It’s December, the first snow has fallen, and everyone is in a festive mood because it’s almost time for the International Ice Hockey Federation’s Under-20 World Championship, a.k.a. the World Juniors. It’s an annual tradition that takes place in the last week of December, and transitions into a new year.
Unbeknownst to many fans of the annual tournament, the championships have already begun, as teams in lower divisions have jockeyed for placements in next year’s tournament.
The Division 1A World Junior Championship was contested from December 10 to 16 in Courcheval and Méribel, France. It was Kazakhstan who came out victorious, earning a promotion to the Top Division, where they will play with the likes of Canada and the USA in 2019.
Kazakhstan beat the host nation in the final game 6-1 to earn the promotion; one point in the standings ahead of Latvia. It will be the first appearance for Kazakhstan in the elite group since 2009, where they were famously routed by Canada 15-0.
What’s impressive about the Kazakh squad is that there were 10 18- and 17-year-olds on the team, meaning there will be an experienced team next year as they try to stay in the Top Division. Among them is Artur Gatiyatov, who was named the best forward of the tournament with four goals and three assists in five games. The team will also be able to bring back its top defensive pairing of Vleri Orekhov and Samat Daniyar next year.
Kazakhstan becomes the fifth nation in six years to get promoted from Division IA, joining Norway (2013), Denmark (2014), Latvia (2016), and Belarus (2015, 2017). Norway and Latvia were relegated in their first year, while Denmark has been able to maintain its presence among the world’s top teams.
The favoured Latvian squad was hoping to get back to the top group after being relegated at last year’s tournament, but they will have to settle for second place and wait for another shot at promotion next year. The only game they lost was a shootout upset at the hands of the Kazakh squad in what turned out to be the determining match early on in the tournament.
Latvia’s Pauls Svars was named the best defenceman of the event.
Germany finished in third place, unable to defeat either Kazakhstan or Latvia. Germany was relegated in 2015 from the Top Division and will have to settle on remaining in Division IA for the time being. Mirko Pantkowski was elected the best goaltender of the tournament.
Host France finished in fourth place despite starting off strong by winning their first two games — a 6-1 win against eventual fifth place Austria and a 4-3 win against sixth place Hungary. In their third game they lost to Germany 4-0, then a 1-0 loss in overtime to Latvia sealed the tournament for the French.
Austria beat Hungary 5-2 in both teams’ final games, with the Austrians surviving in Division 1A and the Hungarians getting relegated back to Division IB for 2019.
The round robin tournament for the third-tier championship was played from December 9 to 15 in Bled, Slovenia.
Norway squeaked past Poland in the final game of the tournament to reclaim their place in Division IA. Poland managed to come back from a two-goal deficit, scoring the tying goal with seven seconds left in the game. Norway came out victorious in the shootout however, ascending to the higher division.
Poland had a very strong tournament, finishing in second place for an agonizing third year in a row. They were led by Alan Lyszczarczyk of the Owen Sound Attack, who was selected the best forward of the tournament after topping all scorers with eight goals and seven assists for 15 points in five games.
Host Slovenia wasn’t able to improve its position over the last year, remaining in third place after being relegated from Group IA in 2015.
Ukraine continues to struggle at the U20 level ever since being relegated from the elite group in 2004. Since then they were even relegated from Division I to Division IIA in 2011 before getting promoted back to Division IB a year later.
Italy was promoted to Division IA in 2014 but was relegated back to Division IB in 2016. Performances over the last two years have not been very convincing however, and a further decline is not out of the question.
Finally Lithuania drops back to Division IIA after earning a promotion last year, and it will be Japan taking their place in the group, earning the promotion ahead of Great Britain and South Korea.