The city of Edmonton embraced the world junior hockey championship last winter before it was called off early because of COVID-19 infections among players. This year, however, the rescheduled tournament is facing a muted response as host organization Hockey Canada is under siege over its handling of sexual-assault allegations involving members of the 2018 Canadian team.
The annual tournament, which normally begins on Boxing Day, will start Tuesday, with the Hockey Canada scandal casting a pall over what would ordinarily be viewed as a flagship event in the global hockey community.
Teams from 10 countries will participate in the tourney among under-20-year-olds that runs through Aug. 20. Heading into the weekend, there was not much of a buzz ahead of the hockey showcase.
“It does feel different given the current climate,” said Kylee Quinn, marketing and communications officer for Hockey Edmonton, a minor-hockey association with nearly 10,000 members. “There is usually a lot of excitement around it, but this year it is quiet.”
The reason for the relative indifference is twofold. Partly it has to do with staging Canada’s winter sport when people are enjoying the summer. Mostly it is because of the anger and frustration that surrounds Hockey Canada.
Even Edmonton, through its municipal tourism organization, is among a growing list that have withdrawn support for the tournament.
“Explore Edmonton has paused its promotion and marketing efforts for this year’s IIHF world junior hockey championship,” Quinn Phillips, a manager of strategic communications, said in an e-mail. “As the host city for the upcoming tournament, we continue to have discussions with Hockey Canada officials about their plans to address the need for change.”
The City of Edmonton itself has said that it did not provide any sponsorship money to Hockey Canada for the rescheduled tournament.
“The city works hard to make Edmonton a safe and inclusive place and our efforts to that end include eliminating gender-based violence,” Carol Hurst, a city spokeswoman, said recently. “It is important to our organization and those we serve that we live these values.
“If and when the city has an opportunity to consider future sponsorship agreements with Hockey Canada, we will ensure the organization can meet our expectations of safety, accountability, respect and inclusion for anyone associated with the sport.”
Theresa Bailey, who established a national organization called Canadian Hockey Moms that has 40,000 members, said she was “deeply concerned about the allegations. People don’t come into hockey assaulting other people.
“It’s a legacy that is learned from generations before.”
The country’s national hockey federation has been rocked since it was revealed in late May that it quickly settled a lawsuit filed by a woman who said eight Canadian Hockey League players sexually assaulted her in 2018 after a Hockey Canada fundraising gala in London, Ont. The players have not been publicly identified, but include members of the 2018 Canadian world junior team.
Since then, Hockey Canada has become the subject of multiple investigations into the way it handled the complaint and was found to have used funds in part from registration fees paid by minor hockey players to settle abuse claims. In addition, it was recently alleged that a similar sexual assault took place in 2003 and included members of Canada’s world junior team as well.
As part of the fallout over the controversy, Michael Brind’Amour resigned as chair of Hockey Canada’s board of directors early on the weekend, and Sports Minister Pascale St-Onge called for additional leadership changes in the organization. “We are starting to see cracks in the fortress, that’s how the light gets in,” Ms. St-Onge said.
Hockey Canada’s sponsorship support, which brings in tens of millions of dollars each year, collapsed in the wake of the revelations, as brands rushed to distance themselves. PepsiCo Canada, whose stand on the matter has not been previously disclosed, told The Globe and Mail recently that it had “notified Hockey Canada that it was pausing its partnership and cancelling all planned marketing support.” The pause would continue until it is satisfied Hockey Canada has taken action to ensure a safe and inclusive environment, the company said.
No Hockey Canada partner has a more complicated relationship with the organization than Bell Media’s sports networks RDS and TSN, whose investigative reporter, Rick Westhead, broke the original story. He was encouraged by his bosses, even though sports broadcast executives have told The Globe that the withdrawal of ads from Hockey Canada-branded broadcasts, such as the world juniors, will likely cost the company several hundreds of thousands of dollars.
For decades, TSN and RDS were identified by Hockey Canada as premier marketing partners. Last month, the networks quietly asked the organization to alter its website to clarify they are, in fact, official broadcasting partners.
That fraught status played out on TSN’s broadcasts of the Hlinka Gretzky Cup, an annual international tournament for under-18 players that concluded Saturday in Red Deer, Alta.
In a series of tweets before the tournament, broadcaster Gord Miller said TSN executives had offered him the chance to sit out the network’s coverage. He explained that he wanted to help cover that tournament, as well as the world juniors and the women’s world championships at the end of August, because he doesn’t believe the players, coaches, and staff “should be punished for events that did not involve them.”
He added that “there are tens of thousands of volunteers across the country who give their time and energy to the sport. Many are speaking out and seeking changes to the culture.” He pledged that the broadcasts would “give those voices and others a national platform to discuss issues in the game, addressing changes that need to be made and how to make them.”
That can make for awkward television. At the top of its first broadcast of the Hlinka Cup on July 31, host Laura Diakun acknowledged the scandal was “hanging over not only this tournament, but all of hockey in Canada.” Broadcaster Craig Button then spoke of “the cloud” that Hockey Canada is operating under, and Mr. Miller urged “truth and transparency.”
Then, after a similar comment from broadcaster Dave Reid, Ms. Diakun said, “Let’s switch gears now and talk about the players we’re going to be seeing here over the next week.”
On Saturday, Hockey Canada acknowledged that it was challenging being the host of the world junior championship.
“Fans can rest assured that the same world-class calibre of hockey will exist on the ice in Edmonton,” said Dean McIntosh, the vice-president of events and properties for Hockey Canada. “The support from the local community that we have received so far has been incredible and we look forward to being able to experience the unprecedented nature of hosting the tournament in the summer. It will be a special moment for fans who have patiently waited.”
Sheldon Kennedy, the former National Hockey League player and abuse survivor, said the tournament provides a much-needed platform for Hockey Canada.
“It presents a teachable moment and can be a vehicle for change,” Mr. Kennedy said. “The issue of sexual abuse needs to be front and centre – not just at the beginning of the tournament.
“My issue with all of this is that we can do all of the work Hockey Canada wants in the trenches, but unless it is embraced by its leadership group it is never going to have the impact that is intended. This sits squarely on leadership’s shoulders.”
With a report from Simon Houpt
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