As North America was waking from its nightly slumber this morning, the news had already begun crossing the ocean that the Swedish team destined for the World Junior Championship in Edmonton was being decimated through positive coronavirus test results. It didn’t take long for more bad news to find its way to North American borders as Germany sent home two of its best players for testing positive as well. I spoke of the reality setting in with respect to the coronavirus affecting this tournament just three days ago when William Eklund was sent home by Sweden, and now it appears his teammates may being staying home after the outbreak reported today.
The sad part is that the IIHF had to know something like this was going to happen because they went about their preparations for this tournament like it was any other year. Without the safeguards of a protected bubble for a selection camp, the chances of contracting COVID-19 was always high. Sweden’s players were still arriving for their selection camp, and now multiple members of that team – including Sweden’s head coach! – will be heading back to where they came from as they are required to be excluded from traveling to Canada.
We saw Team Canada affected by COVID-19 already as they allowed players to join late and by having officials and press move in and out of the bubble regularly as they had intrasquad games. The result was Canada shutting down its camp for two weeks to quarantine because they didn’t respect the ease that this virus can be spread. And while Canada has been given the green light to resume their camp as of today following their quarantine, they also made the right decision and shut everyone out of the camp who isn’t part of the Team Canada detail.
Had the IIHF simply followed a simply idea that I proposed back on November 20 about having teams finalized and in Edmonton by December 5 to allow for two weeks of quarantine with a week to play warm-up games before the December 26 start of the World Junior Championship, we might be talking about a completely different topic tonight. Instead, we’re going to discuss Sweden’s likely miss of the podium and Germany’s potential relegation thanks to COVID-19’s influence on this tournament.
Sweden is already missing Eklund as stated above, but he’ll be joined by assistant coach Anders Lundberg, head coach Tomas Montén, video coach Adam Almqvist, Djurgårdens teammate and forward Albin Grewe, New York Rangers prospect Karl Henriksson, and Detroit Red Wings defenseman prospect William Wallinder in not visiting Edmonton. Four players and three coaches tested positive meaning they won’t even be involved in the selection camp, and there’s eighteen days until the tournament starts.
It’s virtually impossible to believe that Sweden would be able to continue its round-robin win streak missing all these key people, but if Sweden is even going to mention the word “medal” they’ll need some players to step up and fill rather large holes in the roster, not to mention a few key people to step behind the bench and lead this team accordingly. This is beyond devastating for Sweden, and there has been whispering about them possibly just skipping this year’s tournament altogether.
Making matters worse was the second wave of news that Germany lost two players to COVID-19 as well as Chicago Blackhawks prospect Lukas Reichel and 19 year-old Nino Kinder both tested positive and won’t be allowed to attend the German selection camp. Adding that to the news that Detroit Red Wings bluechipper Moritz Seider decided to skip the World Junior Championship this year, and Germany has gone from “potential underdog who could surprise a team or two” to simply being “underdog”. Unless the Slovaks or Swiss fail to bring their best team, Germany almost seems like a lock to be the Group A team in the relegation round at this point.
It’s at this point that I should give both the NHL and NBA a little credit with how they ran their bubbles because we saw that a properly-managed bubble works in keeping players and teams safe from the coronavirus. They demanded the players get to the bubbles early, they had them run through a quaratine process where testing was done frequently, and both leagues saw champions crowned in the 2020 season. What the IIHF should have been learning from the NHL seemingly has been ignored entirely, and the result is that the 2021 World Junior Championship has now been seriously compromised.
Spare me any sympathy you have for the IIHF on this one because they could have mandated the same thing the NHL did for the participating nations in this tournament. It’s within their control entirely, and it’s not like they were busy with the logistics of other tournaments with every other being cancelled up to this very moment. This is an epic failure by the IIHF in protecting their own interests, and I serious question the leadership of the IIHF, from Rene Fasel down, as to how they could be this careless when this tournament is a two-week, money-printing endeavour for them.
Honestly, if Sweden opts not to send a team, the tournament should likely be cancelled. On top of that, if there are additional countries who see coronavirus outbreaks, that should also throw up a stop sign on this tournament. The IIHF has already screwed up in a magnificent way by not putting the ten teams into a bubble prior to the event. If it continues to double-down on its mistake, this will tournament will go down as the worst tournament in the history of the World Junior Championship. And it’s well on its way to being that already.
The players and coaches will always want to play in this tournament because of what it means: potential NHL jobs for players who dazzle during the games, the infamy that may come from scoring a big goal or making a big stop, and the glamour of being heralded by fans after winning a gold medal. For a high-level athlete, these are what they live for when it comes to turning a game into a profession, so these decisions can’t be left up to the nations, their staffs, or their players because they will always opt to play. Someone has to be an adult in the room when it comes to protecting these people from themselves in the face of this pandemic, and the IIHF should have already seized that role.
Instead, the IIHF is seemingly playing fast and loose with the idea that a few players missing from teams won’t affect the overall product being put on the ice in Edmonton. That’s where the IIHF loses me as a fan of this tournament because I want to see the William Eklunds and Lukas Reichels playing in this tournament because having them play makes the games better. It ups the level of competition so that teams like Russia, Canada, Finland, and the Americans can’t just skate past Sweden and Germany so easily. The chances of highlight-reel plays which are posted on social media and shown on sports highlights shows around the world increase as well, but it seems the IIHF isn’t interested in any of that because they didn’t protect their asset with a little planning and foresight.
As a hockey fan, I’ll still cheer for Canada assuming there is a tournament, but let’s be clear: I’m not happy that Sweden and Germany can’t send their best players to compete. If the tournament is canceled due to intelligence taking a major step forward, I’ll applaud that loudly because it seem like this tournament is going to be very entertaining if there are blowouts all over the place.
Maybe I’ll be wrong on this. Maybe someone who scouts haven’t really noticed will step up his game and blow everyone away with a myriad of moves and goals. It’s highly unlikely, but maybe someone will. We could be talking about this player in a month’s time playing for a gold medal, but the likelihood of that happening in today’s game is extremely low with all the knowledge we have about players thanks to the 24/7 cycle of news.
What I do know is that we’ll see Germany-sans-Reichel-Kinder-and-Seider on December 25 when they face Finland, and that game could be a blowout win for the Finns if they bring their hihgly-skilled bunch. Sweden gets the Czech Republic on December 26 as their first game, and that will show whether or not they’re ready to go after replacing four key players and three coaches for this tournament. Germany then tangles with Canada on the same day in a game that might simply crush the hopes of Germany altogether if Canada brings its usual team that relies on speed, scoring, and physical play. Sweden’s biggest test will come on December 30 when they face gold-medal-favourite Russia, and that game may get out of hand if Russia gets on a roll.
If there’s one thing that’s certain, no one is defeating COVID-19 when it comes to playing in this tournament. Testing positive is a death knell for anyone who had dreams of winning a gold medal in Edmonton. And while it sucks that the pandemic will always be the storyline for this tournament, it would have been nice had the IIHF been aware that there was a pandemic raging before this tournament appeared on the calendar. COVID-19 has only been canceling major sporting events since March, some nine months ago, and they still haven’t figured out how to manage this problem despite having examples of how to successfully pull off a hockey tournament at their fingertips.
I think it’s safe to rebrand the IIHF as the “International Ice Hockey Failure” because failing the sport is all they seem to know how do. Whether it’s women’s hockey, following simple procedures to hold a major tournament during a pandemic, having NHL players participating at the Olympics, or having proper coverage of major international tournaments, the IIHF continually and somewhat-expectedly screws up whatever they touch in ways that are almost unbelieveable. And frankly, I’m getting tired of this story of failure repeating itself over and over.
Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!