Rest of world junior championship canceled over COVID-19

The remainder of the world junior hockey championship in Canada has been canceled over fears of a COVID-19 outbreak.

The International Ice Hockey Federation made the announcement Wednesday on the recommendation of the organization’s medical officials. Citing the spread of the coronavirus and the omicron variant, the IIHF canceled the rest of the tournament “to ensure the health and safety of all participants.”

Two games had already been forfeited because of positive coronavirus test results among U.S. and Czech players and another was imminent with Russia. Two U.S. players and one Czech player had returned positive tests, leading to team quarantine mandates.

The IIHF council determined the integrity of the event had been compromised by the forfeits, leading to the cancellation.

“We owed it to the participating teams to do our best to create the conditions necessary for this event to work,” IIHF President Luc Tardif said. “Unfortunately, this was not enough. We now have to take some time and focus on getting all players and team staff back home safely.”

Tardif said at a news conference that the tournament could resume this summer.

Teams arrived in Alberta on Dec. 15. Players were quarantined and tested before being allowed to skate. The pre-tournament schedule was reduced to one game per team, with the Czechs and Swiss unable to play an exhibition because of positive tests for the virus.

Protocols were established before a surge of the omicron variant caused the cancellation of six other tournaments in January, Tardif said in an interview posted on the IIHF website before the cancellation announcement.

“To put this into context, there were eight NHL games postponed when the teams entered their arrival quarantine on the 15th," Tardif said. “By the time we had accepted the recommendation to cancel the January events on the 23rd there were 62 total NHL games postponed. That is how quickly the situation has changed.”

The cancellation breaks a run of 44 consecutive years for the IIHF’s under-20 men’s championship. The 2021 tournament in Edmonton managed to cross the finish line, with the United States beating Canada in the gold-medal game Jan. 5.

Tardif said the tournament adjusted protocols almost immediately upon players, coaches and staff arriving to avoid possible virus spread. That included daily testing and team-wide quarantine mandates when positive cases were confirmed.

Those steps, combined with participants not being contained fully inside a bubble, explain how the tournament for the top players in the world under age 20 was called off after nine games and four confirmed cases.

“Our hearts go out to the players and staff of not just our country but every nation, who have worked so hard and sacrificed so much to get to this point,” U.S. national junior team general manager John Vanbiesbrouck said. “We’re proud of our team for doing everything that’s been asked of them and will work to ensure their safe return home.”

Hockey Canada president Tom Renney and CEO Scott Smith said the host organization understands and supports the IIHF’s decision.

“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,” Renney and Smith said in a statement.

The women’s under-18 world championship was one of the January tournaments cancellations, with the IIHF citing health and safety concerns. USA Hockey and Hockey Canada asked the IIHF to reconsider the cancelation of the women’s tournament and instead reschedule for the good of the sport.