Hockey Canada concedes concerns over sexual-assault allegations have affected world junior attendance

The World Junior Tournament, once a jewel in Hockey Canada’s schedule, is being played in a largely empty arena amid uproar over sexual assault allegations and court settlements.IAN AUSTEN/The New York Times News Service

A total of 20,540 fans attended the games for just over half of the Edmonton World Junior Hockey Championships — a far cry from the hundreds of thousands of spectators who attended the entire tournament in Canada in the years before the sport’s troubling culture went under the microscope.

The event, which has been held annually since 1977, traditionally begins on Boxing Day and has taken place in several participating countries. However, the tournament, which started in Edmonton last December, was abandoned after three days due to COVID-19 infections among players. This is the first time it has been held in the summer.

While time of year is a key factor in low attendance at a winter sporting event, Hockey Canada acknowledges concerns about how sexual assault allegations are handled have also impacted interest in the tournament.

“We recognize that this World Junior Championship will look and feel different to fans for a number of reasons,” Spencer Sharkey, a spokesman for the Ice Hockey Canada Association, said in an email. “First, the COVID-19 pandemic has postponed this tournament to August; and second, there is understandable inquiry by Canadians into Hockey Canada and hockey culture.”

Hockey Canada came under fire in late May when it was revealed the federally funded organization had settled a sexual assault lawsuit involving allegations made in 2018 against eight Canadian Hockey League players. The players were not named in the lawsuit, nor have they been publicly identified, but include members of the country’s 2018 world youth team.

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The federal government is conducting an audit to determine whether Hockey Canada used public funds to resolve the litigation. Parliamentary hearings on the matter were held in June and July, giving MPs an opportunity to ask Hockey Canada executives about the use of a special account, known as the National Equity Fund, by the organization to resolve sexual assault claims. The fund, first detailed in a Globe and Mail investigation, is funded by player registration fees.

Hockey Canada’s sponsorship support, which brings in tens of millions of dollars each year, has collapsed as brands rushed to distance themselves.

The attendance figure of 20,540 was provided by Hockey Canada and is for the first six days of the 17-game tournament. That’s an average of 1,208 spectators per game at Rogers Place — the Oilers’ 18,500-seat arena, where tickets are only sold in the lower bowl. Preliminary round matches are historically less crowded than later rounds. The quarterfinals begin on Wednesday.

Hockey Canada obtained the hosting rights from the Zurich-based International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF), which oversees the event, which began August 9 and will last through August 20.

Mr Sharkey said the IIHF, Hockey Canada and the governing bodies representing hockey in the countries participating in the World Juniors “make financial contributions to ensure the event takes place”. Net proceeds from the tournament will be shared between the IIHF, the Canadian Hockey League, Hockey Canada and Hockey Canada’s 13 provincial and regional member federations, he said.

Ten countries take part in the World Juniors, which Canada has recently started hosting about every two years. Dan Mason, a professor of sports management at the University of Alberta, said Canada in general can attract viewers – and revenue – which other countries cannot. “The tournament has certainly become a cash cow for Hockey Canada,” said Prof. Mason. “It’s very important to Hockey Canada’s bottom line, and it’s very important to the IIHF.”

Hockey Canada’s financial statements show that the world’s juniors account for a significant portion of the organization’s expenditures and income associated with the various international events it hosts.

The financial statements for the fiscal year ended June 30, 2019 in which Hockey Canada hosted the tournament in BC show that the organization spent $23,838,044 hosting international events and earned $36,417,937 from the same position. In the prior fiscal year, when World Juniors was held in the United States, Hockey Canada spent $3,690,227 hosting international events and generated $2,777,500 in related revenues.

Russia was supposed to hold the 2023 tournament, which was supposed to start in December this year and end in the new year, but the IIHF stripped Russia of hosting rights amid the ongoing war in Ukraine.

The IIHF awarded those rights to Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, giving Hockey Canada an opportunity to earn revenue from the tournament that winter. The announcement of the host came in early May – before news of the 2018 sexual assault allegations broke and before another alleged sexual assault involving members of Canada’s 2003 junior world team in Halifax surfaced was a co-host of this year’s tournament.

“With World Juniors 2023 slated to be played in Halifax and Moncton, expect full attendance to all 30 games,” Jeremy Knight, Hockey Canada’s manager of corporate communications, said in an email. “We look forward to the tournament returning to its traditional season in December.”

For example, when the 2012 World Juniors took place in Calgary and Edmonton, a total of around 445,000 spectators attended. About 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 created through a partnership with Crown Corporation Destination Canada.

The cancellation of the tournament last winter and low attendance this summer will inevitably impact local businesses in Alberta. When World Juniors was canceled in late December, politicians and business leaders in Edmonton and co-host Red Deer voiced their concerns about small business owners in the hospitality industry.

This summer’s tournament feels markedly different from the games that took place in Edmonton last December or in the city in 2012. During Team Canada’s first game against Latvia last week, it was quiet enough for players on the bench to talk to each other. There were only 2,779 fans in the stands.

With a report by Simon Houpt in Toronto

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