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Unusual world junior men's hockey championship set to open in Edmonton

Defending champion Canada opens the tournament Saturday against Germany.
United States goalie Dustin Wolf (32) makes the save on Finland's Roby Jarventie (13) as Mathew Beniers (10) defends during third period IIHF World Junior Hockey Championship pre-competition action in Edmonton on Tuesday, December 22, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson

A world junior men's hockey championship like no other opens Friday in Edmonton with zero spectators and teams walled off from the general public because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The world under-20 tournament at Rogers Place is modelled on the NHL's "bubble", which allowed that league to complete the 2019-20 season in the same arena without any positive tests for the novel coronavirus over an eight-week span.

Defending champion Canada opens the tournament Saturday against Germany.

Shorter in duration with fewer personnel than when the NHL post-season "bubble" started, the 12-day, 10-country tournament is still a major logistical undertaking for Hockey Canada and the host committee. 

That it wasn't cancelled along with so many other International Ice Hockey Federation tournaments in 2020 indicates a determination to televise live games to hockey fans looking for a distraction from the pandemic's grim effect on lives and the economy.

The Alberta government didn't pull the plug on the tournament despite a spike in cases in the pandemic's second wave.

Hockey Canada vice-president of events Dean McIntosh said the province has been "incredibly supportive."

"We have an opportunity to give Canadians a gift here at Christmas time as well," McIntosh said. "The holiday season, the tradition of the world juniors has been great."

The tournament generated a $22-million profit the last time it was held in Alberta in 2012. 

That money was split between Hockey Canada, the Canadian Hockey League, the IIHF, Hockey Alberta and the minor hockey associations of host cities Edmonton and Calgary.

But ticket revenue this year from a tournament that regularly does big business in Canada will be limited to buyers who don't ask for a refund, but instead keep their tickets for the 2022 tournament awarded back to Edmonton and Red Deer, Alta.

The teenage players must follow the same protocols NHL players did in August and September such as daily tests and regular temperature checks, but with the addition of contact-tracing beacons embedded in their event credentials.

When they're not on the ice, players are largely confined to their team's floor in one of two hotels.

Unlike the NHL hub in the summer and early fall, Edmonton's winter temperatures aren't conducive to shooting hoops and hanging around food trucks in the hotel courtyard.

Entry into the 2021 tournament secure zone was bumpy with positive COVID-19 test results eliminating six pre-tournament games and extending quarantines for both Sweden and Germany.

Sweden overhauled its coaching staff before departing for Canada because the head coach and three assistants tested positive for the virus.

Canada's selection camp was interrupted by a 14-day quarantine after two players tested positive.

The host country is arguably in the easier of the two pools alongside Finland, Slovakia, Switzerland and Germany.  

Russia, United States, Sweden, the Czech Republic and Austria comprise Pool B.

The top four teams in each group advance to quarterfinals Jan. 2, followed by semifinals Jan. 4 and the championship game Jan. 5.

Depending on the COVID-19 situation and restrictions in their respective countries, the number of league games each player has under his belt coming into the tournament varies widely.

Russian, Finnish and Swedish players in the tournament have played something resembling a regular season in their respective leagues.  

There are Canadian and American players who haven't appeared in a real game in months because the Western and Ontario major junior leagues won't start until 2021. 

A handful of players are living hockey "bubble" life a second time after experiencing it with their respective NHL teams this past summer.

No relegation round this year helps countries like Slovakia, Germany and Austria, which are assured a return trip to Alberta for the 2022 world junior tournament.

Countries that might have earned promotion can't because the second-tier championship was cancelled.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 23, 2020.

Donna Spencer, The Canadian Press

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