Restrictions may be gone, but 2022 World Junior Championships look like a ‘bubble’ tournament

EDMONTON — Fans are welcome. Players are free to leave their hotels and the arena to wander the streets. But for United States coach Nate Leaman, this year’s world junior hockey championships feel like they’re taking place at the height of COVID-19.

“It feels like a bubble tournament,” Leaman said Friday. “To me, it feels a lot like the tournament which was basically two tournaments ago.”

Leaman was referring to the 2021 world championship, also held in Edmonton. The Americans won gold at Rogers Place, which was empty due to COVID-19 restrictions.

While the restrictions are gone, the empty arena is still a talking point. As Leaman spoke in the mixed zone at Rogers Place, Austria and Sweden had just faced off in a tournament on the ice.

There weren’t even 100 people in attendance, and it was hard to tell how many were family members or hockey officials.

This is the story of a world junior tournament played in August. A big rivalry match between Czechia and Slovakia was played in an almost empty arena. The Swedes and Americans played for empty seats. Canada’s home games have seen the lower bowl half full, at best. The upper seating area has been closed off with curtains.

When it comes to why this year’s championship fizzled out in normally hockey-mad Edmonton – Alberta’s capital co-hosted the juniors with Calgary in 2012 and the two cities drew a record of 455,342 supporters – it was a perfect storm of negatives.

“I think it’s off the charts and there are some pretty specific circumstances that all lined up,” said Traci Bednard, CEO of Explore Edmonton, the organization that promotes the city nationally. and international as a tourist destination.

The tournament is played in August to make up for not one, but two misses in Edmonton. Because the 2021 tournament was to be played without fans, the International Ice Hockey Federation has agreed to re-host the tournament in Red Deer and Edmonton, which will run during the traditional Christmas season until New Years 2022. An outbreak of the Omicron variant of COVID-19 forced the postponement of this tournament to the summer.

Since then, Hockey Canada has faced allegations of sexual assault by members of two editions of its junior team, and its leadership has been hoisted before parliamentarians to answer for the lack of diversity and a culture of concealment.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine means there is no Russian national team in the international game. Edmontonians value their summer days like gold because the season is so short. Being indoors for long periods when the sun is up is forbidden in a place where summer is fleeting.

There are other obstacles. For Canada games, lower end seats cost $134.50, and the ticket costs almost $180 to sit closer to the center of the ice – for group stage games. So far, Canada’s games have been played at 4 p.m. local time on weekdays, a decision that has been talked about in the media box as a headache.

“I mean, the people that were here, they were loud and they were energetic,” Canadian forward Connor Bedard said. “And it’s like that in every game. I remember in Vancouver when it was there (in 2019), every game seemed to get bigger and bigger and louder and stuff like that. So it was really good that we had fans here and it really helps us play the game.”

Canada will face the Czech Republic on Saturday and a more prominent opponent in Finland on Monday, but still at the controversial 4 p.m. CT puck drop.

“Obviously I would like us to be able to have fans in the games,” Finnish striker Aatu Raty said. “I’m sure in the game against Canada on Monday, I think it’s going to be pretty packed. But that doesn’t matter. I like that the seats are black (so the same can’t be said.) They’re not yellow or anything, which is quite common in Finland.

Luke Hughes, the star American defenseman, grew up with the world juniors. His brothers, Quinn and Jack, both represented the Americans at the World Juniors. The Hughes grew up in Toronto, as their father, Jim, was the director of player development for the Maple Leafs.

“We grew up watching it. We grew up in Toronto. We went to Buffalo when the tournament was there, as well as to Toronto and Montreal. We were lucky to be in the area where the tournaments sometimes took place. It was really cool to follow them. And obviously when my brothers went, I went to Buffalo to watch Quinn that freshman year, they were playing the game outdoors and it was really cool to watch that.

While this tournament may not match the atmosphere of those Hughes grew up watching, he hopes the 2022 edition will pick up steam in week two.

“I don’t think it looks like a bubble tournament. I think it will heat up in the quarters, I think it will heat up a lot. The only thing that’s weird is that it’s not Christmas.

There should be more people in the arena on Sunday when the Americans take on the Swedes in what is the biggest match of the tournament so far not involving the Canadians. A Ticketmaster search shows that about half of the lower bowl seats, selling for $48.50 each, have been sold.

For Leaman, it all depends on what happens on the ice.

“We don’t care, just play the tournament. We want to play. We want to compete. Our guys are excited.

On the ice Friday, Sweden (2-0) beat Austria (0-2) 6-0. Emil Andrae had two goals and an assist for Sweden, while Calle Clang made 14 saves for the shutout.

Slovakia played Latvia later on Friday.

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