The International Ice Hockey Federation has cancelled dozens of tournaments over the last several months because of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, from marquee events like the 2020 World Championships to smaller junior tournaments for both men’s and women’s hockey.
One of the few remaining tournaments on the schedule is the 2021 World Junior Championships, one of the flagship events in the IIHF calendar. This is where the top under-20 men’s hockey players from around the world compete for their nation and it’s a major event for both hockey fans and NHL teams, who get to see some of their best prospects in action on one of the world’s biggest stages.
In order to pull off the event, the organizers took a page from the NHL. The tournament was originally meant to be hosted by both Edmonton and Red Deer in Alberta, but will now only be in Edmonton in a quarantined bubble, much like the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
At least, that’s the plan.
Team Canada is currently conducting their World Junior camp in Alberta, attempting to pare down the 46 invited players to a final roster of 25. That camp is currently suspended, however, thanks to two positive coronavirus tests, and the entire team is undergoing a 14-day quarantine.
“Hockey Canada has confirmed that all players, coaches, and staff are considered close contacts and are therefore subject to the mandatory 14-day quarantine period under Alberta Health Services’ Order 05-2020,” said Hockey Canada in a statement. “As per Hockey Canada’s safety protocols, all players, coaches, and staff members will go through additional testing before resuming any camp activities.”
The team will reportedly continue to conduct meetings and workouts over Zoom during the two-week quarantine, which is taking place exactly a month before the first games of the tournament are meant to be played on Christmas day. That gives the team time to complete their quarantine and return to training camp, make their roster cuts, and be ready to play.
The question is what happens if Team Canada, or any of the other nine countries participating in the tournament, has positive tests closer to Christmas or even after games have started.
Canada isn’t the only team that has had to suspend activities due to positive COVID-19 tests. Sweden cancelled a camp and several planned games against Finland in early November. The annual “Finnkampen” is a big part of their process of winnowing down their roster, but two players tested positive after travelling to Malmö for the camp. Both players were asymptomatic.
Vancouver Canucks prospects Arvid Costmar and Viktor Persson were part of the Swedish roster for the cancelled camp and games.
A further complication is the situation has changed significantly in Alberta since the Stanley Cup Playoffs. At that time, Alberta Premier Jason Kenny was crowing about Edmonton having juust 49 active COVID-19 cases. As Team Canada announced their quarantine, however, Alberta has declared a state of public health emergency as cases continue to rise across the province. Alberta currently has the third-highest number of active COVID-19 cases in Canada, behind Ontario and Quebec.
With more active cases, it gets harder to operate a completely quarantined bubble for the World Junior tournament. There are always points of contact with the outside world, whether it’s hotel staff, arena crew, or catering. During the Stanley Cup Playoffs, the odds were low that any of those points of contact were carrying the virus and could pass it on to the players; with cases currently much higher, the odds have increased.
That said, the NHL did have a similar experience before the playoffs. Before travelling to Edmonton, the St. Louis Blues had "multiple" positive COVID-19 tests at their training camp. They cancelled practices, quarantined the players, and were able to come back together and travel to Edmonton with no further issues. The NHL didn’t have a single positive test in the bubble during the entire playoffs.
Hopefully the same will be true for the World Juniors.