Yes. Yes it is — but what are the odds we don’t get to enjoy the World Junior Championship (WJC) this year?
Every day, we are seeing teams weakening from the fallout of players, coaches, or team staff testing positive for COVID-19, or being held out due to exposure protocols. Mid-training camp, Team Canada voluntarily implemented a 14-day quarantine period following the positive testing of two of their players. The significance of a two week pause, mid-camp, is not to be understated. When preparing for a tournament or the regular season, a rhythm and tempo is developed during camp and carried over into the games. A disjointed camp has the potential of resulting in a team that looks out of sorts, lacks chemistry, or lacks intensity.
To make matters worse, once training camp for Team Canada resumed, five players were released, not as a round of cuts, but because they were “unfit to continue based on return-to-play protocols.” Included in those released was Ridly Greig, a first-round NHL draft pick of the Ottawa Senators, and a player who was likely projected as a key-contributor for their squad. Not only that, but some of the top-end talent is simply being told not to go by their NHL clubs.
Alexis Lafreniére, the first overall pick by the New York Rangers at the 2020 NHL Draft and star player of the gold medal-winning Team Canada at the 2019 WJC will not be participating. Jack Hughes, the number one overall pick by the New Jersey Devils at the 2019 NHL Draft—who already has a full NHL season under his belt, will also not go to Edmonton to take part.
Their respective NHL clubs will not allow them to risk their health and well-being at a potentially dangerous tournament. They are anticipating some semblance of an NHL season this year and view those players as integral pieces to their lineups.
Their position is understandable. For teams like the New York Rangers and the New Jersey Devils, they are undergoing a youth movement and trying to return to relevance. Lafreniére and Hughes are not only players who can contribute on the ice, but true foundational, cornerstone players for the teams to build around. It is putting their development at risk allowing them to play in a tournament in which these young kids are potentially exposed to a virus.
Think about it this way, if the IIHF World Championship were to take place this December, during this volatile second wave, would the Edmonton Oilers allow Connor McDavid to participate with the NHL season right around the corner? My hunch is no, they wouldn’t.
It isn’t only Canada feeling the impact, each participating country is facing their fair share of challenges this year in the pursuit of a gold medal at the 2021 World Junior Championship.
Team Sweden announced five people from their training camp who would not be making the trip for the World Junior Championship because they are deemed ineligible to participate. Among the five, their head coach Tomas Monten, two assistant coaches, forward Albin Grewe (a third-round 2019 NHL draft pick of the Detroit Red Wings) and star defenseman William Wallinder (a second-round 2020 NHL draft pick, also by the Wings).
Subsequently, Team Sweden appointed Joel Ronnmark to fill in for Monten as bench boss and brought in Anders Eriksen and Jason Pietrzykowski to take roles as assistant coaches. A late shuffle in coaching staff might result in a Team Sweden squad who’s systems and lineups appear to be discombobulated.
Before their training camp even began, two forwards and a video coach tested positive for COVID-19 and were not allowed to participate. One of these two forwards is William Eklund, a high-end playmaker and slam-dunk first round draft pick in the 2021 NHL Draft. This alone was a devastating blow for Team Sweden, pile on the aforementioned five and you have yourself a gutted locker room for the Swedes.
Team Sweden is consistently a major competitor in the WJC, having medaled five times in the last nine years, they are a team that is a threat to take gold every year. From Sweden’s perspective, with their lack of representation at the games this year, does the tournament feel legitimate? How would we look back on this year of WJC if Team Canada had to roll out their B or C squads and ended up taking fifth?
In a scenario like that, the prevailing opinion would certainly be that the Championship wasn’t “real,” especially coming out of the hockey capital of the world. Team Canada is so talented and so deep that they could easily stomach losing a handful of good players, because they have a wealth of good players to come up and replace them. Team Sweden and the other participating teams don’t have that kind of depth, so a single loss to their lineup could be devastating. It could be the difference between a spot at the podium and an early flight home.
One might look at the strides the NHL has taken to ensure their season and gain optimism for the World Junior Championship, but structurally they are nothing alike.
As much as we might like to think the NHL season will be coming back because of the passion for the game, the reality is that it’s coming back because of financial incentives.
The owners of NHL teams cannot afford a year off and neither can the league itself. Every game that is cancelled is money out of their pockets and nothing speaks louder than the almighty dollar. For this reason, the league, the owners, and not to mention, the players, all have a shared interest in the season being played.
By comparison, the World Junior Championship is very much a tournament made by hockey-lovers, for hockey-lovers. Participating players join on loan from their respective clubs. Such clubs could be from a smaller, obscure league you haven’t heard of, ranging all the way to the top, the NHL. Point of the matter is, these players and coaches and staff members have other obligations but they forego them to participate in this celebrated tournament. The financial incentive simply doesn’t stack up next to the NHL, so a side-by-side comparison isn’t fitting.
At the end of the day, it is my belief that there will be a World Junior Championship this year. There have already been tons of resources and capital poured into the effort to make it reality, so for it to go to waste now would be to the benefit of very few. So the question remains, what quality of a tournament will we see? Will there be an asterisk next to the winner this year?
I’d say if we have games this year, we should just take it and be happy for it.