2022 World Juniors: Train wreck from opening puck drop

Alright, I’ve had about a week to cool down over this one. Albeit it didn’t help much – I’m still pretty ticked off, as are a lot of people.

I have no idea what the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) was thinking when it came time for the 2022 World U20 Championship, more affectionately known as the ‘World Juniors’ to the regular and even casual hockey fan. By now it’s common knowledge that this year’s tournament, which annually showcases the emerging junior-aged talents from across the top hockey nations of the world, was cancelled after only three days of competition due to concerns over the health and safety of participants due to rising COVID-19 cases and the emerging prevalence of the highly-transmissible Omicron variant.

Man, am I sick of writing those words.

This should come as zero surprise to all involved, as the IIHF apparently had little concern for their health and safety in the first place.

Held in Alberta – Edmonton and Red Deer specifically – for the second straight year, tournament officials must have developed a drastic onset of amnesia when putting together the 2022 edition. Or they just let outright greed get to them. I’m leaning towards the latter. In 2021, the World Juniors was conducted entirely in a bubble format, with no spectators in attendance and each of the 10 teams highly restricted to essentially only internal operations for the duration of the two-week affair. The result: Aside from a couple initial hiccups in the early goings and a player or two that was a late scratch due to a positive COVID test, the tournament was played in its entirety with zero outbreaks.

Not as exciting without the crowd certainly, but still highly entertaining. And of course also highly beneficial for the young players looking to increase their professional draft stock on junior hockey’s biggest stage.

Yes, last year was a tightly-run ship. Certainly a more expensive one due to the absence of spectators and increased safety measures. The tournament was localized entirely to Edmonton’s Rogers Place to ensure those additional safety and quarantine measures. And if 2021 could be considered a Swiss watch considering the circumstances, 2022 could only be regarded as a barely-functioning Casio with a broken band and a smashed face.

Certainly there was testing, testing, testing for all those involved. But all that testing only goes so far when everyone taking part has free reign and countless contacts within a province that hasn’t exactly had a tip-top pandemic track record since the beginning. Spectator capacity was limited to 50 per cent only a couple days before the tournament was scheduled to begin on Boxing Day, some last-minute logistical headaches for sure. What I couldn’t understand is why teams were put up in public hotels where anyone and everyone could potentially spread the virus to players, coaches, support staff and the media. And of course, that’s exactly what happened.

A Slovakian goaltender had some choice words for the IIHF’s management of the 2022 tournament, calling it “a joke,” and that it “felt like I am participating at some basic youth hockey tournament.” He went on to say that there was even a wedding taking place at one of the hotels that was housing teams. Super! Super spreader, perhaps more accurately.

As soon as that first game on Dec. 28 was axed due to a couple positive tests on the American team, I knew the writing was on the wall. Tournament rules stated that should a team be forced to forfeit a game due to a potential COVID outbreak, the opposing team would automatically pick up the victory and earn those valuable points in the round robin standings. So right there the actual final results would be skewed. Would the best team truly win? We didn’t have the chance to find out after more games were cancelled the following day, and then entire tournament itself quickly after.

What a waste of time and resources. National teams attending this tournament – especially the European clubs – had to put up substantial finances for travel, accommodations and general team support, not to mention potentially putting their health at risk to participate. The IIHF did very little to make things more comfortable for that latter item of note.

Following the cancellation, IIHF President Luc Tardif Sr. stated that a committee would meet at a later date in the winter in an attempt to perhaps salvage the tournament, saying “We want to take the next month to think about it and maybe come with a good surprise.” I have no idea what that means exactly, but if he expects to somehow reschedule the World Juniors for this year, good luck. It’s not happening. Players have their regular team commitments to consider, and come the summer there is the draft, jobs, schooling, training and a myriad of other things for them to consider.

Certainly attempting to re-attend another poorly-organized tournament will not be at the top of their priorities, and who could blame them. When a governing body only has its eyes on the financial prize, everything else is an apparent afterthought. As the 2022 World Juniors now unfortunately are.

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This is a bi-weekly opinion column; for question or comment contact Dan McNee at dmcnee@midwesternnewspapers.com.

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