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COVID-19 felled another sporting icon on Wednesday when the International Ice Hockey Federation abruptly shut down the World Junior Championships amid a growing number of infected players and forfeited games.

The tournament between 10 men’s national under-20 teams from around the world has been held every year since 1977. It is beloved by Canadians because it has offered sneak previews of future superstars such as Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux, Alex Ovechkin, Sidney Crosby and Connor McDavid.

The event, hosted by Hockey Canada, was being staged this year in Edmonton and Red Deer, Alta. It started on the day after Christmas. The finals were to conclude on Jan. 5.

“I know people around the world are disappointed, but I can’t imagine how disappointed the players are,” Tom Renney, the chief executive of Hockey Canada, said during a virtual news conference on Wednesday night. “We did the very best we can. We came up against an opponent that was not on the ice and was bigger than all of us.”

The IIHF said the cancellation was necessary to ensure the health and safety of all participants. It cited the ongoing spread of the coronavirus and the rise of the highly contagious new Omicron variant as reasons. Soaring numbers of COVID-19 cases were reported across Canada on Wednesday, especially in Quebec, Ontario, Alberta and British Columbia.

At the World Juniors, the United States, Russia and Czechia had already been forced into forfeits after team members tested positive. Four games had been cancelled in the past two days.

“We knew from the beginning that this would be a competition unlike any of the others,” said Luc Tardif, the IIHF’s president. “We owed it to the participating teams to do our best to create the conditions necessary for this event to work. But with the forfeitures, we saw it was impossible to continue in a fair way.”

“We took steps to reinforce protocols and the steps we took were not too late, but the variant was ahead of us.”

Tardif said the IIHF and other organizers will undertake a feasibility study in a month or so to see if there is a way to re-play these World Juniors next summer. The Dec., 2022 and 2023 events are scheduled to take place in Russia and Finland, respectively.

“We want to come back and deliver this competition,” Tardif said. “It is easy to say, but sometimes not so easy to do. But we are going to be really motivated to find a way and come back with a surprise.”

Late last week the IIHF cancelled four under-18 women’s events that were to take place in 2022, including next month’s world championship in Sweden, and two men’s under-20 tournaments. This is the second straight year the under-18 Women’s World Championship has been cancelled as a result of the pandemic.

Tardif said the IIHF will also make attempts to reschedule all of those events for this summer.

“Give us time and judge us at the end of the story,” Tardif said. “I hope everyone will be happy.”

Complications because of COVID-19 also led to NHL players being pulled out of the 2022 Beijing Olympics last week, and to the final three games being cancelled in an exhibition series between the women’s national teams from Canada and the U.S.

Before the shutdown, Canada won its first two games at the World Junior Championships. It beat Austria 11-2 on Tuesday with four goals from 16-year-old Connor Bedard, making the teenager from North Vancouver the youngest player in history to score four in a game at the tournament. Gretzky scored three in 1977, when he was 16.

With NHL players out of the Olympics for the second time in a row, the World Juniors were generating even more excitement than usual. Canada, the U.S. and Russia are always listed among the pre-tournament favourites. Canada and the U.S. looked especially strong this year.

“Our hearts go out to the players and staff of not just our country, but every nation, who have worked so hard and sacrificed so much, to get to this point,” John Vanbiesbrouck, the general manager of the U.S. national team, wrote in a post on Twitter. “We are proud of our team for doing everything that has been asked of it and will work to ensure their safe return home.”

“Our thanks also to the IIHF, Hockey Canada and everyone associated with efforts to put on the World Junior Championships in these challenging times.”

The tournament is an enormous undertaking, with months upon months of planning necessary in any year. The preparation was even more challenging this time because of COVID-19. Tardif said organizers had worked on it for six months.

The tournament was held in Edmonton last year without crowds, and teams were subjected to tighter COVID-19 restrictions than they initially were this year. Omicron began spreading just as teams arrived in Alberta for this year’s event.

“To stop in the middle of the road is very difficult,” Tardif said.

Hockey Canada said it had worked tirelessly to stage a world-class, international event in a safe and healthy environment.

“Despite our best efforts, and continually adapting and strengthening protocols, we have fallen short of our goal due to the challenges of the current COVID-19 landscape,” the organization said in a statement released on Wednesday. “Although we know this is the right decision, we sympathize with all participants who have earned the opportunity to represent their countries on the world stage and that will not be able to realize that dream in its entirety.”

Renney, the Hockey Canada CEO, called Wednesday a “sad day.”

Nobody would argue.

“For most kids in this tournament there will be nothing bigger in their hockey career – and it is gone in an instant,” Ray Ferraro, the TSN analyst, said Wednesday. “I feel awful.”

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