World junior hockey tournament cancelled as more players test positive for COVID-19
Event cancelled to ensure 'health and safety of all participants,' says IIHF
The continued forfeiture of games due to COVID-19 ended the world junior men's hockey championship in Alberta after just four days.
A third game forfeited in two days left the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF), Hockey Canada and the organizing committee with few options to continue a tournament with competitive integrity, and they called off the 11-day, 10-country event in Edmonton and Red Deer, Alta., on Wednesday.
The IIHF's men's under-20 championship got underway on Sunday, but players testing positive for the virus put defending champion United States, Russia and Czechia into mandatory quarantines by Wednesday, when nine of 31 games had actually been played.
"We saw it was impossible to continue this competition in a fair way," IIHF president Luc Tardif said at a video media conference.
The Americans and Czechs were scheduled to play back-to-back games this week, which left little time for additional testing to clear players to get on the ice.
"We had to do other tests after a positive test, but sometimes results were coming two hours before a game," Tardif said. "That was not an easy situation for the two teams knowing if the game will be played or not."
WATCH l IHF world juniors is latest event cancelled due to COVID-19:
Tardif didn't rule out rescheduling the junior tournament in Alberta later in 2022, with all players eligible to participate even if they've turned 20.
"Unfortunate to see the World Juniors cancelled," Alberta Premier Jason Kenney wrote in a Twitter post. "Thank-you to everyone in Red Deer and Edmonton who worked so hard to host this tournament, especially the volunteers.
"I have told Hockey Canada that Alberta would be keen to host a follow-up tournament when conditions permit."
Two Americans testing positive forced the forfeiture of Tuesday's game in Red Deer to the Swiss. A Czech player and a Russian player testing positive meant the forfeiture of Wednesday's games involving those teams and Finland and Slovakia respectively.
Canada was scheduled to play its third preliminary-round game on Wednesday night against Germany in Edmonton.
'We know this is the right decision': Hockey Canada
"We've done the very best we can," Hockey Canada chief executive officer Tom Renney said. "We came up against an opponent that was not on the ice, but that was bigger than all of us, and regretfully we've had to cancel this event."
"Hockey Canada has worked tirelessly since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic to ensure it would be equipped to host world-class, international events in a safe and healthy environment," Hockey Canada said in a statement attributed to both president Scott Smith and to Renney.
"Despite our best efforts, and continually adapting and strengthening protocols, we have unfortunately fallen short of our goal of completing the 2022 IIHF World Junior Championship and handing out medals on Jan. 5 due to the challenges of the current COVID-19 landscape.
"Since the beginning of the pandemic, we have always made the health and safety of event participants and the community at large a priority, and given the news that we have encountered positive cases within the World Juniors environment, we understand and support the decision to cancel the remainder of the event," the statement said.
"Although we know this is the right decision, we sympathize with all participants who have earned the opportunity to represent their countries on the world stage and that will not be able to realize that dream in its entirety."
WATCH l IIHF cancels world junior hockey championship due to COVID-19:
The 2021 junior tournament in Edmonton, which was the first IIHF tournament held during the pandemic, crossed the finish line with the U.S. beating Canada in the final.
Protocols for the 2022 edition were established before the Omicron variant surge in December that postponed more than 60 NHL games and prompted the IIHF to cancel six January tournaments.
"We were very much playing catch-up here with an evolving situation," IIHF medical supervisor Matt Robins said. "We're just playing catch-up with a very infectious variant."
Teams had agreed to operate under a "protective environment" and had their own dedicated floors in hotels, Hockey Canada vice-president of operations Dean McIntosh said.
Officials were questioned about team accommodation in Red Deer, however, where public events were held at their hotel.
"We did have a couple of small events that were to take place in the hotel at the far end of the conference room that was not in direct interaction with the players," McIntosh said.
"We gave the teams every indication that this was moving forward and advised the teams of opportunities they had to avoid that, so they didn't need to go to that area of the hotel."
After teams arrived in Alberta on Dec. 15, they were quarantined and tested before they were cleared to skate.
Three players and two officials tested positive for the virus before the tournament started. The pre-tournament schedule was reduced to one game per team, with the Czechs and Swiss unable to play any warm-up games.
The cancellation breaks a run of 44 consecutive years of the IIHF's world men's junior tournament.
"In our opinion, stopping the World Championship is a reasonable decision," Lars Weibel, the Swiss Ice Hockey Federation's director of national teams, wrote in a Twitter post.
"In view of the current situation, it is unfortunately no longer possible to guarantee a fair tournament at sporting level."
With files from CBC Sports