"Really, we took the decision based on the safety of the players, the safety of the staff, and all the people working around this tournament,” said IIHF President Luc Tardif. “That was the most important point.”
At the same time, every effort will be made to reschedule not only this elite 10-nation U20 showcase, but also six other tournaments – including the 2022 IIHF Ice Hockey U18 Women’s World Championship, two lower-division U20 men’s tournaments, and three lower-division U18 women’s tournaments – that were slated for January but were cancelled in view of the rapid spread of the Omicron variant during the global COVID-19 pandemic.
So even at this dark time in the hockey world, there is reason for hope. President Tardif’s recurring theme was: “Find a way.”
The press conference also included IIHF Senior Vice-President Petr Briza, IIHF Medical Supervisor Dr. Matt Robins, Hockey Canada CEO Tom Renney, Hockey Canada President and COO Scott Smith, and Hockey Canada Vice-President of Events Dean McIntosh.
“From the outset of the pandemic, we have followed the advice of medical professionals,” Smith said. “It is truly unfortunate that the growing challenges of COVID-19, and especially the Omicron variant, led us to the position we're in today. The decision by the IIHF, which was based on the advice of the medical committee, is a decision that Hockey Canada fully supports.”
Tardif emphasized that the quickly changing COVID-19 situation since 15 December, when the teams arrived, had required updating and tightening safety protocols, increasing testing, and adjusting the protective environment at the host venues as the World Juniors moved along.
As positive test results cropped up, three games in two days were forfeited by the U.S. to Switzerland, Czechia to Finland, and Russia to Slovakia. Getting results as little as two hours before games made things even more complicated and challenging. Under such conditions, both the health of the players and the sporting integrity of the competition were in jeopardy. It was necessary to stop.
“I think we mustn't forget that we’re not only looking at the physical health risks to athletes, but also the disruption,” Dr. Robins added. “A positive test means 10 days isolation. And the impact of that disruption on the health and wellbeing of our young athletes isn't something we should underestimate.”
With all that said, Tardif said that come June, July, or August, after the 2022 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship in Tampere and Helsinki, Finland we could witness a revived 2022 World Juniors. And that’s good news.
“I hope, first of all, it’s not over,” Tardif said. “Yes, it's a cancellation. We cancelled this event. But I don't want and the organizing committee doesn't want to give up on doing this event if it is possible. So we're going to take the next month to think about it and maybe come up with a good surprise. I think we owe that to the young players to give them this important competition.”
There is, naturally, a financial impact from having to cut the current tournament short. It, along with the IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship, as Tardif has noted, provides the wherewithal to run the IIHF’s other tournaments each year. In Edmonton and Red Deer, the original plan was to have arenas at full capacity, but the province of Alberta imposed 50-percent capacity restrictions due to the rapidly evolving Omicron situation.
“Yes, there is a financial impact, but that's not the most important thing,” Tardif said. “Over the last two years, we've cancelled events or played without spectators. So we've gotten used to these kinds of situations. That's why sometimes we have to take a prudent approach. This case also gave us some other experience, because we were happy to start with spectators, but quickly we had to see that differently. But we're going to survive, I can say that. That's why we want to get back on the horse and try to come back and really deliver this competition. That way, it will have less impact.”
While the focus is currently on the World Juniors, the entire IIHF calendar of events is important. And the window of opportunity for revitalizing other cancelled events, as with the World Juniors, awaits in the summer of 2022.
Yesterday in a Q&A (see here), Tardif also said that discussions have been ongoing to find a new venue for the 2022 IIHF Ice Hockey U18 Women’s World Championship at a later date. It was originally planned in January for Linkoping and Mjolby, Sweden, but had to be cancelled.
“While Sweden has expressed its willingness to host the tournament in January 2023, it is not prepared at this time to commit to new dates in the summer of 2022,” said Tardif. “The USA was going to host the 2023 Women’s U18, so maybe there is a solution to be found there?”
“We had to cancel. It’s a tough decision. We don’t like to cancel events. It’s not just one but six tournaments that were cancelled in January. The example of what’s going on here shows that it was a good decision. But it doesn’t mean we don’t want to try to find a way to play it. We are going to work to come back with a proposal for these six tournaments. Please give us the time to come back with a proposal.”
For the time being, the organizers acknowledged the disappointment that hockey lovers everywhere – including participants, fans, players’ families and friends, event staff, tournament volunteers, and media – are feeling about the cancelled World Juniors.
“People are disappointed around the world, quite honestly, and so they should be,” said Renney. “But I cannot imagine how disappointed the players are. They have worked tirelessly to put their best foot forward as an individual, as a team, and as an event. It is with a heavy heart that we identify with their disappointment. We’ve done the very best we can. We came up against an opponent that was not on the ice, but that was bigger than all of us.”
Briza put in perspective how Omicron has impacted the hockey world: “On December 15, the NHL postponed six games.” By now the number has grown to 80 games, which illustrates how quickly Covid-19 impacted hockey. Also in Europe several games and tournaments had to be cancelled. “This is what the whole world is dealing with. We have lost the battle, but I’m sure that we will not lose the war.”
With the New Year around the corner, the work begins anew to find solutions that will get IIHF tournaments at every level back on the ice worldwide in 2022.