EDMONTON — Bob Nicholson rolled out of bed, checked his cell phone and suddenly became the central figure in that meme of the dog in the flaming coffee shop.
This is fine.
On Tuesday, the Swedish Ice Hockey Federation announced that head coach Tomas Montén and forward Albin Grewe had tested positive for COVID-19. Also testing positive in recent days were Swedish players William Wallinder, Karl Henriksson and William Eklund, leaving all four players and three affected coaches ineligible to make the trip to Edmonton for the world junior tournament.
A few minutes later, a German Ice Hockey Federation release told of two players on its preliminary roster for the tournament, Lukas Reichel and Nino Kinder, having tested positive. Then came the news that the novel coronavirus had found its way into IIHF headquarters, infecting president Rene Fasel and general secretary Horst Lichtner.
Meanwhile, Team USA had already announced lineup changes forced by COVID-19 on Monday, as they prepare to arrive in Edmonton on Dec. 13. And of course, Team Canada only got on the ice again Tuesday after a 14-day, team-wide quarantine.
“You think every day, ‘Man, this is going to be tough.’ But every situation isn’t easy,” said Nicholson, vice-president for the IIHF and the chairman of the Oilers Entertainment Group.
“We’ll just have to be really tough on our protocols.”
Due to begin on Christmas Day, is it now fair to question if Hockey Canada and the Oilers will be able to pull off the 2021 world junior tournament?
Anyone who tests positive after Nov. 29 — two weeks prior to team arrivals in Edmonton — is ineligible for the world junior. Player, coach, organizer — anyone.
So while most teams have watched the virus make roster cuts they may not have made themselves — Canada lost five players who were deemed medically ineligible to play — at this point, all 10 squads have enough players to field an entry.
So Tuesday’s news did not cause Nicholson to panic?
“Not now, but hopefully it doesn’t continue,” he said.
Now that we have passed Nov. 29, it is up to the teams to protect themselves so they can arrive in Edmonton whole. It was reported that the Swedes, for instance, met in Stockholm and all jumped on a bus for a lengthy ride to training camp, hockey’s version of a super spreader.
Another mistake like that one could cost a nation their spot here in Edmonton.
There are backup plans, should a team have a late breakout and not be able to ice the minimum 17 or 18 players for a team in the tournament, said Scott Salmond, senior vice-president of national teams for Hockey Canada. “It could be eight teams as opposed to 10, if there were a couple of teams that could not participate.”
“I know that once they get to Edmonton, we’ve really got it buckled down again,” said Nicholson, referencing the success of the NHL’s playoff bubble in Edmonton. “Get ‘em here and we’ll make them as safe as possible, get this tournament going.”
So, why is it so important to “get this tournament going?” Important enough that the Oilers and Hockey Canada said they would have the tournament with no fans in Edmonton this year, as long as Edmonton and Red Deer could share the 2022 tournament the way they were supposed to this Christmas?
Money, of course.
Hockey Canada gets a multi-million dollar check from the broadcast rights-holder, and there are international TV deals that feed dollars into the various federations’ pockets as well.
Also, Hockey Canada’s major sponsors — multi-nationals like Tim Hortons, Telus, Nike, Esso — pay huge dollars that go toward hockey at all levels, but hinge on the kind of exposure that the world juniors give them internationally and across our country.
So they’ll forge ahead with the 2021 tournament, with Team Canada busting out of their Red Deer quarantine to hold intra-squad games on Wednesday and Thursday, before cutting down and making the 150 kilometre trip to Edmonton on Sunday. There, all teams will have another five-day quarantine before practices begin on Dec. 18th and pre-tournament games on Dec. 20.
Meanwhile, Edmonton, once deemed one of the safest Canadian centres to hold the NHL playoffs, has become a COVID hotspot.
“It raises everyone’s level of concern,” said Salmond, “but the fact we’re operating in a bubble … people have gone out of their way to make sure we have a secure bubble. We’re confident that … we’re insulated. We are living in our own bubble and we are excluded. The interaction with the public is not there.
“Our team, the international teams, and Albertans are safe from exposure.”