By Ethan Theophilos
The World Junior Hockey Championships have been cancelled less than a week into the tournament. For the second year in a row, Edmonton hosted the annual event organized by the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF). The champion was supposed to be crowned on January 5, 2022, but the spread of the Omicron variant means this exciting series had to come to an end earlier than we had all hoped.
Though unprecedented, the decision to stop only four days into the tournament was not surprising since, by then, players had begun to test positive and games had to be forfeited. Perhaps the bigger surprise was that the World Juniors were held at all. Professional sports leagues around the globe had been postponing or suspending games over the past two weeks, including the NHL and NBA.
In fact, the IIHF had decided to cancel the upcoming Women’s World U18 Championship on Christmas Eve, the day before the men’s tournament was scheduled to begin. This raised some eyebrows; why were the women treated differently? At the time of the cancellation, it was already clear that Omicron posed a public health risk. Were the young men any less vulnerable than the young women would have been?
Further questions were raised regarding the precautions put in place by the IIHF to protect players against COVID-19. In previous IIHF-sanctioned tournaments such as the 2021 World Juniors and the 2021 World Championships, there was a much tighter bubble placed around the athletes. Hotels were booked exclusively for players, coaches and tournament staff. Each player had their own private room, and their movements in and out of the hotel were strictly controlled.
The Athletic’s Scott Wheeler reported that for this tournament, players shared rooms with one another, and indeed also shared their hotels with the public. There was even a wedding reception at which hotel guests shared elevators with players. While we will never know for sure, it’s probable that the IIHF’s looser restrictions contributed to the spread of Omicron and the eventual cancellation of this year’s World Juniors.
Not everyone is critical of the IIHF. Defenders point out that when the ten national hockey teams began arriving in Edmonton in mid-December to begin their pre-tournament quarantines, the number of cases of the Omicron variant had not yet exploded. The same people suggest that it is not fair for the IIHF to be blamed for their reaction to a COVID-19 variant that has caught officials all over the world by surprise. While there is some element of truth to this line of reasoning, it doesn’t explain why the IIHF loosened restrictions while the very contagious Delta variant was still a major risk.
IIHF President Luc Tardif has promised that all of the cancelled tournaments will be rescheduled for later in 2022. Unfortunately, some of the expected participants will no longer be available for their last chance to win a World Championship. Let’s hope that future tournaments will not be affected by COVID-19.