for this year's tournament in Ufa. They have picked up one gold and one bronze medal at the U20 level in the past four years.
Finland is the only other nation to pick up any medals in this time frame, with two bronze medals in the U18 tournament. Only the big four countries (Sweden, USA, Russia, Canada) have been represented in the finals of either tournament.
We're in near unchartered waters at this point. Only once before has there been four different winners of the U20 gold medal in the past four years, and that was from 1997-2000 (Canada, Finland, Russia, Czech Republic in that order). Is it even possible we could get a fifth different winner this year?
Here's a look at the full rankings, done in the style of the IIHF World Ranking. This is not an official ranking:
|Country||U20 Rank||U18 Rank||Combined Rank|
|United States of America||4||1||2|
|United Arab Emirates||NR||NR||New in 2013*|
*The United Arab Emirates will be sending a junior aged squad to the IIHF U20 World Championships Division 3 level this year for the first time.
The Division 1A, 1B, and 2A of the U20 World Championships start on December 9 and go through to December 16th. The championship level will be held from December 6th through January 5th, while Division 2B and 3 will be held from January 12-20th.