It has become a holiday tradition, as popular in some households as hanging stockings by the chimney with care and -- we're just guessing here -- now bigger than roasting chestnuts on an open fire.
The World Junior Hockey Championship opens in Ufa, Russia on Boxing Day as Canada faces Germany (3:30 a.m. Winnipeg time) with the gold-medal game on Jan. 5.
And with the world juniors comes this country's annual rite of wrapping itself in the flag and becoming completely engrossed with every shift of a collection of teenagers defending Canada's honour.
What's especially cool for local fans now that the National Hockey League is (sort of) back in this town is how the event offers up a chance to scout future Jet stars. And so, it's with that in mind that we present a bit of a tournament primer, our Jet Fan's Guide to the World Junior Hockey Championship:
FIVE REASONS TO WATCH
1. SCHEIFELE TO PRIME TIME
Mark SCHEIFELE has been under the microscope in these parts since the Jets first called out his name seventh overall at the 2011 NHL draft in Minnesota. And he's done nothing but grow his game and offer up flashes over the last 18 months, from leading the Jets in scoring in the pre-season last year, notching his first NHL goal at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto to putting up six points (including three goals) in six games for Canada at last year's WJC. But there was also an expectation -- perhaps, in hindsight, a completely unrealistic one -- that he would dominate last year's event as an 18-year-old.
Now a year older and making the switch from centre to right wing on Canada's top line with Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Jonathan Huberdeau, those expectations will be in play again. And this time they will be warranted. Scheifele scored in the 3-2 pre-tournament loss to Finland on Thursday and Canada needs him to be prolific in the real games.
2. YANKEE DUO DANDY
The Jets followed the form chart last June, grabbing American defenceman Jacob Trouba with their first pick, ninth overall, in the latest NHL draft while some flashier forwards like Filip Forsberg, Mikhail Grigorenko and Radek Faksa were still on the board. Fast-forward to the present and Jet management couldn't be happier with their Trouba pick. He looked solid at the team's development camp in the summer, is playing big minutes as a freshman at the University of Michigan and will be paired with Seth Jones -- likely the first or second overall pick in this year's draft -- on the Yanks' No. 1 defensive pairing.
Oh, and with former Jet Phil Housely Team USA's head coach, you can expect an emphasis on offensive push from the D corps.
3. WATCHING LIKE HAWKS...
The Jets' hockey operations staff has hardly been sitting on its collective thumbs during the lockout. The team's scouts have been studying talent all over Europe and North America and will be heavily represented in Ufa, with five executives watching live and in person -- led by VP/assistant GM Craig Heisinger and director of amateur scouting Marcel Comeau. Drafts are big for every team, but consider this: The Jets will have six picks in the first three rounds in the next draft.
4. ... AND UPON FURTHER REVIEW
So who might Jet brass be paying particular attention to during the WJC? Consider this, whether it's by design or just fluke, the new Jet regime has yet to choose a European through the 2011 and 2012 drafts.
Canada has two players draft eligible in 2013, both forwards from the Halifax Mooseheads -- Nathan MacKinnon and Jonathan Drouin while JC Lipon of Kamloops was not selected in 2012. Team USA, aside from Jones, has one other draft eligible player: forward Ryan Hartman of the Plymouth Whalers.
But there is plenty of European talent to study as well, particularly: centre Aleksander Barkov and Rasmus Ristolainen of Finland, Russian forwards Valeri Nichushkin and Bogdan Yakimov, Swedish centre Elias Lindholm and winger Jacob de la Rose and Slovakian centre Marko Dano.
5. DREAM TEAM, PART III?
Finally, yours truly had the privilege of covering three world juniors, including the 2005 event in Grand Forks. That 2005 squad, also bolstered by an NHL lockout, featured the greatest Team Canada ever iced at the event. Canada's lineup included Patrice Bergeron, the MVP, along with Sidney Crosby, Dion Phaneuf, Shea Weber, Andrew Ladd, Jeff Carter, Ryan Getzlaf, Braydon Coburn, Corey Perry, Mike Richards and Brent Seabrook. Not surprisingly, they rolled to a 6-0 record while outscoring their victims 41-7 en route to gold.
The first Canadian Dream Team, back in the shortened 1995 season, went 7-0 while being boosted by the likes of Jason Allison, Marty Murray, Alexandre Daigle, Bryan McCabe, Ed Jovanovski and Wade Redden.
Can this team repeat that dominance? Hard to imagine, given the parity in this tournament now, but with six returnees -- Scheifele, Huberdeau, Dougie Hamilton, Scott Harrington, Boone Jenner and Ryan Strome, along with Nugent-Hopkins, who had 52 points with the Edmonton Oilers and played for Canada at the world championships last year -- the star power is overflowing.
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