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Four days in, a rash of positive tests for Covid-19 have forced the cancellation of the 2022 IIHF World Junior Championship.
“The ongoing spread of Covid-19 and the Omicron variant forced us to readjust our protocols almost immediately upon arrival to attempt to stay ahead of any potential spread,” said IIHF federation president Luc Tardif in a statement. “This included daily testing and the team quarantine requirement when positive cases were confirmed.
“We owed it to the participating teams to do our best to create the conditions necessary for this event to work. Unfortunately, this was not enough. We now have to take some time and focus on getting all players and team staff back home safely.”
The tournament hit its first major speed bump on Tuesday, when two positive tests forced Team USA to forfeit its scheduled game against Switzerland. The defending champions from 2021, the U.S. were prohibitive favorites in the matchup. But the game went into the books as a 1-0 win for the Swiss.
From there, the situation escalated quickly. Wednesday brought reports of positive tests triggering forfeitures by the Czech and Russian teams, plus a long list of complications involving the timing of the teams’ quarantines, close-contact rules and testing requirements.
In short: the bubble, such as it was, had burst.
Last winter, in a pre-vaccine world, Team USA captured gold with a thrilling 2-0 win over Canada. The IIHF and Hockey Canada successfully staged that 2021 World Junior tournament in a strict bubble in Edmonton, with players and team staff isolated from the public and no fans in the stands.
In December of 2020, some players and staff from the German and Swedish teams tested positive upon arrival in Canada and were required to quarantine, but there were no positive tests during the tournament itself. A few pre-tournament games were cancelled, and Germany started the tournament without a full complement of players, but all tournament games were successfully staged and completed.
Normally one of the most lucrative events on the calendar for both the federation and the host broadcaster, Canada’s TSN, the tournament schedule was tweaked so that the 2022 World Juniors could return to both Edmonton and Red Deer, in front of full houses.
Earlier this month, as the Omicron variant began to loom and Covid cases in the region rose, the pre-tournament schedule was adjusted so that each team would play just one game instead of the three games that had originally been scheduled. A positive test, later revealed to be Switzerland’s captain, Simon Knak, led to the cancellation of the pre-tournament game between the Czechs and the Swiss. Knak was ultimately ruled out for the tournament.
Tournament games began on Dec. 26. At that time, the IIHF reported that three players and two officials in total had tested positive during the pre-tournament period.
Even as the competition got underway, organizers weren’t hosting the full houses that they’d hoped for. Local health authorities limited arena capacity to 50%, and forbade the sale and consumption of food and beverages.
Whether fans were concerned about the prospect of contracting the virus, disappointed that they wouldn’t be able to enjoy a typical game experience, or unwilling to make the trip to the games amidst a harsh cold snap in Alberta that saw temperatures drop as low as -30, rinks were well below half full.
On Tuesday at Rogers Place in Edmonton, which has a full capacity of 18,347 for hockey, just 3,862 fans watched 16-year-old Connor Bedard become the youngest player ever to score four goals in a World Junior game on Tuesday, as Canada defeated Austria 11-2 in what proved to be the tournament swan song.
Covid protocols required that players and team staff remained confined to their hotel, team bus and the event venues and were not permitted to have direct interactions with the public or the media. But the general public was permitted in team hotels. Incidental contact in common spaces such as elevators and lobbies was unavoidable.
With the virus currently spreading so easily, even among fully vaccinated individuals, positive tests in these circumstances were, perhaps, also unavoidable.
This outcome is a disappointment on many levels.
It’s disappointing for the players — many of whom, at age 19, won’t ever get another opportunity to compete for gold at a U20 tournament they’ve dreamed of playing in since they were children.
It’s disappointing for the fans — who were teased by special moments like the four-goal game from Bedard and the dazzling offensive prowess of another 2023 draft eligible player, 17-year-old Matvei Michkov of Russia.
Owen Power, the first-overall pick by the Buffalo Sabres in the 2021 NHL draft, also delivered a ‘wow’ debut, becoming the first Canadian defenseman in World Juniors history ever to record a hat trick as the host team opened with a 5-3 win over Czechia.
For tournament organizers including Alberta Health, Alberta Health Services and the Public Health Agency of Canada, this outcome must come as a shock. Over the past two years, these groups collaborated to successfully hold the NHL’s 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs and last year’s World Juniors in Edmonton, as well as staging the 2021 Women’s World Championship in Calgary.
“Hockey Canada has worked tirelessly since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic to ensure it would be equipped to host world-class, international events in a safe and healthy environment,” said Hockey Canada president Scott Smith and CEO Tom Renney in a statement. “Despite our best efforts, and continually adapting and strengthening protocols, we have unfortunately fallen short of our goal of completing the 2022 IIHF World Junior Championship and handing out medals on Jan. 5 due to the challenges of the current Covid-19 landscape.”
For TSN, the cancellation delivers a huge blow to the network’s budget planning for 2022.
And the failure to safely complete the first major tournament under his watch is an inauspicious beginning for new IIHF president Luc Tardif, who took over in September after a 27-year-tenure from Dr. René Fasel.
Does this outcome sound an alarm for February’s Winter Olympics? The NHL has already withdrawn its players, and the final two scheduled games of the women’s Rivalry Series lead-up have been cancelled because a number of Canadian players have tested positive and are now in quarantine.
Earlier in December, the head of the IOC’s Beijing co-ordination commission, Juan Antonio Samaranch, said his group is ready to deal with anything.
Omicron might have other ideas.