A world junior men’s hockey championship like no other opens Friday in Edmonton with zero spectators and teams walled off from the general public because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Defending champion Canada opens the tournament Saturday against Germany.
Shorter in duration with fewer personnel than when the NHL post-season “bubble” started, the 12-day, 10-country tournament is still a major logistical undertaking for Hockey Canada and the host committee.
That it wasn’t cancelled along with so many other International Ice Hockey Federation tournaments in 2020 indicates a determination to televise live games to hockey fans looking for a distraction from the pandemic’s grim effect on lives and the economy.
The Alberta government didn’t pull the plug on the tournament despite a spike in cases in the pandemic’s second wave.
WATCH | World Juniors to proceed despite COVID-19:
Hockey Canada vice-president of events Dean McIntosh said the province has been “incredibly supportive.”
“We have an opportunity to give Canadians a gift here at Christmas time as well,” McIntosh said. “The holiday season, the tradition of the world juniors has been great.”
The tournament generated a $22-million profit the last time it was held in Alberta in 2012.
That money was split between Hockey Canada, the Canadian Hockey League, the IIHF, Hockey Alberta and the minor hockey associations of host cities Edmonton and Calgary.
But ticket revenue this year from a tournament that regularly does big business in Canada will be limited to buyers who don’t ask for a refund, but instead keep their tickets for the 2022 tournament awarded back to Edmonton and Red Deer, Alta.
The teenage players must follow the same protocols NHL players did in August and September such as daily tests and regular temperature checks, but with the addition of contact-tracing beacons embedded in their event credentials.
When they’re not on the ice, players are largely confined to their team’s floor in one of two hotels.
Unlike the NHL hub in the summer and early fall, Edmonton’s winter temperatures aren’t conducive to shooting hoops and hanging around food trucks in the hotel courtyard.
‘Bubble’ life a second time
Entry into the 2021 tournament secure zone was bumpy with positive COVID-19 test results eliminating six pre-tournament games and extending quarantines for both Sweden and Germany.
Sweden overhauled its coaching staff before departing for Canada because the head coach and three assistants tested positive for the virus.
Canada’s selection camp was interrupted by a 14-day quarantine after two players tested positive.
Russia, United States, Sweden, the Czech Republic and Austria comprise Pool B.
The top four teams in each group advance to quarterfinals Jan. 2, followed by semifinals Jan. 4 and the championship game Jan. 5.
Depending on the COVID-19 situation and restrictions in their respective countries, the number of league games each player has under his belt coming into the tournament varies widely.
There are Canadian and American players who haven’t appeared in a real game in months because the Western and Ontario major junior leagues won’t start until 2021.
A handful of players are living hockey “bubble” life a second time after experiencing it with their respective NHL teams this past summer.
No relegation round this year helps countries like Slovakia, Germany and Austria, which are assured a return trip to Alberta for the 2022 world junior tournament.
Countries that might have earned promotion can’t because the second-tier championship was cancelled.
OHL delays start again
The Ontario Hockey League has delayed the February start of its 2020-21 season.
The OHL announced Wednesday the season will not start on Feb. 4, the date targeted earlier this year. Players were scheduled to report to their teams in early January.
The decision follows Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s decision to put the entire province into lockdown starting Saturday as cases surge during the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“At this point we do not have any further guidance from the chief medical officer of health to allow them to return to play,” said MacLeod. “That work is ongoing.
“Right now we’re focused on getting our health-care system at a capacity where it’s not overloaded. That’s our No. 1 priority.”
MacLeod said that any decision to cancel the season would be up to the OHL.
The Quebec Major Junior Hockey League is the only one of three Canadian major-junior hockey leagues to have started play this season. Play was suspended Dec. 1, with the league saying it hopes to return with its 12 Quebec teams playing in four markets in late January. No date has been set for the return of the QMJHL’s six teams in Atlantic Canada.
The Western Hockey League had hoped to start its season in January, but announced another delay earlier this month.