Big international hockey questions: How will this year’s World Juniors work?


The 2020-21 international hockey calendar, like everything else during the coronavirus pandemic, is delicate. Aside from some friendlies played over the summer, many international games, tournaments and events have been canceled. International travel restrictions, outbreaks within club teams and plenty of other issues are going to continue to wreak havoc on planned events.

This week marks the first international break of the young season, when club teams throughout Europe pause to allow players to play in small tournaments. This is the first big test of international hockey and will be watched closely. Additionally, preparations are well underway for the World Junior Championship, which is scheduled to begin Dec. 25 in Edmonton, Alberta — where the tournament will be played with no fans and in a bubble situation mimicking the NHL’s Stanley Cup playoffs. That tournament and its success is going to have significant implications on the remainder of the international schedule.

To more thoroughly explain what the hockey world is going to look like this year, we looked at several important questions. It’s worth nothing that a few of them won’t have clear answers for some time.

What is up first on the international calendar?

The first international break is underway, with the Karjala Cup currently being contested in Finland. That tournament often includes top European pro players from Finland, Sweden, Czech Republic and Russia — though Russia sent its U20 national team to help prepare for the World Juniors.

In Germany, the Deutschland Cup will be contested, albeit with fewer teams than normal amid the country’s new lockdown restrictions. Often a four-nation tournament featuring professional players in Europe, the Deutschland Cup also has a United States entry every other year. That will not be the case this time. Instead, Germany’s national team will compete against Latvia and a German B-team of sorts, with several high-profile U20 players on that roster, including Chicago Blackhawks first-round pick Lukas Reichel.

Notably, Germany’s senior team head coach Toni Soderholm tested positive for COVID-19 and will not be attending the tournament. Detroit Red Wings prospect Moritz Seider will not join the German team due to travel restrictions and will remain with his club in Sweden’s top pro league, where he is currently on loan.

What is the status of the 2021 World Junior Championship?

At this point, it’s looking like all systems are go for Edmonton to host the 2021 World Junior Championship in the ready-made bubble. The tournament will feature 10 teams and run Dec. 25 through Jan. 5. All games will be played in Rogers Arena, home of the Edmonton Oilers and the most recent Stanley Cup playoffs. Participating countries include defending champion Canada, Russia, Sweden, Finland, United States, Czech Republic, Germany, Slovakia and Austria.

Here are some other things to know:

  • All teams are due to arrive in Edmonton by Dec. 13, and they’ll be under strict health guidelines and monitoring for the duration of their time.

  • The tournament will be played without fans.

  • NHL teams have been informed that they will not be able to send scouts to the event for live viewing.

  • The IIHF also will allow expanded rosters, going from 23 players to 25.

  • The tournament field is frozen, as no team will be relegated or promoted to the top level of U20 hockey.

How are teams preparing for the tournament amid unique circumstances?

Hockey Canada recently announced the 46-player roster for its monthlong camp. Players will be in a bubble in Red Deer, Alberta, starting on Nov. 16 and ending on Dec. 13. The reason Hockey Canada felt it necessary to have such a long camp? Neither the Western Hockey League nor Ontario Hockey League is expected to return to action before the end of the World Juniors. The WHL hopes to return Jan. 6, and the OHL recently announced it is targeting Feb. 6 for the start of a shortened season. That leaves a large chunk of Canada’s player pool on the sideline until the tournament begins. Meanwhile, Quebec Major Junior Hockey League and NCAA-based players who participate in camp could miss a large chunk of their respective seasons. (The QMJHL is already underway, and NCAA teams are due to return to play as early as Nov. 14.)

The U.S. already had its evaluation camp, where 39 players converged on Plymouth, Michigan, for six days in early October. USA Hockey will pick its team in early December before taking its roster to Edmonton in mid-December to have a final training camp. With the bulk of candidates coming from the NCAA ranks, it might also get a handful of games to evaluate the team, while Canadian Hockey League players will have to hope they performed well enough at the camp to remain on USA Hockey’s selection radar.

Elsewhere, Russia sent its U20 team to the Karjala Cup, as previously mentioned. In Sweden, there was supposed to be a series of games between Sweden and Finland’s national U20 teams for their own World Junior prep beginning this week. However, those were canceled on Thursday when the Swedish hockey federation announced that two Swedish players had tested positive for coronavirus during the pre-camp screenings. It was a reminder of the challenges that remain.

Assuming all goes as planned, the World Juniors will be a television-only event starting Christmas Day and finishing with bronze- and gold-medal games on Jan. 5.

What are some of the events we know for sure won’t happen?

Many events on the international schedule have already been canceled, starting with the Hlinka-Gretzky Cup, a U18 tournament that was due to be hosted in Edmonton in August. It would have been one of the best early looks at the 2021 draft class. That, along with the World Junior Summer Showcase and a U17 Five Nations tournament, was wiped out from the early-season calendar.

Also canceled were in-season tournaments hosted by Hockey Canada that often provide fertile evaluation opportunities for scouts in North America. Those include the World Under-17 Hockey Challenge and the World Junior A Challenge. Both events have been canceled and will not be replaced prior to next season, costing a significant number of players an important developmental and evaluation opportunity.

In the international club hockey realm, the Champions Hockey League was delayed and later canceled entirely for the 2020-21 season, with plans to return in 2021-22. That tournament usually features 32 of the top European clubs, excluding KHL entries, and offers North American fans some of the best access to watching international club hockey, thanks to free streaming packages in the U.S. and Canada. No such luck this year.

The IIHF also canceled its Continental Cup club championships and a host of World Championship events that often provide the path to promotion for many countries working their way up the international hockey ladder. Among those are all five of the men’s U20 events under the World Junior Championship. The only top-level World Championship event canceled was the IIHF Women’s World U18 Championship, in which the U.S. was looking to defend its title in Linkoping, Sweden. The decision to cancel instead of postpone or delay was a controversial one since most tournament participants only get one chance to play in that age-specific event.

“The IIHF Council acknowledged that we could not put the parents of under-18 players in the difficult position of signing off permission for their daughters to compete in a tournament overseas,” IIHF president Rene Fasel explained in a Q&A posted to the IIHF’s website. “This concern was also voiced to us by some of the participating teams already. I spoke directly to one of the team leaders for the women’s U18 countries that would have played, and they expressed serious discomfort with traveling with their teams to compete under the current circumstances.”

OK, so what other big international tournaments are still up in the air?

The IIHF has not yet made a decision on some of its other marquee events.

The 2021 men’s World Championship is set to play, though the IIHF has issues beyond COVID-19 to consider for its annual crown jewel event. The tournament is due to be co-hosted in Riga, Latvia, and Minsk, Belarus, from May 21 to June 6, which is a little later than it normally would run. Yet contentiousness surrounding the most recent presidential election in Belarus — one that sparked mass demonstrations and protests, particularly in Minsk — has forced the IIHF to reevaluate. The Latvian government has also expressed reservations about co-hosting the event.

As a result, the IIHF Council created an “expert group” that will be analyzing the many issues, including the health and safety of participants and spectators. Fasel has committed to taking as much time as necessary to find the proper solution.

The IIHF is going to wait for some time to make decisions on the women’s World Championship, which is due to be hosted in Nova Scotia as previously planned. Notably, Nova Scotia has had among the strictest quarantine and lockdown restrictions of any province in Canada — and with strong results. For that reason, local QMJHL teams are still able to host games, despite the Quebec-based teams all remaining on pause. The women’s Worlds remains tentatively scheduled for April 7-17, but local health officials will likely have the final word on what happens there.

The same can be said for the men’s World Under-18 Championship, which will be hosted in Plymouth and Ann Arbor, Michigan, the same sites that were planned for 2020 before the tournament was canceled. This is one of the bigger scouting events on the season calendar in the build-up to the NHL draft. That tournament is scheduled for April 15-25.

How is revenue playing a part?

The IIHF gets a large chunk of its revenue from the World Championship and World Juniors. Those two events help filter funds to many of the other events that often lose money, even in normal years.

“The IIHF World Championship and the World Junior Championship are our flagship tournaments,” Fasel explained in his Q&A. “The revenue that we receive from our top events goes to support all of the 30-plus tournaments that we hold each year. If these tournaments cannot run, we could not support any of the others.”

Part of the reason the World Juniors was salvaged was because of the incredible TV revenue losses that both Hockey Canada and the IIHF would face on top of the already-projected losses of ticket revenue without fans. The same goes for the men’s World Championship, though it remains unclear how feasible it would be to operate that tournament as is. That’s why there is some concern about the IIHF’s ability to hold the remaining World Championship events on its schedule.

Much still needs to be sorted out. The international calendar is a key part of every hockey season. But like everything else, we are mostly in wait-and-see mode for upcoming events.

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