The top under-20 men’s players from Czechia, Finland, Sweden and the United States will vie for a spot in the gold medal game during the semifinals of the 2024 World Junior Championship on Thursday.
The best women in that age group won’t have the chance. They never have.
Since 1977 the IIHF has sanctioned a men’s world juniors. The world’s best female hockey players compete in annual under-18 and senior national championships, tournaments which began years after their male counterparts. And even though the women’s game is rapidly growing — look no further than what will be a multi-million dollar investment into the professional game with the PWHL — there is still no women’s world juniors.
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 The Athletic. “It’s been (our) dream to make this happen.”
There have been discussions with the IIHF about a potential women’s world juniors within the last year, Million said, but in recent committee meetings the idea has been voted down largely because other nations outside the U.S. and Canada aren’t ready to add another team to their women’s programming.
It’s true that Canada and the U.S. have dominated at the under-18 level, just as their senior teams have — no other nation has won a U18 gold medal since the tournament started in 2008. But there has been noticeable growth. Last year, Sweden beat Team USA in the semifinals and won a second silver medal after making it to the gold medal game 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 most obvious example of growth in international women’s hockey. If the IIHF had decided women’s hockey wasn’t ready for a 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 critique of all levels of women’s international hockey has typically been that Canada and the U.S. are going to win everything, so what’s the point? It’s a stale argument.
Because what’s also true is that two countries have dominated the men’s world juniors over its nearly 50-year history. Canada and Russia, or formerly the 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 only missed the podium a 13 times. Only six teams have ever won over five decades of competition.
Since 2013, only Canada (5), Finland (3), and the U.S. (3) have won gold.
If you’re OK with two or three teams dominating a men’s tournament, why is it a problem when it happens with women?
Team Canada has been dominant at the world juniors — their early exit at this year’s tournament notwithstanding — and this has become entwined with national pride and making hockey “Canada’s Game.” Why do we celebrate this, and then use Canadian women’s dominance as a reason to not play?
It’s entirely possible, even with two teams at the top, to grow interest in a niche product. That’s what the men’s world juniors was before TSN bought the rights in 1991. Now it’s must-see TV, particularly in Canada because of 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, the media and how they’ve been able to spin a tournament into this Canadian tradition. I think we can do the same thing with women’s events.”
With the right partners, and money, of course.
But besides all that, a women’s world juniors would be vital for the overall health of women’s hockey and would provide a critical — and missing — opportunity for development.
Under-18 or -19 female hockey players, for the most part, are well served. There are club team championships and U18 nationals in Canada. USA Hockey has national championships for 19U girls. And, of course, there’s the IIHF under-18 world championships.
But very few players in North America can jump from U18s or high school hockey right to the senior women’s national team — Marie-Philip Poulin, who went from U18 worlds to senior worlds in 2008-09, is one of the few to have done it — which creates a large gap in opportunity for the top players in the sport. Team USA and Canada have played an under-22 series since 1999 — it’s now called the collegiate series — but that’s typically only three games played in August.
“Those kids that are on a U18 team, we don’t see them again until they’re maybe junior, senior in college or post-grad,” Million explained. “It only helps our development of those players to have that touch point when they’re younger and keep them in our culture and playing our systems.”
An under-20 team would expose decision-makers in the game to a potentially different set of players at a critical point in their careers, or provide more touch points for the development of stars from their under-18 years. Players are different at 19 years old than they are at 17 — some take off, others might go the other way — but there is no perfect way for national teams to track that progress other than scouting college teams.
“There is almost this forgotten group of players,” said Nurse. “You see girls at 16, 17, 18 years old and send them off to college. And they have to hope that our GM or scouts are at games at the right times and are talking to the right people.”
Take Claire Thompson as a recent example. The Canadian defender did not make an under-18 national team before heading off to Princeton in 2016 and was only spotted by Team Canada scouts who were sent to watch her teammate Sarah Fillier. Thompson was quickly invited to the under-22 team and went on to set a record at the 2022 Olympics for points by a defender.
“Imagine a player like that slipping through the cracks,” said Nurse.
It would also provide the opportunity for players who are too old for U18s and just outside the senior team to continue to play important games.
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 time. She should be squarely in the mix to make the 2024 world championship roster, but if she’s not quite ready she won’t have any national team opportunities until USA Hockey’s annual August training camp. And then she wouldn’t play in international competition until the 2025 worlds, should she make that roster.
Of course someone like Edwards can continue to develop in college, but it would only aid her development to get into competitive international games.
Player development is not just about Team Canada and Team USA anymore, either. Not with the first-ever PWHL season officially underway. Men’s world juniors offers not just one of the most prestigious stages for young hockey players, but an opportunity to significantly boost their draft stock heading into the NHL Draft.
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Let’s consider TSN for a moment again. The network promotes the world juniors as an opportunity to watch the future legends of the game before they become legends. One promo for the 2023 world juniors said, “Before they were household names they were here on TSN.”
Women’s hockey players should be afforded the same opportunity, to not just grow as players, but to announce themselves on a big stage. Fans, too, deserve to know who to watch for, or who to hope their favorite team drafts in the first round of the PWHL Draft.
So, what next? And what could this look like?
At first, it could be as simple as Canada and the U.S. expanding their national team offerings. Each summer, Canada’s U18 and Collegiate teams face off in a mini-series. Maybe they could add an under-20 — next generation — rivalry series to the mix.
Or maybe, instead of a 10-team tournament like the men’s world juniors, 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 might not have enough U20 players for a full roster to be in the mix.
What a women’s world junior offering might look like remains to be seen. The timing is even more challenging to predict.
Hopefully these decisions are made soon, though. Because every year that goes by is another missed opportunity to grow the game.
(Photo: Dennis Pajot / Getty Images)