The world junior hockey championship returns to its traditional Boxing Day start on Monday, only this time it is under much different circumstances.
Hockey Canada’s flagship event, which features the best young players from across the world, will take place amid the fallout from alleged sex-assault scandals that have rocked the organization for the past eight months.
While fans are returning to the seats, sponsors are staying away and a cloud continues to hang over the host organization, which is struggling to reset its direction with new leadership.
Almost 90 per cent of tickets to attend games to be held in Moncton and Halifax have sold already, a marked increase over the average of fewer than 2,000 spectators who attended tournament games when it was held in Edmonton over the summer.
Fans are clamouring to catch a glimpse of one of Canada’s strongest teams in years, led by Connor Bedard and Shane Wright, both considered generational talents. The Canadians easily won each of their pretournament exhibition contests in Moncton over Switzerland and Slovakia. They play their first game of the preliminary round against Czechia on Monday night in Halifax.
“All the support from the fans in Moncton has been incredible,” Wright, Team Canada’s captain, said earlier in the week. “They have been cheering us on since we got here, and as players we love that. It is nice to be on home soil and have Canadian fans cheering us on.”
Major sponsors have shown no such enthusiasm. They abandoned the tournament in the summer – it was rescheduled from last winter after players on multiple teams were infected with COVID-19 – and remain on the sidelines still.
The Bank of Nova Scotia, Tim Hortons, Telus, Esso and others first paused support for Hockey Canada events this past June, in response to the organization’s handling of allegations into an alleged 2018 sexual assault.
In October, corporate partners further distanced themselves from Hockey Canada after parliamentary hearings in Ottawa where then-interim-chair Andrea Skinner defended the organization’s actions and resisted calls for a change in its leadership.
Within days, a number of sponsors announced they were pulling all financial support for Hockey Canada men’s programming for the entirety of the 2022-23 season. Canadian Tire went a step further, cutting ties with the organization permanently.
After that announcement, Sobeys confirmed that it had chosen not to renew its Hockey Canada sponsorship – which had been limited to the women’s national team – when that deal expired in June, saying company leaders were “disgusted” with the allegations and the organization’s response. Hankook Tire also permanently terminated its sponsorship.
And Hockey Canada’s official equipment provider, Bauer Hockey, pulled support for the men’s teams, including providing free equipment such as helmets and gloves. It said profits from any equipment Hockey Canada purchases in the future would be redirected to programs for under-represented groups.
Skinner, CEO Scott Smith and the entire board of directors subsequently stepped down. Sponsors welcomed the election last weekend of a new board that will oversee Hockey Canada and hire a CEO, but some are waiting to see what actions its leaders take before they consider restoring support.
In an e-mailed statement, Bank of Nova Scotia chief marketing officer Laura Curtis Ferrera wrote that the election of a new board represents “progress” and reiterated previous calls to hold the sport “to a higher standard.”
“We believe hockey is at an important juncture in its history,” Curtis Ferrera wrote. “ … We believe this is an important step in a long journey of regaining the trust of Canadians and we, alongside hockey fans from coast to coast, will continue to hold Hockey Canada accountable.
“Currently, our sponsorship pause of Hockey Canada remains in effect as we await the new board’s strategic direction and selection of a new leadership team. Ultimately, our position still hasn’t wavered: The time for change is long overdue.”
Tim Hortons spokesperson Michael Oliveira also confirmed that no changes have been made to the brand’s plans to withhold sponsorship support for the 2022-23 season. He declined further comment.
In addition, BDO Canada continues to pause its partnership, and in a statement, the company said it will monitor Hockey Canada’s progress on measures the organization outlined in July to prevent future abuses.
Chevrolet Canada also confirmed that its sponsorship remains paused, though it welcomed the new board as a “step in the right direction.”
“We love hockey and we will continue to evaluate our support and sponsorship going forward to ensure this organization, under its new leadership, fits with our values,” spokesperson Jennifer Wright wrote in an e-mailed statement.
Originally, the tournament was scheduled to be held in Russia but the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) moved it and banned the Russian team in response to the country’s invasion of Ukraine. In May, Halifax and Moncton were announced as co-hosts.
Usually, host cities have several years to prepare, but Halifax and Moncton were already working on a joint proposal for a future event and quickly stepped into the void.
Mike Savage, the Halifax mayor, does not regret the decision. Team Canada will play its four preliminary-round games at its 10,500-seat Scotiabank Centre and all are sold out.
“People are pumped for this,” Savage said. “Downtown Halifax and Dartmouth will be crazy. I am glad to host it. We will put on a good show.”
Team USA will play its first four games at the 8,800-seat Avenir Centre in Moncton.
John Wishart, the CEO of the Chamber of Commerce for Greater Moncton, said he was shocked this summer when he saw games in Edmonton before very spare crowds.
“In contrast, there wasn’t an empty seat here on Monday,” Wishart said, referring to Canada’s 6-0 exhibition triumph over Switzerland. “The mood was great.”
Restaurants and hoteliers in both host cities hope for an economic boost.
“After the last two and a half years of COVID, this is gravy on the turkey,” Wishart said.
The summer redo in Edmonton fared poorly because it was held amid numerous allegations against Hockey Canada. Earlier, the organization had quietly settled a complaint with a 20-year-old woman who alleged she had been sexually assaulted in 2018 by members of that year’s world junior team after a fundraising event in London, Ont. The complainant sought $3.55-million in damages; it is not clear how much she received.
In a recent filing to the Ontario Court of Justice, London police investigators said they had reasonable grounds to believe that five players took part in a group attack against her.
In addition, an investigation is being conducted into an alleged sexual assault of a woman in Halifax by members of Canada’s team at the 2003 world junior championship. This week, a Halifax police spokesman said investigators are pursuing numerous avenues and will take the time necessary to conduct a thorough investigation.
The governments of Nova Scotia and New Brunswick required Hockey Canada’s players, coaches and staff to undergo an enhanced screening process and complete sexual violence and consent training. Managers within the IIHF, ice hockey’s world governing body, were also required to take the same training.