The world juniors are back amid a dark time for Hockey Canada
Super prospect Connor Bedard headlines a well-stocked Canadian team
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The past year has been problematic, to say the least, for the world junior hockey championship. Last December in Edmonton, organizers tried to barrel through the brunt of the Omicron wave until a series of outbreaks forced them to abandon the tournament after a handful of games. They started over in August, but attendance and viewership cratered as summertime hockey proved a tough sell to an audience that sensed this was more about fulfilling contractual obligations than anything else (Canada won, but you're not alone if you have no memory of this happening).
That hollow August event also took place against the backdrop of an explosive scandal involving Hockey Canada, the national governing body whose roles include choosing national teams and hosting the world juniors when they take place in this country. Last spring, it was revealed that Hockey Canada had quietly settled a lawsuit with a woman who alleges she was sexually assaulted by a group that included members of Canada's 2018 world juniors team at a Hockey Canada function in London, Ont. that summer. It was also discovered that Hockey Canada maintained a secret cash reserve for settling such lawsuits, funded in part by children's registration fees.
The national outcry over these revelations resulted in Hockey Canada losing all of its corporate sponsors and its funding from the federal government. The organization's top executives were hauled up to Parliament Hill for public hearings, and eventually the entire board of directors was forced out along with president and CEO Scott Smith.
Yesterday, the new board announced that the law firm it hired to investigate the alleged 2018 group sexual assault has delivered its report. Hockey Canada is now deciding "what sanction, if any, to impose" on the players allegedly involved, said board chair Hugh Fraser. This process is unfolding behind closed doors because, according to Fraser, "we do not want to jeopardize the ongoing investigation of the London Police Service." The London police reopened the case earlier this year and now reportedly believe they have reasonable grounds to accuse five players of sexual assault.
The next move by Hockey Canada and/or the London police could cast an even darker shadow over this year's world juniors, which officially open on Boxing Day in Halifax and Moncton. During Canada's 6-0 exhibition win over Switzerland on Monday, the absence of Canadian corporate logos on the rink-board signage was a visual reminder of all that's transpired this year. Also notably absent is Russia, which remains banned from international hockey due to the invasion of Ukraine.
Last December, as a rare 16-year-old selection for Canada's world juniors team, Bedard became the youngest player in tournament history to score four goals in a game. The record got erased when the event was scrapped, but Bedard returned in August and dazzled again with some highlight-reel plays as he notched four goals and four assists in seven games. This season with the Regina Pats of the Western Hockey League, Bedard has an absurd 27 goals in 28 games.
The Canadian team also boasts the potential No. 2 pick in the 2023 draft in forward Adam Fantilli. Big, physical and skilled, the 18-year-old freshman has 26 points (including 11 goals) in just 16 games this season for the University of Michigan.
Canada's captain, Shane Wright, was the consensus top prospect in this year's draft — until he wasn't. Wright fell to fourth on draft night, then struggled so badly in his first seven games with the Seattle Kraken that they made him a healthy scratch and then demoted him to the minors. He returned Dec. 6 and scored his first NHL goal, but Seattle agreed to loan him to the Canadian junior team. Read more about Canada's roster for the world juniors here. Read more about Fraser and the new Hockey Canada board's attempts to repair the embattled organization here.