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Restrictions may be gone, but 2022 world juniors feels like 'bubble' tournament

EDMONTON — Fans are welcome. Players are free to leave their hotels and the arena to walk the streets. But to United States coach Nate Leaman, this year's world junior hockey championships feels like it's being held at the peak of COVID-19.
Sweden's Fabian Lysell (11), Isak Rosen (23), Liam Ohgren (25) and Ake Stakkestad (15) celebrate a goal against Austria during second period IIHF World Junior Hockey Championship action in Edmonton on Friday August 12, 2022. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson

EDMONTON — Fans are welcome. Players are free to leave their hotels and the arena to walk the streets. But to United States coach Nate Leaman, this year's world junior hockey championships feels like it's being held at the peak of COVID-19.

"It feels like a bubble tournament," Leaman on 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 hosted in Edmonton. The Americans won gold at Rogers Place, which was empty because of COVID-19 restrictions.

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

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

That’s been the story of a world junior tournament played in August. A big rivalry game between Czechia and Slovakia was played in almost empty arena. The Swedes and Americans have played to empty seats. Canada’s home games have seen the lower bowl half-full, at best. The upper seating area has been curtained off.

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

“I think it’s out of the norm and there are some pretty specific circumstances that have all aligned,” said Traci Bednard, the CEO of Explore Edmonton, the organization which promotes the city nationally and internationally as a tourist destination.

The tournament is being played in August to make up for not one, but two misfires in Edmonton. Because the 2021 tourney had to be played without fans, the International Ice Hockey Federation agreed to host the tournament in Red Deer and Edmonton again, to be played over the traditional Christmas season into 2022’s New Year. An outbreak of the Omicron variant of COVID-19 forced the postponement of that tournament to the summer.

Since then, Hockey Canada has faced allegations of sexual assaults conducted by members of two editions of its junior team, and its leadership has been hauled up in front of parliamentarians to answer for lack of diversity and a culture of cover-ups. 

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has meant that there’s no Russian national team in international play. Edmontonians value their summer days like gold, because the season is so short. Being inside for extended periods of time when the sun is out is a no-go in a place where summer is fleeting. 

There are other obstacles. For Canada games, lower bowl seats at the ends cost $134.50, and it’s almost $180 a ticket to sit closer to centre ice — for group stage games. Canada’s games have, so far, faced off at 4 p.m. local time on weekdays, a decision that’s been talked about in the media gallery as a head-scratcher. 

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

Canada plays Czechia on Saturday and a higher profile opponent in Finland on Monday, though still at the controversial 4 p.m. CT faceoff times.

“Obviously, I wish we could get some fans in the games,” said Finnish forward Aatu Raty. “I’m sure in the game against Canada on Monday, I think it’s going to be pretty packed. But it doesn’t matter. I like that the seats are black (so you can’t tell as much.) They’re not yellow or anything, which is pretty common in Finland.”

Luke Hughes, the star American defenceman, 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, because their father, Jim, was the director of player development for the Maple Leafs.

“We grew up watching it. We grew up in Toronto. We’d go to Buffalo when the tournament was there, and Toronto and Montreal, too. We were lucky enough to be in the area where the tournaments were sometime. It was really cool to follow them. And, obviously, when my brothers went, I went to Buffalo to watch Quinn that first year, they were playing the outdoor game and it was really cool to watch that.”’

Even though this tournament does not match the atmosphere of the ones Hughes grew up watching, he’s hopeful the 2022 edition will pick up steam in week two.

“I don’t think it feels 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 about it is that it’s not at Christmas.”

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

For Leaman, it’s all about what happens on the ice.

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

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

Later in the day, Slovakia earned a 3-2 shootout victory over Latvia. Matej Kaslik scored the final goal in the shootout period, before goaltender Simon Latkoczy made the game-sealing save for Slovakia.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 12, 2022.

Steven Sandor, The Canadian Press