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OPINION: Cold hands, small crowds: reflections from a weird world junior championship

Sweden's Liam Ohgren (25), checks Switzerland's Nick Meile (2) as a fan watches during second period IIHF World Junior Hockey Championship action in Edmonton on August 10, 2022. Between scandals, summer and a relative lack of star power, tickets to the world junior hockey championships haven’t been a huge draw. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson

EDMONTON — I'm not used to wearing a parka in August. 

It's a necessity, though, at Rogers Place this month where I'm covering the world junior hockey championship for The Canadian Press. 

The thermometer may read 30 degrees outside, but up in the makeshift press area on the arena's fifth floor, I've taken to wearing a bulky winter jacket to avoid frozen fingers and chattering teeth.

Unexpected cold and odd apparel are just some of the things that have made this tournament unique. 

The world juniors are known as a Christmas-time showcase of the best under-20 hockey players from around the globe. It's an event many athletes and fans alike eagerly anticipate every winter. 

While the initial 2022 tournament began in Edmonton and Red Deer, Alta., last December, play was called off after just four days when rising COVID-19 cases among players and officials forced several games to be forfeited. 

Instead of scrapping the event entirely, the International Ice Hockey Federation moved it to August.

In the meantime, Hockey Canada was struck by scandal when sexual assault allegations arose against players on two of its former world junior teams. The allegations prompted parliamentary inquiries and the federal government has frozen its funding of the organization. 

Longtime sponsors like Telus, Canadian Tire and Tim Hortons pulled their money, too, leaving the ice and surrounding boards at Rogers Place devoid of the usual logos. 

Despite the increased scrutiny, Hockey Canada pressed on with hosting the tournament.

Some stars, though, opted to stay home. 

The IIHF has allowed players who've already turned 20 to participate in the tournament because of the delay, but some players decided to miss the tournament for various reasons, including preparing for NHL training camps next month. 

Canada is missing defenceman Owen Power, the first overall pick in the 2022 NHL entry draft, and forward Shane Wright, who was taken fourth overall by the Seattle Kraken in July. 

The Canadians fared just fine without the top-end talent, going undefeated through four preliminary round games. They'll take on Switzerland (1-3) in the quarterfinals on Wednesday. 

Slovakia, meanwhile, was missing Juraj Slafkovsky and Simon Nemec — the No. 1 and 2 picks in this year's draft — and missed the playoffs after going 0-3-1 in round-robin action. 

There are no Russian players in this year's competition, either, with the IIHF banning the country from participating due to its ongoing invasion of Ukraine. 

Between scandals, summer and a relative lack of star power, tickets to the world juniors haven't been a huge draw. The 20 preliminary round games saw an average attendance of 1,319. 

The world juniors generally see fans from around the globe come decked out in colourful jerseys and face paint, and armed with signs. Instead, this year's crowd seems to be largely made up of folks wearing Team Canada apparel. 

Around the rink, too, the boisterous atmosphere that generally accompanies the tournament is largely absent. 

Crowds packed the Ice District and bars and restaurants around downtown Edmonton in May as the Oilers pushed through the playoffs to the Western Conference Finals. Now, the same spaces are largely empty. Finding a parking space near the rink is downright easy — though still outrageously expensive. 

Even the 50/50 jackpot has been impacted by the strange confluence of events. 

When the 2021 tournament was held in a bubble in Edmonton due to COVID-19, hockey fans showed their support by playing online — creating eye-popping multimillion-dollar jackpots. One Alberta woman took home $8.7 million. 

This time around, draws are being held in several provinces online and tickets are being sold in person at Rogers Arena. But instead of a 50/50 for every day, there's just one pot to be split. 

As of Wednesday afternoon — eight days into the tournament — the jackpot in Alberta sat at just over $192,000. 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 17, 2022.

Gemma Karstens-Smith, The Canadian Press