Damien Cox: Christmas without world junior hockey is the only safe play, as much as it would hurt

Canada

Some say it’s about lifting the spirits of the country. Fair enough.

So why does it feel like it’s actually more about making money off unpaid teenage hockey players?

Holding the world junior hockey championship in Edmonton is starting to look like a very questionable proposition, with Canada’s camp shut down for the next two weeks because of a COVID outbreak on the team.

If the tournament were to be cancelled, it would certainly be a shame. For the kids involved, for starters. For Canadian hockey fans, desperate to get a fix of the sport they love at a time of year that has become a television tradition. For Hockey Canada, which uses income from the tournament to fund other national programs. For TSN, which could sorely use the hockey programming after being left out of the NHL’s bubble production in the summer.

For Canada, finally, having the tournament take place on schedule would be at least a small step toward normalcy.

“That’s why we’re working so hard to make sure the world juniors work,” Edmonton Oilers chairman Bob Nicholson told Sportsnet.ca. “It helps us get people back working, and it makes the building alive again. It’s just good for morale.”

So far, nobody’s talking openly about shutting down the tournament, which was to take place in Edmonton and Red Deer but will now be limited to the Alberta capital. But the question is certainly starting to circulate in hockey circles.

Alberta, after all, is having a terrible time with the coronavirus these days, with numbers soaring after weeks of a laissez-faire approach by the provincial government. Alberta now has the most active cases of any province, and this week Premier Jason Kenney announced new restrictions on indoor social gatherings, schools and retail outlets.

All of that naturally makes you think Edmonton, which is at the centre of the second wave in that province, may not be the ideal place right now to gather more than 200 teenage players from Canada, the U.S. and Europe plus the various staff from 10 international hockey federations.

In a year in which the Grey Cup, Wimbledon, the British Open and IIHF world championship have all been cancelled, it does seem strange that the world juniors are stubbornly plunging ahead:

  • The world under-17 and junior-A challenges have already been called off.
  • The IIHF women’s world under-18 tournament was cancelled.
  • The NHL hasn’t announced a return date yet.
  • Outside of the Quebec league, there’s no major junior hockey being played in the Great White North right now. Both the Ontario Hockey League and the Western Hockey League are planning on starting their seasons in early 2021.
  • Down south, a two-game series between Lake Superior State and Ferris State set for this weekend had to be cancelled because of a coronavirus outbreak on the Ferris State team.
  • Games in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association have also been wiped out, while most of the men’s and women’s games scheduled for this weekend in Hockey East were postponed.
  • In Europe, a series of games between the national junior programs of Finland and Sweden were postponed because of coronavirus concerns.
  • Edmonton organizers, meanwhile, have already announced they won’t be bringing in any game officials from outside Canada for the world junior tournament as an extra precaution.

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Get the picture? Given all this, why is it so important for the world juniors to be played?

It’s understood that Team Canada and the tournament in general are following all the necessary protocols, and that the NHL’s success during the summer provides a working model with a record of success.

But this isn’t the NHL, with all its resources, and this isn’t August. Once upon a time, Alberta was doing better than most of the country in fighting the virus; now it’s doing worse.

With less than a month to go before the world juniors open, and with the Canadian camp closed until at least Dec. 6, we’ve probably already reached the eleventh hour in terms of deciding whether the competition should go ahead.

Obviously, these young men, particularly those in their draft year, want to be seen by NHL clubs. This may be one of their few chances this season. But this seems to be more about television arrangements between Hockey Canada and TSN, and about money. There is no other place in the world, don’t forget, where this tournament can generate the revenue it generates when played in Canada.

IIHF president Rene Fasel said the men’s world championship and the world juniors are the organization’s biggest money makers.

“The revenue that we receive from our top events goes to support all of the 30-plus tournaments that we hold each year,” Fasel told ESPN.com. “If these tournaments cannot run, we could not support any of the others.”

Clearly, the priorities here are in conflict. Hockey fans need hockey. Hockey Canada, TSN and the IIHF need business. Hockey prospects need exposure.

But health concerns should trump everything.

Bringing together teenage players from across Canada, the U.S., Russia, Finland, Sweden, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Switzerland, Austria and Germany in a Canadian province struggling terribly with the coronavirus is asking for trouble. With every other major international hockey tournament cancelled, it just doesn’t make any sense to hold this one.

Unless it really is just about the money.

Damien Cox

Damien Cox is a former Star sports reporter who is a current freelance contributing columnist based in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter: @DamoSpin

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