The 2013 IIHF U18 World Junior Championship gets underway on Thursday. The teams are ready in Sochi, Russia, the host city of the 2014 Winter Olympic Games being held next year. Group A of this U18 features much anticipated matchups between the hosts of the event, Russia, a perennial contender and winner of four past WJC's at the Under-18 level, and the United States, powered by their smart National Team Development Program (U.S. NTDP).
Two other countries looking to either prove that they belong among the elite of youth hockey (Finland) or get back to fishing for a medal, awakening after a couple of subpar performances (Czech Republic) have been included in Group A. Latvia will compete in this group, as well, but it would be nothing but a huge surprise if they manage to steal at least some points from their much stronger opponents. The Baltic state succeeded in avoiding relegation at the last U18 WJC that took place in the Czech Republic, and this will definitely be their goal for this year's tournament, as well.
At last year's Under-18 World Championships, Team USA put together a team that developed into what seemed to be an unstoppable machine, as the final result of the gold-medal game was a decisive 7-0 victory over Sweden. The most interesting thing about that US team was the fact that they had no big offensive stars and instead relied mostly on amazingly precise team play. Russia will definitely be their toughest challenger in the preliminary round, having a lot to prove as the host country of the tournament. Failing to come back home with a medal last year, their passion to avoid ending up empty-handed once again should power them.
Finland belongs among the youth hockey elite every year, always bringing a solid mix of skill and toughness to the championship, while the Czech Republic needs to rebound after a couple of unsuccessful Under-18 WJC's. Last year's Czech team lacked big names and had little chance to make anything happen, but this time, U20 WJC participants, defenseman Jan Štencel and second-year U18 national team wonder, Linköping, Sweden-based forward Jakub Vrána, will represent their country at what might be the return of the Czechs to the elite of youth hockey . Said another way, none of the top four from Group A should be underestimated.
Next: Czech Republic