Public Health, Safety At Forefront As IIHF Calls Off Women’s World Championship

After careful consideration due to the spread of the novel coronavirus, Hockey Canada announced on March 7th the cancellation of the women’s world championship. The decision was made on Saturday after a phone call with the IIHF Congress.

This is the second time a women’s world hockey championship has had to be cancelled because of disease, as per The Canadian Press. Last it happened, it was back in 2004, this due to the widespread outbreak of SARS. Regardless, for the women involved, it only presents them with yet another setback.

It all started back in May when the world of sports was taken for a turn as the Canadian Women’s Hockey League announced its shuttering due to poor economics after twelve seasons operated. However, this was only the start as more was to come just four months later when the Four Nations Cup was suddenly cancelled due to a conflict with the Swedish Hockey League. That saw the Swedish National Team boycott the season while fighting for pay.

Teri Di-Lauro/PWHPA

As a couple months went by, that gave the staff and players time off to think which later led to the sporadic formation of the Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association. This became the voice of the players with a board of directors put in place just for the starters, though as time carried on, the group sought out Jayna Hefford who would later be named as operations consultant.

Given the lack of attention to women’s pro hockey and the the struggle of resources, many big names started falling like tiles from the NWHL in an act of solidarity. As such, the PA gained players such as Shannon Szabados and Kendall Coyne Schofield, though this was only another step to be had as 200 athletes came together as one.

With a strong response to the movement, the PWHPA started getting to work while building a system to support them en route to the standard of hockey that they have pining for. As such, with the group now established as a home for the players to have all their needs met, the PWHPA, led by Jayna Hefford, welcomed Ballard and Spahr as their pro bono legal team.

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This only got the ball rolling for all the momentum that was soon to follow. On Tuesday December 17th, the PWHPA announced the inaugural Dream Gap Tour. The Dream Gap Tour is a travelling hockey showcase, displaying the world’s best roster of talent.

Since the holiday season, this has given the athletes a platform to play on, but instead of a weekly schedule put together with a full skid of the games, the 200-plus participating are hitting the ice by the month and by ear. This is while keeping in mind that in the CWHL’s final season, the players saw 40 games, home and away.

These efforts don’t go unnoticed with thanks to Jayna and Chelsea Purcell as many sponsors this year have stepped up, this letting them globally showcase their skillsets. Prior to the start of the season, the PWHPA made a special announcement as the NHLPA, in September, agreed to join forces as the tour’s premier sponsor. With their support to date, the player’s jerseys have patches to recognize the partnership. Not only that, but with thanks to both Bauer and Adidas who quickly jumped on as proud partners respectively, the Dream Gap Tour is made possible with equipment provided and financial backing.

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That would bring us forward to the start of the tour in Toronto where Unifor Canada jumped on as a sponsor for a four-game showcase in Etobicoke, Ontario. Since the first tour stop concluded, the love and support had only helped guide them. Looking back to October, the PWHPA saw a pair of showcases with appearances in New Hampshire thanks to Dunkin’ and later in Chicago at Fifth Third Arena. The stop, which was made possible thanks to Magellan Corporation, saw the support of Billie-Jean King, a long-time advocate of equal rights for women.

Since that time, the tour has attracted more sponsors and partners as November was spent adding more to the fold while a movement took place for all members involved. The movement, #ForTheGame, was launched by Budweiser, a PA premier partner, this garnering support from around the country for a viable league for the world’s best players. Since then, it has helped lead the way for the stops that came after and the work that went into them. As well, it helped further spread the message that girls of all ages can do anything they put their minds to.

Fast forward to 2020, this coming after a quiet December, the PWHPA, on January 11th and 12th, held a six-game showcase back in Toronto, Ontario. The showcase, which saw six games played in three different parts in just 48 hours, was sponsored by Secret, the tour’s title supporter, for meaningful change and equality in sports. Regardless of how many games, the holiday gap is a matter of question. It raised concerns for all players involved as to time on the ice and effects on their progress.

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That is essentially where HockeyCanada falls into the mix. With many of the PWHPA’s players all current members of the National Women’s Team, the organization announced back in August that they would step up to assist those athletes. As such, they have willingly agreed to provide players with mini camps and added supports. Through the offers agreed to, this also includes training sessions run with their coaches and extra ice time for skills and development.

Following a quiet January after the showcase and an empty February, this was the only hope left to ensure that the players were being well looked after. Further to that extent, this only saw two stops remaining on the Dream Gap Tour, but aside from those two-day displays, these women involved didn’t have much to go on. As a result, for Canada’s athletes, the only other action they saw was with Hockey Canada working out for the championships. The team’s members were meeting periodically, this forming chemistry for the tournament in April. In lieu of the cancellation, the last full-team tune up was cancelled in Montreal.

However, despite the misfortune at hand, the IIHF assured in a press release that the Women’s World Championship would return next year to the host country Canada, once again in Nova Scotia. As mentioned to the media via conference call with Hockey Canada on Saturday March 7th, COO Scott Smith confirmed that this would be the case pending confirmation. The reason for that, as cited, would be due to conflict with the host country, Russia. As Smith cited in the phone call when discussing the plans for 2021, he said that since the next host was in order, the IIHF would make the final decision.

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As such, once approved and confirmed, this would present certain changes in the years to come as Russia would then host in 2023 while altering plans as a result of the Olympics. With the Women’s World Championship cancelled, many discussions were being had internally, these ranging anywhere from hosting earlier to hosting as planned, but without any fans.

This idea was talked about during the conference call with Hockey Canada where Scott Smith said with regards to safety and the best way logically to avoid further spreading, “As Tom mentioned early in the call, our focus has been on events that are under our responsibility and given the international component of the women’s world championship, this was our first priority. Hockey Canada continues to evaluate its daily business as well as the hosting of our national championships and we will continue to evaluate weekly and at this present time, there is no decision to change our plans to host our national championships in April and May.”

Due to the rapid growth of cases globally from COVID-19, Hockey Canada was asked ahead of time if Team Japan could enter Canada early. With this being subject to threats of quarantine back in their home country, Hockey Canada spoke on March 6th with the IIHF to determine appropriate steps. This then led to involvement of Nova Scotia’s chief medical officer of health who deemed it unsafe to progress any further with regards to discussions regarding the tournament. Just four days later, the spread of the virus was deemed a pandemic by the World Health Organization. With that thought in mind, this meant that large crowds couldn’t be held, this forcing the shutdown of major sports and other events that were scheduled around the globe.

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In part, to stop the spread of the virus, the World Health Organization declared that all individuals stay six-feet away as the rapid infection could be transmitted from the air. Given the risks and uncertainty, both basketball and hockey quickly came to a halt. Of course this meant Hockey Canada would be cancelling its schedule for the season’s remainder. In a statement to that effect from former coach and CEO Tom Renney, he said, “The International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) has diligently monitored the development and risk of the coronavirus (COVID-19), and under the recommendation of the chief medical officer of health of the Province of Nova Scotia and the IIHF, it was determined the best course of action was to cancel the event. This decision was made in the best interest of the players, fans, staff, volunteers and the general public, and we fully support the IIHF’s decision. Our organization has been assured by the IIHF that it will honour Hockey Canada’s hosting agreement and that the IIHF Women’s World Championship will return to Halifax and Truro in 2021, subject to formal approval by the IIHF Congress. A tremendous amount of work has been put forth by our athletes, staff, the host organizing committee and our partners, and we look forward to continuing to prepare for this world-class event when it returns to Nova Scotia in 2021.”

Truly, at the end of the day, the decision comes down to the IIHF and given their phone call on March 6th to dismantle the tournament prior to cancelling, president Rene Fasel said in a statement, this following guidance from experts and authority, “It is with great regret that we must take this action. Nevertheless, the decision has been made due to safety concerns for the well-being of players, officials, and spectators.”

With the Women’s Worlds having been cancelled, this being the first time in sixteen years, it adds to the struggles and difficulty this season for the athletes involved not being paid to play. Further to that regard, when expressing their dismay given the global crisis, Tom and Scott weren’t alone as they were joined by Olympian Gina Kingsbury. Gina, who’s currently director of women’s national teams at Hockey Canada, further spoke on the annual tournament and the challenges faced for the players to get there.

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With that thought reoccurring, Kingsbury said of their unusual situation, “This has been a very unique and difficult season, and while it has given us the opportunity to prepare for worlds with our mini-camps, this is tremendously disappointing for our athletes, coaches and staff who have been working tirelessly all season. Anytime we can represent our country it is a special honour and we are proud to have that opportunity. Turning our attention towards the 2021 world championship, nothing changes in our preparations; we will continue to build our team and focus on competing for a gold medal on home ice next year.”

Working towards Nova Scotia has been a long road for many selectees who instead of playing regularly on weekends have pushed their bodies to the limit instead. Whether this be through the Dream Gap Tour or additional programming with Hockey Canada, these women have fought through thick and thin to ensure that they leave the game better than they found it. Not only that, but a few selectees also spent the season in the NCAA.

With the women’s game at a crossroads and this tournament presenting another bump in the road, The Puck Authority spoke on Monday March 9th with Canadian Olympian Jayna Hefford. Jayna, who played for Brampton, is the former commissioner of the Canadian Women’s Hockey League and back in August, she was named by the PA as leader of the pack with a brand new title. Just like everyone else, this was not easy news to comprehend or process and while it didn’t quite effect her directly, it was saddening to hear on the part of her players. “The PWHPA was very disappointed to hear about the cancellation of the Women’s World Hockey Championships,” Jayna said. “Many of our players have been training all season to compete in this event, so it was devastating news to the players, coaches, and fans. We are thankful to Hockey Canada, the IIHF and all other organizing groups for making a decision that puts the players, and the hockey community’s health and safety first. We all look forward to next years championship in Halifax.”

Shanna Martin-Book/PWHPA

Speaking of the athletes involved, a handful were playing in Tempe, Arizona, but shortly after the series concluded, the players were informed of yet another harsh setback. Sarah Nurse, who played in the Dream Gap Tour, took to Twitter after having been told where she said with regards to the tournament itself and her own well being and that of her teammates, “Health & Safety come first, but this is pretty crushing news. Thank you to the cities of Halifax & Truro for all of the time and effort put into hosting this years Women’s Worlds. We’re looking so forward to coming back and playing at home in Nova Scotia in 2021!”

Much like the Hamilton native, Renata Fast said to Hailey Salvian, “I think everyone is just kind of in disbelief right now and really upset. The American girls, they’re (feeling) the same, they’re … it’s just tough, the year that we’re having.” As one would surely expect, a flurry of others soon followed as well. This included Natalie Spooner who took to Twitter while briefly stating, “So sad to learn about the cancellation of the Women’s World Championships.”

Now, just like any story you’re told, there’s always more than one side to dig into and while the athletes are of course the main focus, the implications of it all are outnumbered. With that being said, The Puck Authority decided to play Devil’s Advocate, this being a way for both readers and fans to get the story in full from the inside out. As such, on Wednesday March 11th, The Puck Authority spoke with Katrina Galas who is a member of In Common Consulting and a former executive with the Toronto Furies.

Antti Aimo-Koivisto/The Associated Press

While speaking in length with Katrina, who currently works as a sport strategy consultant, she, like Hefford and Kingsbury, led off in saying despite the saddening outcome, “Growing the game and its visibility never stops, even if the IIHF World Championship does. A heartfelt congratulations to all the players that were officially announced to the 2020 Team Canada roster, the City of Halifax for showing great sportsmanship in welcoming the opportunity to host next year instead, and to all the staff and volunteers that are impacted by this unfortunate decision, but will embrace all involved back again next year with their infectious Halifax energy and Canadian hospitality and pride.”

Just 24 hours following the cancellation from the IIHF, Hockey Canada, as mentioned to the media via conference call, unveiled their roster to honour those who were selected. That would be where surprise comes in with some key talents not being named. Amongst those who would not be sent include Ann-Sophie Bettez, defensemen Laura Fortino and Ontario forwards Rebecca Johnston and Meghan Agosta. That of course paved the way for a handful of names to make their debuts abroad. As such, this list included Victoria Bach, Sarah Fillier and Claire Thompson.

While that opened some eyes, it was well deserved for their season with Princeton. Not only that, but this season, they played for a former National Team member in Courtney Kessel. Kessel, now coaching the Tigers, was formerly the head coach of the Toronto Furies. Much like Jayna Hefford, she was also a member of the Brampton Thunder. While the roster came as a shock, it was more-so a treat for the fanbase that follows as Hockey Canada, with decorated help, put together a roster that would surely impress.

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With assistance from Hayley Wickenheiser, Cassie Campbell and Jayna Hefford, Gina Kingsbury picked talent carefully with a number of players who are equally promising. When speaking further in with Katrina about the honour to play while competing nationally, Katrina said of the goals that they had and the worldwide attention they would get on that stage, “As Billie Jean King is known to say, “Pressure is a privilege – it only comes to those who earn it.” Not only does the entire Canadian team earn the pressure, they have also earned our respect, both for the depth of talent they have on the ice, and the resilience they have shown for what has likely been the most frustrating year of their careers.”

Given the year of frustration, not able to play a full 40-game schedule, the pressure had mounted upon the players internally as they set off this season to grow the women’s pro game. When speaking to that effect and the similarities in characteristics they share, Katrina said, “The cancellation of Worlds almost exactly a year after the unexpected folding of the 12 year old CWHL. Both outcomes were beyond their control, but impact the game in immeasurable ways. The only way to move forward amongst these circumstances is to believe that every set back is a set up for a comeback, and I have no doubt that is what they all have in mind.”

For 18 of their 200-plus members, that’s exactly what they had in mind as the PWHPA, since January 11th, was preparing internally for the venture of a lifetime. With that being said, after ongoing talks with the JIHF, the two sides agreed to a three-game series to grow the women’s game further while extending their margins. Unfortunately, due to COVID-19, that series for March was later cancelled for safety. Now, with the Dream Gap concluded, the players and staff look ahead to next season.

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While they once again face uncertainty while making their case for a viable hockey league, the inaugural Dream Gap Tour will be no longer as they enter year two under Hefford and Purcell. As such, that comes with initiatives that have to be placed if not done so already. Of course, this once again factors into implications of the game and the national tournament. When speaking of what needs to happen with Hockey Canada largely factoring into it, Katrina mentioned the importance of their presence as it weighs on them equally to grow girls and women’s hockey. “There is also pressure that is earned by Hockey Canada, and the entire spectrum of its media and corporate partners, to take responsibility for continuing to build positive momentum around the game and these players despite this news, and proactively take this opportunity to work even more deeply with the team in Halifax to reposition this situation as being awarded 12 more months to plan and bring to life the best World Championship this country has ever hosted,” Katrina said.

Hockey, for as long as it’s been played, has always been known as a Canadian sport as the NHL was first launched in Quebec while the game on its own was grown up across the country. Because of that notion alone, an event of this magnitude is very exciting and with 12 months of time now at their fingertips, Hockey Canada can ensure its done properly. As for the players and staff, the same goals lie ahead at the end of the summer.

With continuous help from sponsors and others, these women can strive towards greatness and history. Perhaps time is of the essence as a blessing in disguise looking on to next season. In closing, when discussing in depth the numerous takeaways amid the coronavirus, Katrina said of the potential for success, “This way, all stakeholders have time to work together in new and innovative ways to help set a new trajectory for how to host this event, work diligently to create a waiting list for investing in the women’s game, and ultimately then relieve some of the pressure that the game has faced this year. Game on, Canada is waiting!”

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