Holiday tradition: B.C. ready for world junior hockey championship

Officially, it's the International Ice Hockey Federation World Junior Championship, but in Canada it's known simply as the world juniors.

The annual holiday tournament of the top teenaged male hockey players has grown from a niche event hosted in boutique European towns, to a cult classic of a sporting spectacle that in Canada at least, rivals major pro sports in audience and attention.

This year, the tournament returns to British Columbia for the first time since 2005/06, with games split between Vancouver and Victoria, starting on Boxing Day Wednesday and concluding Jan. 5 with the bronze and gold-medal games.

Team Canada poses for a photo after defeating Sweden in last year's gold-medal game at Buffalo, N.Y. (Nathan Denette / The Canadian Press)

Here's what you need to know about this year's world juniors: 

Who's playing? 

Ten teams are drawn into two pools for the opening round. Pool A is based in Vancouver, with games at Rogers Arena. Pool B is based in Victoria, with games at the Save-On-Foods Memorial Centre.

POOL A

  • Canada
  • Czech Republic
  • Denmark
  • Russia
  • Switzerland

POOL B

  • Finland
  • Kazakhstan
  • Slovakia
  • Sweden
  • United States

The top four teams in each pool qualify for the quarter-finals on Jan. 2 in Victoria and Vancouver. The winners advance to the Jan. 4 semifinals in Vancouver, with the bronze and gold-medal games the following day.

Canada's head coach, Tim Hunter, speaks to media following the team's recent selection camp at the Q Centre in Victoria. (Chad Hipolito / The Canadian Press)

When does Canada play? 

Canada begins its schedule Wednesday (Boxing Day) against Denmark. The team's opening-round schedule grows increasingly tougher, ramping up to the New Year's Eve clash against Russia. All games start at 8 p.m. ET.

  • vs. Denmark — Dec. 26
  • vs. Switzerland — Dec. 27
  • vs. Czech Republic —​ Dec. 29
  • vs. Russia  — Dec. 31

Who are the notable players?

The top teams at the tournament are brimming with talent and the stage is always set for unknowns to emerge. 

Jack Hughes — United States

  • The likely first overall selection in next summer's NHL draft, Hughes is expected to be among the stars of the tournament. The 17-year-old is a dynamic skater and puck-handler. He'll anchor a strong American team alongside older brother Quinn, an attacking defenceman selected by the Vancouver Canucks in the first round of last year's draft. Jack is ranked as the top undrafted player by NHL Central Scouting.

American Jack Hughes is expected to be a top pick in the next NHL draft and among the top players at the 2019 World Juniors. (Carlos Osorio / The Associated Press)

Kaapo Kakko — Finland

  • Kakko is likely the most hyped prospect of the tournament after Hughes. Currently playing in Finland's top league against men, Kakko, 17, has the combination of size and puck-handling to dominate games. 

Adam Boqvist — Sweden

  • Boqvist, 18, is an aggressive offensive defenceman who looks to lead the charge from the back. A first-round pick of the Chicago Blackhawks, he's known for his speed and willingness to carry the puck in an effort to model his game after his idol, San Jose Sharks blue-liner Erik Karlsson.

Cody Glass — Canada

  • The Vegas Golden Knights' first-ever draft pick lit up the scoreboard with his junior team last season, scoring 37 goals and 102 points in 64 games for the Portland Winterhawks of the Western Hockey League. Glass, 19, is a fast-skating, physical centre who'll be counted on for leadership as a top-six forward on Team Canada.

Centre Cody Glass, left, was cut from the Canadian team a year ago, but is expected to play a key offensive role on this year's squad. (Aaron Lynett / The Canadian Press)

What are the marquee 1st-round matchups? 

U.S. vs. Slovakia —​ Dec. 26 in Victoria

  • The second game of the tournament and first in the B.C. capital. It'll be the first glimpse at the Americans, led by the Hughes brothers, in a matchup against a Slovakian team that nearly upset last year's silver medallists from Sweden.

Canada vs. Czech Republic —​ Dec. 29 in Vancouver

  • This will be Canada's third game of the tournament and likely toughest to that point after opening against Denmark and Switzerland. The Czechs are a step below the elite tier of teams at the tournament but boast a strong core of skilled offensive players, including NHL first-rounders Filip Zadina (Detroit) and Martin Necas (Carolina) that will test the Canadian defence.

Czech Republic forward Filip Zadina scored seven goals in as many games at last year's world junior tournament. (Jeffrey T. Barnes/Associated Press/File)

Canada vs. Russia —​ Dec. 31 in Vancouver

  • The traditional rivals and gold-medal contenders meet in the final game of pool play on what is traditionally the biggest night of the opening round. The winner of what is typically an emotional contest will earn an easier quarter-final matchup and big boost of momentum entering the elimination round.

Finland vs. United States — Dec. 31 in Victoria

  • The Hughes' vs. Kakko and company in a meeting featuring some of the tournament's highest-profile players and two favoured teams in Pool B.

Canada celebrates its 5-0 goal-medal win over Russia at the 2006 world juniors, the last time B.C. hosted the under-20 tournament. (Ryan Remiorz / CP Photo)

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