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Last night’s 6-3 win over Switzerland advanced Canada to the semifinals of the rescheduled 2022 world junior hockey championship in Edmonton. Though they were a bit sloppy at times against a clearly inferior opponent, the host team showed once again why they’re favoured to win gold. Led by tournament scoring leader Mason McTavish and 17-year-old phenom Connor Bedard, Canada is now a perfect 5-0 for the tournament and has outscored its foes 33-10.
Hours after the Canadians’ victory, their biggest obstacle to winning the title was removed when the defending-champion United States suffered a stunning 4-2 upset at the hands of the Czech Republic. A U.S.-Canada rematch in the final had seemed highly probable after the Americans looked nearly as impressive as their cross-border rivals in the group stage. The U.S. went 4-0 and outscored its opponents by 18 goals, only two less than Canada’s combined margin of victory.
The remaining four teams are re-seeded for Friday’s semifinals, so Canada will now face a Czech team that, apart from its upset of the U.S., has looked pretty soft. The Czechs, who are officially known as Czechia in this tournament, finished fourth in their group after losing three of their four contests in that stage, including a 5-1 defeat by Canada last weekend. The rematch goes Friday at 4 p.m. ET. The other semifinal, at 8 p.m. ET, features Finland and Sweden, who finished second in their respective groups.
The Finns and Swedes are both capable of giving the hosts a challenge in Saturday night’s final (8 p.m. ET). But Canada is now the overwhelming favourite to win its record-extending 19th world junior title and third in five years. Question is, how many Canadians will actually care?
WATCH | Canada beats Switzerland, earns place in semifinals:
For an event that’s supposedly one of the sport’s crown jewels, and is taking place in a hockey hotbed, the attendance figures in Edmonton are pitiful. Less than 5,000 showed up for last night’s Canadian playoff game at 18,500-seat Rogers Place, and the home team has drawn an average of less than 4,300. Crowds (if you can call them that) for non-Canadian games have been in the hundreds. TSN hasn’t shared viewership numbers, but you can bet there’s a big drop-off there too.
The two main reasons for the lack of support aren’t exactly a secret. First, hockey in August is a tough sell to even diehard fans. We get that there were contractual obligations to fulfill after the first crack at the tournament was aborted in late December due to COVID-19 outbreaks — just don’t expect us to personally buy into an effort to make someone else’s business partners whole at a time of year when no one’s craving hockey. The world juniors pair nicely with a glass of eggnog in that cozy post-Christmas period. Not so much with light-beer-and-BBQ season.
Of course, that problem will dissolve when the tournament returns to its traditional Christmastime slot later this year in Halifax and Moncton. But the other big turnoff about the current tournament is not going to simply vanish like that.
A great deal of Canadians — hockey fans or not — are disgusted right now with the organization in charge of putting together Canada’s teams for the world juniors, and of hosting this year’s and next year’s event. Hockey Canada’s handling of sexual assault allegations — including the use of a slush fund, generated in part from children’s registration fees, to pay for settlements — touched a nerve with a country that was already grappling with the sport’s “culture” issues in the wake of disturbing cases of abuse. Results from a recent poll suggest that most Canadians think sexual harassment and sexual abuse are a “major issue” in youth hockey, and that there’s little confidence in Hockey Canada to fix it. Sure enough, even after being grilled on Parliament Hill, rebuked by the Prime Minister and abandoned by their corporate sponsors, the top guys have refused to step down.
Will the anger toward Hockey Canada fade as the next world juniors approaches? Probably — not because it should, but simply because that’s what anger just tends to do. But it’s doubtful that the outrage will completely disappear, and that Canadians will come flocking back in December like nothing ever happened. It’ll be hard to look at Hockey Canada quite the same way again. In fact, it’ll be hard to look at hockey in this country quite the same way again. So how could it be any different for the world juniors?