Amid low tickets sales, a flight of sponsors and a national scandal of sexual assault allegations, Hockey Canada appears to be trying to “salvage” its World Juniors championship, says one expert.
The tournament got underway on Tuesday in Edmonton, Alta., with thousands of tickets still available. It was postponed late last year as a result of the Omicron variant surge.
In the months since, the national organization has become embroiled in condemnation and controversy over its handling of the allegations. As a result, regional tourism body Explore Edmonton, told Global News, it paused promotion of the tournament in July.
“As the host city for the upcoming tournament, we continue to have discussions with Hockey Canada officials about their plans to address the need for change,” said Traci Bednard, CEO of Explore Edmonton.
For sports culture expert Dan Mason, that’s not a huge surprise.
“Hockey Canada is hurting because they’re lacking sponsorship and the usual promotion that they get. I don’t think it’s necessarily something that they would really want to be doing anyway, given the circumstances that they’re in,” said Mason, a professor of sport management at the University of Alberta.
“I think they’re just trying to salvage this opportunity to have some player development.”
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The World Juniors is the international championship for players aged 20 or younger competing for spots on teams run by the national hockey league.
It is run by the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF), which confirmed last week it is now among the growing number of official bodies investigating Hockey Canada over its handling of sexual assault allegations. The Zurich, Switzerland-based world governing body for ice hockey said it wants more information amid a continued storm of criticism and condemnation, which has rocked Hockey Canada to its core.
“These are deeply troubling incidents that the IIHF takes extremely seriously,” the organization told Global News on Aug. 1.
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TSN first reported in May that Hockey Canada had settled a lawsuit in which a young woman, “E.M.”, alleged she was sexually assaulted by eight hockey players including members of the 2018 Canadian World Juniors team following a gala organized by the organization.
In the months since, Hockey Canada has been engulfed in scrutiny including: three parliamentary committee meetings focusing on the matter, a funding freeze ordered by the federal sports minister, a financial audit, a renewed criminal investigation by police in London, Ont., and an NHL probe.
The organization has lost multiple major sponsors for the World Juniors tournament including Tim Hortons, Telus, Canadian Tire and Scotiabank, and faced a revolt from provincial hockey organizations vowing to withhold funding. The chair of the board of directors is gone — though the president Scott Smith remains. Former Supreme Court justice Thomas Cromwell is leading a governance review due in November.
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Whether Smith will remain in the role after that review remains uncertain.
Meanwhile, Canadian parents are furious, particularly over the revelations of a slush fund used to pay out sexual assault claimants using registration fees paid by parents for their children to play what Stompin’ Tom Connors once called “the good ol’ hockey game.”
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Mason said he expects the impact of the revelations will play out in youth enrolment numbers.
At the same time, some locals who planned to attend the World Juniors said they trust that the problems in the organization are being taken care of and don’t want to penalize the players.
Randy Thompson spoke to Global News outside the Rogers Centre in Edmonton. He said he plans to catch a few games, and after years of COVID-19 disruption watching the World Juniors feels like a return to a “nice tradition.”
“I think it’s on all of our minds and we hope that there’s a positive resolution to that,” he said of the allegations and the outcry facing Hockey Canada.
“But hockey still is what it is and we shouldn’t let that affect us too too much. I think we need to stay true to our hockey culture or hockey tradition, and I know that the right people will take care of things.”
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The Canadian team is set to face off against Latvia on Wednesday in their first game of the tournament.
Team Canada’s head coach André Tourigny said leaders have been emphasizing to players that they are under the spotlight, but kept his remarks to the media brief about the outcry facing Hockey Canada.
“We’ve addressed that. We recognize that there’s steps to be taken,” said Tourigny earlier this week. “We did a sexual violence thing, we did a code of conduct thing.”
Sex abuse ‘code of silence’ still runs deep in Canadian sports, says former league head
Brenda Andress, who was commissioner of the Canadian Women’s Hockey League for 12 years, told Global News she still sees a “code of silence” in Canadian sports when it comes to sex abuse and sexual allegations.
She said in an interview last week that many still have trouble wrapping their heads around the extent of the problem.
“Being in the sports world as long as I have been, there is a code of silence. There’s a culture that we have created, and I think most of us can’t handle the truth that’s out there — that’s really going on in our sports world,” Andress said.
“It’s time that we take a look at it in a lot deeper avenue than we’re currently doing.”
— With files from Global Edmonton’s Morgan Black.
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