What was the process behind the decision to cancel the January events?
The IIHF Council was called for an extra-ordinary meeting by the Chairman of the IIHF Medical Committee on 23rd December. During the Council meeting the medical committee outlined its recommendation to cancel all six tournaments beginning in January, two men’s Under-20 and four women’s Under-18 tournaments including the top division.
We have followed the recommendations of the medical committee on every tournament cancellation that was initiated last year. Their recommendations were correct every single time.
What was the exact recommendation of the committee?
The medical committee is of the opinion that the Omicron variant is spreading rapidly, is highly contagious and resistant to vaccines, and that with teams from the six events that were planned the risk was too great for the teams participating and there would likely be an overwhelming number of COVID-19 cases.
The IIHF COVID-19 Protocols for the January Championship were not written to cover the situation we are currently in with respect to COVID-19 and the Omicron variant. Many teams, simply do not have the manpower and resources to implement our current COVID-19 Protocols, let alone stricter protocols, and the organizers did not have the funds to implement increased testing protocols and a strict bubble environment.
The IIHF has a duty of care to all players in our tournaments, especially to minors. With the knowledge we currently have on the COVID-19 situation, if we were to host four women’s Under-18 tournaments, two men’s Under-20 tournaments against the recommendation of our medical committee this would be both irresponsible and a breach in our duty of care to all players, and to the parents of our underage players.
The IIHF Council was elected to take difficult decisions - and we do so - because that is our responsibility.
If this is the case, how were the World Juniors able to go ahead?
The situation with the World Junior teams was that they were already in the protected environment by the time the recommendation was made.
It was determined that we would apply additional protocols against the Omicron variant, such as daily testing and the cancellation of most of the exhibition games and attempt to get from the team arrival on the 15th to the start of the event on the 26th with all teams able to play. This was achieved with a minimal number of cases.
The key point here is that there was no longer a travel risk for the team as they had already arrived, while the January teams had yet to travel.
To put this into context, there were 8 NHL games postponed when the teams entered their arrival quarantine on the 15th, by the time we had accepted the recommendation to cancel the January events on the 23rd there were 62 total NHL games postponed. That is how quickly the situation has changed.
Was there a discussion to postpone the tournaments instead of cancelling?
Yes, there was a discussion, but for a tournament to be postponed there has to be a joint decision between the IIHF, the host nation, and the participating teams.
Sweden’s host organizing committee confirmed that it would not be easy to host the event during the proposed March-April window, due to men’s and women’s’ league commitments within the two cities. Without the host nation it is a non-starter.
Following the cancellation of the Women’s World Championship by the Nova Scotia government in May 2021, the IIHF worked with Hockey Canada and the participating teams to find a new host city and a new set of dates. 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. USA was going to host the 2023 Women’s U18, so maybe there is a solution to be found there?
Is there a possibility to move the event to another country?
The hosting rights rest with Sweden, and they made it clear that they are unable to move the event to a new date within the season as the arenas are not available.
In order to move the event to another country, Sweden must give up its hosting rights and then another host has to assume the responsibility for the tournament. Once all alternatives are evaluated, the IIHF Council could revoke the cancellation and award the tournament to a new host.
However at this time, this responsibility is not an easy one to assume. Under the current environment and with the new IIHF protocols that will need to be put in place we are talking about a serious investment not only from the IIHF but also from the host organizer.
An organizer has to be ready to follow IIHF protocols and take responsibility for the health and safety of the players. This can include requirements for charter flights and a bubble tournament to organize and finance, notwithstanding any further requirement placed by governments or health authorities.
That said, we have been in contact with representatives from USA Hockey asking us to reconsider the cancellation. We look forward to having constructive discussions with them to see whether there might be such a possibility. But first we need a host that is willing to take this on, and dates that work for all teams.
What do you say in response to the criticism that has been levelled at the IIHF over the decision to cancel the U18s while playing the World Juniors?
This is not a gender issue, this is a COVID-19 issue. I would ask in turn how is it fair to postpone all the time the top divisions and always to simply cancel the lower divisions? These cancellations have affected six tournaments, not just one, including two men’s U20 event that critics seem to conveniently forget.
In a normal season, we are not cancelling anything. The IIHF is not in the business of cancelling tournaments, we are here to play tournaments. But we are battling circumstances that are out of our control, and to be perfectly honest we have to think of the future too.
Is there an economic incentive to host the men’s World Championship and World Juniors every year no matter what? Absolutely. But people misunderstand that this is because we favour men’s hockey over women’s, which is completely false. The revenue generated from these two events enables our federation to survive and support the operation of all other IIHF World Championship events. So if I have to make every effort to host a specific tournament to ensure the survival of other events, then it is my responsibility as IIHF President to do this.
The IIHF has run a women’s hockey program since 1990, and was instrumental in the integration of women’s hockey into the Olympic program in 1992. Our women’s championship program has grown to encompass over 12 women’s senior and U18 tournaments and include the participation of 44 of our 82 Member National Associations. Our commitment to women’s hockey is longstanding, legitimate, and substantial.
I and the new IIHF Council believe in women’s hockey, we are committed to investing in women’s hockey now and into the future. We empathize with the players and fans of the game, and we look forward to returning to a full Championship program.
What is the economic impact of these cancellations?
In the case of a cancelled event, the IIHF reimburses travel costs to the teams and a certain amount of hosting costs to the organizer. These will be losses that the IIHF and the host organizer will have to take on. This was the case last year and will be the same this year.
Prior to being elected IIHF President I sat on the Council as IIHF Treasurer and it was apparent to me that the nature of our tournaments is becoming inherently unsustainable under the COVID-19 environment.
Testing costs are skyrocketing, and having to organize team arrivals earlier and earlier increases hosting costs exponentially. We will have to find a way to address this in the right way if the IIHF is to remain healthy financially.
Anything else to add?
I am disappointed in the cancellations, but more disappointed that there are statements saying that the IIHF is treating women like second-class people.
Anyone that knows me knows how much I did to promote women’s hockey as the founding president of the French Ice Hockey Association and in my opening months of my term.
In the three months that the new IIHF Council has been operating we have tripled the Olympic support, including prize money, for national teams travelling to the Games and to the Olympic qualifications.
We recently approved to give the IIHF Women’s Committee one of the biggest budget of all committees, and for the first time ever a woman will sit on the IIHF Executive Committee. The new IIHF committee structure will have a record number of women participating.
We are starting to push the IOC to raise the women’s Olympic tournament to 12 teams like we did with the men’s, and will have the Women’s World Championship in Olympic years. We have included a women’s hockey addition to the Flying Coaches development program.
As IIHF President and speaking for the Council we ask to be judged at the end of this story, not at the beginning and during a period where hosting tournaments and travel across borders has become increasingly difficult due to the pandemic and the countermeasures at all government levels in the fight against COVID-19. Don’t shoot the ambulance!