Spoiler: Canada is going to win regardless.
The International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) and Hockey Canada have announced the officiating crew for the 2021 World Junior Championship (WJC) beginning December 25th in Edmonton.
The 26 man squad of referees and linesmen selected to work the games this year are all from Canada, a departure from the norm, which has sprouted cynics and conspiracy theories throughout some dark corners of fandom. Let’s assess the legitimacy of this concern by looking through historical data and current events.
Last year at the 2020 WJC in the Czech Republic, the officiating crew was made up of 3 Canadians, 3 Russians, 3 Swedes, 3 Finns, 3 Czechs, 2 Americans, 2 Germans, 2 Swiss and 1 Slovak. Pretty even group. Result: Canada wins Gold.
At the 2019 WJC there were 3 Canadian officials where Finland reigned supreme. At the 2018 tourney, there were 2 Canadian officials and Canada took home their 17th championship.
In a consistently even playing field, Canada has won the Gold Medal 18 times in the 43-year history of the tournament and suffered 2nd and 3rd place defeats 14 other times. That means they’ve medaled 32 times, sporting a peachy 74% success rate (if you consider Silver and Bronze medals successes, that is. Just about every other participating country would).
It’s clear that the IIHF have strived to assemble their staff with a diverse group of officials that represent the participating countries as equally as possible. Naturally, equality from a neutral party in a competition is a fixture of a fair contest, so for an international tournament like the WJC, we would expect no less.
Consider the Olympics for a moment. Not only is unbiased officiating an expectation in events such as Ice Hockey and Soccer, but an unbiased panel of judges is clearly just as important for events like Gymnastics and Figure Skating. We often take these configurations of well-intentioned officials for granted, so in the case of the WJC’s this year, it is understandable why a group of compatriots may be of some concern.
Occam’s razor is the idea that the simplest explanation is usually the right one, and it is an idea that I find fitting. Team Canada is often the best team at the tournament—entirely regardless of how the officiating staff is composed. The statistics bear it out and their track record reinforces it.
Team Canada churns out enough talent and skill every single year to compete for the title. This year, Canada is icing an insane 26 first round NHL draft picks at its invitational training camp. Compare that to the 10 first round picks for Team USA and the 2 first round picks for Team Finland. These numbers alone should make Canada the favorite.
With this much professional talent on their roster, does Team Canada need the help from partisan judges? Do the IIHF and Hockey Canada risk their integrity and reputation just to ensure Goliath isn’t defeated by David?
Side note: In the 2019-2020 NHL season, there were 96 referees and linesman of which 65 are Canadian born. That’s approximately 68% of the total crew, and yet, no Canadian team visibly benefited from their patriots with the whistles. In fact, no Canadian team has won the Stanley Cup since 1993 with a ‘favorable’ officiating crew, and during that time only three Canadian teams have won the President’s Trophy for the most amount of points accumulated during the regular season (Ottawa, 2002-03; Vancouver 2010-11; Vancouver 2011-12).
A squad of Canadian referees and linesmen officiating a tournament in Canada seems far too transparent to be legitimately fixed. It just doesn’t make any sense and if doesn’t make sense, it’s probably not true.
Speaking of which, let’s talk about making sense.
Some very important context: The World Junior Championships will take place this year inside of a “bubble”. Amidst a COVID-19 pandemic that has changed the way we all live our lives, the Canadian Government has implemented strict immigration and border-control protocols, which make the sheer existence of the tournament this year a marvel.
It is for this reason, and this reason alone, that we are having this discussion here today. In a statement made by Hockey Canada, “the IIHF Officiating Committee made their selections to ensure the health and safety of all participants.”
Let’s dispel with any notion that this was a plan concocted by special interests in a smoke-filled backroom; it’s simply the right call during a difficult time.
We’re seeing this rationale applied today in the NHL with the likely “Canadian Division” playing apart and away from the American teams. The health crisis around the world transcends any sport and champion thereof, and sport leagues everywhere are doing what they have to to ensure the game can be played.
So it seems unlikely that this is a purposeful attempt to give Team Canada an edge, but that doesn’t mean that they won’t be getting one anyway. Realistically, what kind of advantage will the officials be giving Team Canada even if they aren’t intentionally doing it?
Samuel Adam Meyer, a fellow writer of Penalty Box Radio (PBR), chimed in and said, “I’m not one that initially cries foul by refereeing. I think it is possible for the Canadian refs to call it fair, no strings attached. However, it also opens up more problems than maybe they realize. For example, if the refs make any mistakes, which are bound to happen, it’ll be blamed on their nationality. And if a whole team is traveling to play, it doesn’t make sense that they would refuse referees the same privilege to ensure fairness in this important tournament.”
It’s impossible to deny that there will be some bias for the Canadians, but can the officiating crew recognize this internal bias and compensate for it? Will they overcompensate for it in an attempt to appear unbiased — giving their opponent that crucial power play in overtime or ruling that the puck did not fully cross the line?
These are all important questions to ask and questions that the IIHF and Hockey Canada must address internally and amongst their chosen 26. Recognizing the potential conflict of interest, Hockey Canada reinforced the credibility of their staff:
“All 26 officials are products of the Hockey Canada Officiating Program, which includes six levels of certification and is the foundation for the training and development of officials across Canada.”
This is all we have to go on, and it is the responsibility of us, as spectators and lovers of the game, to believe in the integrity of the IIHF and of Hockey Canada.
“People don’t realize that the Juniors acts as a showcase for more than just the players,” said Matt Best, CCO for PBR. “Not only would they jeopardize the integrity of the game, but they’d jeopardize their own integrity and ruin future career opportunities.”
Look, Team Canada will likely walk away from this one with the Gold. It is up to us to decide if that’s because they’re a good team who outplayed the others, or if it was gifted to them by the refs. Having written this before the games have started, I don’t know what kind of questionable calls are going to be made and to whom they benefit, and it’s very possible Team Canada does get some favorable looks, but I do believe those calls will be made by the officials with the best of their judgement at that time.
Kyle Rivetti, a writer at PBR summed it up neatly, “These refs are professionals and know that as a ref the goal is to be invisible and I think they’ll do just that. With that said, if there is a controversial call, specifically one that benefits the Canadians, what do you think people will talk about?”
It feels far too common to see a call made on the ice that makes you want to pull your hair out, and everyone has a story about how one bad call screwed their team over. Unfortunately it is a part of sports and a part for which we are unlikely to see an agreeable solution anytime soon. However, this year, at the World Junior Championship in Edmonton, officiating will be under a microscope. With every iffy call benefiting Canada scrutinized and similar calls benefiting any other country feeling owed.
Remember: half of the games of the tournament (certainly the most important ones) will be taking place in 2021! It’s just so 2020 to bemoan the world’s bias against you. We’re all looking forward to leaving this year and its calamities behind, so how about we start 2021 with a dose of sanity?