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‘Big four’ set to sweep world junior medals yet again

Russia teammates jump off their bench to celebrate after defeating Switzerland during a shoot out during quarter-final IIHF World Junior Championships hockey action in Ufa, Russia on Wednesday, Jan. 2, 2013.

Reuters

Thank goodness for the Swiss.

They've been threatening upsets all throughout the world juniors this year, right up until Wednesday's dramatic shootout loss to the Russians in the quarter-finals, and have added some intrigue to the standings where it looked like there may be none.

It was certainly a better effort than the Czechs' 7-0 meltdown against the U.S.

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But with Switzerland now eliminated, here's the sad truth for this tournament: The same four countries that have won every medal the past six years will sweep the podium again this year for the seventh straight time.

Yes, this has become an event dominated by the big dogs, with Canada, Russia, the U.S. and Sweden taking home 26 of the 30 medals given out the past decade, including every gold and silver over that span.

The only interlopers have been the Finns (with three bronze medals between 2003 and 2006) and the Czechs (one bronze in 2005).

That's one of the reasons why I don't think you can call it the "Big Seven" in international play any more: Those four countries have clearly separated themselves from the rest of the group.

Here's a look at who has finished where since 2007, when the "Big Four" took over:

Country

2007

2008

2009

2010

2011

2012

Canada

1

1

1

2

2

3

Russia

2

3

3

6

1

2

USA

3

4

5

1

3

7

Sweden

4

2

2

3

4

1

Finland

6

6

7

5

6

4

Czech Rep.

5

5

6

7

7

5

Slovakia

8

7

4

8

8

6

Switzerland

7

9

DNQ

4

5

8

The same teams winning again and again is hardly great for international hockey, but there doesn't appear to be a way to break the trend.

There's now a clear division between those top four teams and the next four, with the countries below that (Latvia and Germany this year) clearly not having much of a chance to ever factor into the tournament.

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I've heard from hockey people involved in the youth systems in Finland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia the past few years that they're having issues – especially in the latter two – and it's hurt the competitive balance internationally. Likely for years to come.

If you look at the NHL, for example, those three countries' top players are all mostly into their 30s, with the golden era of Czech hockey, when they were winning Olympic (1998) and world junior (2000 and 2001) gold, ancient history.

(Just try and name an offensive superstar under 30 for any of the three countries...)

The good news is that at least Switzerland has improved dramatically since then, joining that second tier and, as we saw this year, showing the ability to challenge the top dogs in big games.

"An NHL GM told me the Swiss have come further in last 10 years than any other hockey nation," TSN's Ray Ferraro tweeted after Wednesday's game.

Their pro league, as evidenced by the number of NHLers wanting to play there during the lockout, is top notch, and that's helped by elevating the level of play there and bringing top level international coaches to those teams.

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More and more Swiss kids are playing in the Canadian junior leagues and getting drafted, and there were seven skaters in the NHL last season from the country.

Back in 2004, prior to the last lockout, they didn't have any regulars in the league outside the crease.

That said, it could be another decade until Switzerland is ready to challenge for a medal on a regular basis.

Until then, expect a whole lot of Canada, Russia, the U.S. and Sweden in the semi-finals, just as we'll see on Thursday.

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About the Author
Hockey Reporter

James joined The Globe as an editor and reporter in the sports department in 2005 and now covers the NHL and the Toronto Maple Leafs. More

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