Just over halfway through the world junior hockey championship in Edmonton, a total of 20,540 fans have attended games – far off the pace from the hundreds of thousands of spectators who attended the entire tournament in Canada in the years before the sport’s troubling culture came under a microscope.
Held annually since 1977, the event traditionally starts on Boxing Day and has taken place in several participating countries. The tournament that began in Edmonton last December, however, was called off after three days because of COVID-19 infections among players. This is the first time it has been held in the summer.
While the time of year is a key factor in the low attendance at a winter sporting event, Hockey Canada concedes that concerns over its handling of sexual-assault allegations have also affected interest in the tournament.
“We recognize this world junior championship is going to look and feel different for fans for a few reasons,” Spencer Sharkey, a spokesperson for Canada’s national governing body for hockey, said in an e-mail. “First, the COVID-19 pandemic delayed this tournament to August; and second, there is understandable scrutiny from Canadians of Hockey Canada and the culture of hockey.”
Hockey Canada came under fire in late May, when it was revealed that the federally funded organization settled a sexual-assault lawsuit involving allegations against eight Canadian Hockey League players dating back to 2018. The players were not named in the claim and haven’t been publicly identified, but they include members of the country’s 2018 world junior team.
The federal government is conducting an audit to determine whether Hockey Canada used public funds to settle the lawsuit. Parliamentary hearings into the matter were held in June and July, giving MPs the opportunity to ask Hockey Canada executives about the organization’s use of a special account, known as the National Equity Fund, to settle sexual-assault claims. The fund, which was first detailed in a Globe and Mail investigation, is fed by player registration fees.
Hockey Canada’s sponsorship support, which brings in tens of millions of dollars each year, has collapsed as brands have rushed to distance themselves.
The 20,540 attendance figure was provided by Hockey Canada and applies to the first six days of the tournament, which featured 17 games. That’s an average of 1,208 spectators per game at Rogers Place – the Oilers’ 18,500-seat arena, where tickets are only being sold in the lower bowl. Preliminary-round games are historically less well-attended than later rounds. The quarter-finals start Wednesday.
Hockey Canada was granted the hosting rights by the Zurich-based International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF), which oversees the event that began Aug. 9 and runs through Aug. 20.
Mr. Sharkey said the IIHF, Hockey Canada and the governing bodies representing hockey in countries participating in the world juniors “make financial contributions to ensure the event takes place.” Net proceeds from the tournament are shared between the IIHF, the Canadian Hockey League, Hockey Canada and Hockey Canada’s 13 provincial and regional member branches, he said.
Ten countries participate in the world juniors, which Canada has recently been holding roughly every two years. University of Alberta professor of sport management Dan Mason said Canada can generally attract crowds – and revenues – that other countries can’t. “The tournament has certainly become a cash cow for Hockey Canada,” Prof. Mason said. “It’s very important to Hockey Canada’s bottom line, and it’s very important to the IIHF.”
Hockey Canada’s financial statements indicate that the world juniors make up a significant amount of the organization’s expenditures and revenues related to the various international events it hosts.
The financial statement for the fiscal year ending June 30, 2019, in which Hockey Canada played host to the tournament in B.C., shows the organization spent $23,838,044 on international event hosting and earned $36,417,937 from the same line item. The fiscal year prior, when the world juniors took place in the United States, Hockey Canada spent $3,690,227 on international event hosting and brought in $2,777,500 in related revenues.
Russia was supposed to hold the 2023 tournament, beginning in December of this year and ending in the new year, but the IIHF removed Russia’s hosting rights amid the continuing war in Ukraine.
The IIHF granted those rights to Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, providing Hockey Canada with an opportunity to generate revenue from the tournament this winter. The hosting announcement was made in early May – before news of the 2018 sexual-assault allegations broke, and before the surfacing of another alleged sexual assault involving members of Canada’s 2003 world junior team in Halifax, which was a co-host of that year’s tournament.
“With the 2023 world juniors slated to be hosted in Halifax and Moncton, the expectation is that there will be full-capacity crowds for all 30 games,” Hockey Canada’s manager of corporate communications, Jeremy Knight, said in an e-mail. “We look forward to the tournament returning to its traditional time of year in December.”
When the 2012 world juniors was held in Calgary and Edmonton, for example, overall attendance was around 445,000. Roughly 30,000 out-of-town visitors attended the event, which generated an estimated $86.2-million in economic activity for the province of Alberta, according to Sport Tourism Canada, an organization founded through a partnership with Crown corporation Destination Canada.
The cancellation of the tournament last winter and this summer’s low attendance will inevitably affect local businesses in Alberta. When the world juniors were called off at the end of December, politicians and business leaders in Edmonton and co-host Red Deer expressed concern for small-business owners in the hospitality industry.
This summer’s tournament has a markedly different feel from the games held in Edmonton last December or in the city back in 2012. It was so quiet during Team Canada’s first game last week, against Latvia, that players could be heard talking on the bench. There were just 2,779 fans in the stands.
With a report from Simon Houpt in Toronto
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