Hockey Canada should not be hosting this world junior tournament

This is a column by Shireen Ahmed, who writes opinion for CBC Sports. For more information about CBC’s Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

The COVID-19 pandemic disrupted a lot of Canadian hockey in the last few years, but when 2022 began there was hope this year could be different.

The men’s world junior championship tournament was rescheduled to this month after it was postponed in December because of numerous COVID cases among players. The tournament showcasing the brightest and the best of young men’s hockey in the world began Tuesday in Edmonton. But it would seem that fans don’t seem as keen on the tournament this month as they usually are over the winter holiday.

Yes, it is summer and people may not be in hockey mode with vacation and traveling plans returning to normal after two and a half years of a standstill. And with food and housing prices astronomically high, disposable income for such activities has decreased. 

But there are other reasons why this particular tournament is of disinterest and that thousands of tickets are still available.

While a very toxic and airborne illness brought hockey federations to their knees around the world, we have seen Hockey Canada struggle with a different crisis — one of morality and ethics.

In May, an investigation by TSN’s Rick Westhead into the settlement with a woman who alleged that she was sexually assaulted by a group of the Canadian junior men’s team in 2018 led to a parliamentary inquiry in Ottawa. Minister of Sport Pascale St.Onge froze funding from the federal government pending an investigation.

There has been outrage from Canadians and calls for the resignation of the senior management to give way to new and more diverse leadership. According to the website, there are eight board members — six men and two women. On Sunday, board chair Michael Brind’Amour resigned.

The idea that Hockey Canada feels comfortable enough to host a global event in the middle of what has been the most angering and discouraging event in hockey in Canada in recent memory tells us that its senior management is very comfortable in their positions. That beyond the chair of the board, no one, including COO Scott Smith nor CFO Brian Cairo, has resigned is unsettling.

Cairo testified at the hearings about why the organization decided to settle with woman who brought forward the allegations of sexual assault. “We didn’t know all the details of the night, but we did believe harm was caused,” he said.

Why would a responsible executive settle a gruesome sexual assault allegation without knowing exactly what happened? Why would that board of directors sign off on this settlement? Why was there no initial inquiry regarding all the players involved? These and more are the reason that Minister St. Onge suspended the government’s funding and why many sponsors are withholding their sponsorship.

WATCH | World junior tournament to proceed among controversy:

World junior hockey tournament to go ahead amidst Hockey Canada controversy

Ticket sales for the World Junior Hockey Championships in Edmonton are below expectations as the tournament kicks of this week in the shadow of an ongoing sexual assault scandal at Hockey Canada.

While I understand that reprimanding and exposing the missteps of leadership at Hockey Canada is essential, I also wonder about those who will be affected by this decision. Is there money to keep supporting the women’s programs as this mess is sorted out? 

Blayre Turnbull, who was assistant captain of the women’s team that won gold at the Beijing Olympics, said recently: “A lot of our money comes from the government and comes from other organizations like that. Our program would be greatly impacted if the freezing of funds continues to happen.”

I understand the importance of continuity of athletes in a pandemic. And as a sports journalist who often covers women’s sports and is an avid supporter, I also know that women’s tournaments are cancelled, rescheduled or shuffled very easily. 

Does the absolute breakdown of values and ethics not call for a postponement of Hockey Canada to host a hockey tournament? Shouldn’t its failure to act properly in response to the woman’s allegations result in a break from standard operating procedures and offer time to reassess and re-evaluate?

And plan. Where is the plan? 

Wouldn’t Canada not hosting and instead pausing to offer transparency send a message to players, coaches, staff and kids and families across the country that this horrific situation will not be ignored or glossed over? 

Team USA and Team Germany play before a near-empty arena in Edmonton as the world junior tournament began Tuesday. (Jason Franson/Canadian Press)

Do the players of that team not want this sorted out so that they can represent this country with pride and knowledge that the organization that governs them has principles they believe in?

This month’s world junior tournament cannot be a shield to distract from the mess that was created by Hockey Canada. I, for one, will be supporting the women’s team as best I can while not supporting much else. 

It is hard to take anything Hockey Canada does right now with anything but disdain and disbelief. If even Tim Hortons, one of the biggest supporters and billboards for Canadian hockey culture, pulls away from Hockey Canada, it’s not time to jump in and continue to host a tournament. 

Hockey Canada should have contacted other hockey organizations who are participating and asked to change the venues of the tournament, and perhaps ask other organizations for help. It would have set a precedent that they are trying to clean in-house and wash the laundry when both, metaphorically speaking, are wretchedly dirty and need airing out. 

Hockey Canada’s current state of affairs offers no confidence in its ability to lead anything. 

In the last few years we have seen how events get changed and shut down for a crisis in health. A crisis in basic humanity is a solid reason to shift the planning off the ice to the board room. 

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