It’s an evil part of our vocabulary – something we used to use sparingly to describe things we’ve never seen before. But now, it’s part of our daily lives as we navigate one of the worst moments in modern human history, the COVID-19 pandemic.
Sports were not at the forefront of concern. Being able to watch our favorite teams play is a luxury, and as people suffered around the world, it wasn’t high of a priority to make happen. But as the pandemic continued, it became clear we needed some form of return to normalcy, and, through the hard work of so many people involved, we started to see our favorite passions return to the screen.
When the NHL went on pause in mid-March, the hope was that we could get things going back later in the spring and get back out into the world like we once did. But it’s been nearly a full year later, and we’re still in our homes waiting for the ability to return to the rinks that fill us with joy each winter. The world without NHL hockey in the fall and winter seasons just doesn’t make sense. And while the NHL will be back later this month, it’s going to look a whole lot differently.
The World Junior Championship was an afterthought, but, for many, it’s a holiday tradition. Getting the family around the television to watch hockey’s next young stars play for their country, offering national pride to those just happy to watch their home represented on the international stage. For some teams like Austria and Germany, being there was an achievement on its own. For others, like Canada and the United States, there was just one thing on their mind: gold.
For the United States, that became a reality on Tuesday night with a 2-0 shutout victory over Canada. As heart-wrenching as it was for a Canadian team that never lost throughout the tournament, the Americans were a deserving winner, and nobody can take that away from them.
But – and it may seem cheesy, but that’s fine – there were more than a few winners along the way.
First, and foremost, there were the frontline workers and health-care professionals that kept all the players, staff and other crew members safe throughout the tournament. Without them, our world would be a different place right now. The people putting their safety at risk to make us all stay healthy are doing an incredible service, and that was no different in the Edmonton bubble.
At one point, it didn’t look like Germany was going to be able to participate. This was supposed to be the year where Germany showed its muscle, but with players missing the tournament to COVID – only to have nine additional people test positive after entering the bubble – the team looked in danger of even getting on the ice. Sweden was in a similar boat, but on a smaller scale. The IIHF acknowledged that they had contingency plans in place to play as an eight- or nine-team tournament if needed, but they didn’t. It was ugly at first, with Germany losing 16-2 to Canada on just the second day of the tournament, but it was a different story when the group finally banded together. They followed up the terrible loss with a 4-3 overtime win over Slovakia and a 5-4 win over Switzerland, earning a berth in the quarter-finals for the first time in team history.
There was the IIHF itself, who insisted from the beginning that they believed in their COVID-19 protocols. Sweden and Germany may have had positive cases, but no players tested positive once the games began and nothing needed to be rescheduled outside of the exhibition round. The IIHF learned from Edmonton’s bubble situation during the Stanley Cup playoffs and, in their own words, improved on it. It’s safe to say that it was a complete success.
There were the players, who had their seasons delayed or cancelled altogether. Many have had to travel far away just to get any ice time. Many hadn’t played a competitive game dating back to March. Many young hockey players dream of getting to play at this tournament – it’s absolutely crushing when you lose the opportunity. Everyone is thankful for getting that chance, but it almost looked like it wasn’t going to happen at all. A two-week hockey tournament involving teenagers probably isn’t something that needed to occur in the state of the world right now, but it meant the world to the 250 young men that were assigned to represent their countries. None of them will ever forget this experience.
And neither will we, hockey fans. In a time of panic and struggles, getting a chance to watch an event we all have grown to love is something that we will never take for granted again. Let’s hope there’s never a chance of us having to think about a bubble scenario, where the player’s families aren’t able to watch their sons compete for the greatest prize of their careers to date. Many of the 250 players will never get a taste of the NHL. Many more will never lift the Stanley Cup. This tournament represents more than a two-week distraction from the world – it is their world.
As we go back to our lives and get ready for the upcoming NHL season, let’s remember the fun we had at a time where so much is uncertain. Hopefully, next winter, we’re talking about the expensive ticket prices once again – because at least that means there are fans in the building. And hopefully we can chat about the return of the U-18 Women’s World Championship that was cancelled so early in the going, ending the junior careers of our nation’s brightest young women prematurely.
But for now, we’ll never forget the 2021 World Junior Championship.
It was truly an event like no other.