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Happy Hockey Holidays: The More Things Change, the More They Stay the Same

By Scott Lowe - MYHockeyRankings.com

Boston Globe Photo

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

It’s the holiday season, a time to celebrate, reflect and look ahead. Another year behind us, and a new one about to begin or something like that.

If you’re able to read this “Hockey Holidays” review of the year that was on the ice, you have much for which to be thankful. The past two years are like nothing we ever thought we’d experience in our lifetimes.

Hundreds of thousands of North Americans who could have been here to celebrate have left us during this pandemic that seems to have nine lives. We mourn for them and wonder what might have been done differently to save some of those precious souls.

Continued prayers and best wishes to all of those who have lost loved ones during these difficult times. While the holidays are a time for family, friends and coming together, this also can be an extremely difficult time for many who have experienced a loss or otherwise feel alone for any reason.

The recent rise in COVID cases as the Omicron variant spreads rapidly worldwide probably isn’t making it any easier for those of us who struggle during the holidays. The good news is that this version of COVID seems to be less threatening, especially if you are vaccinated, but it’s yet another reminder that we can’t let our guard down. 

Now is not the time to relax. Please continue to follow local rules and guidelines for your own safety and the safety of those around you.

If you have the chance, also take a moment to reflect and remember where we were at the same time a year ago.  

Youth hockey was shut down in Canada, while junior leagues were not playing or struggling to navigate their seasons. Many United States youth and junior teams and leagues were experiencing pauses, shutdowns or worse. U.S. College teams played in bubbles, played modified schedules or didn’t play at all. Players wore masks on and off the ice, locker rooms were closed and there were no spectators.

We tried our best to push through and keep playing hockey, but it was challenging and way too many young people didn’t get a chance to do what they love.

The National Hockey League employed taxi squads and played in empty arenas. The top-level men’s World Junior Championship was played as scheduled, but none of the lower-level world championship-tournaments were held, and the WJC was played in a bubble in Edmonton, Alberta, instead of in packed arenas in Edmonton and Red Deer.

Sadly, though, the counterpart to the WJC, the women’s U18 World Championship, was canceled by the International Ice Hockey Federation. Called off, not postponed. Just like that. Lifelong dreams where shattered. Unfair no matter how you spin it.

While this slight didn’t go unnoticed, it didn’t receive the attention it deserved. We wrote about four members of the Burlington Barracudas who didn’t get to realize their dreams HERE.

A few months later, as teams literally were gathering for training camps, the IIFH announced that because of health and safety restrictions in Halifax, Nova Scotia, the Women’s World Championship also would not be played. Meanwhile, the men’s tournament was played to completion in Latvia from May 21 through June 6.

This time there was justifiable outrage directed at the IIHF from all over the hockey world. While there is no denying that the women’s game doesn’t generate the general fan interest or revenue that the men’s version does at the highest levels, international governing bodies exist to ensure equal treatment and opportunity and to promote the growth of their Sports Watches.  

This was not acceptable, and that was made clear by the slighted athletes, male professional players and others who have voices in hockey and could make a difference. They had bubbled in Edmonton once for the WJC, so why not do it again? Finally, thanks to the outpouring of anger and support for the women’s event, the decision was made to hold the WWC in Edmonton. Strict COVID rules and guidelines were put into place, and the tournament rightfully was back on again.

And what a tournament it was.

They played in August with more fanfare and media attention than ever before, and as usual, the gold medal was decided in an epic matchup between the U.S. and Canada that needed extra time and ended – shocker – with a goal by Canadian Marie-Philip Poulin.

The IIHF had done the right thing, albeit under tremendous pressure, and managed to turn a negative into a positive. The women’s game was showcased on NHL Network, Canadian national TV networks and even ESPN+ at a time of year when there traditionally is a lull in sports competition. It was great exposure and an incredible showing by the players. More important, it was fair.

Lesson learned, right? No so fast.

Here we are as hockey fans, celebrating the winter holidays and looking forward to the annual holiday showcase of the top male junior hockey players in the world on the eve of the 2022 men’s WJC, and on Christmas Day the Grinch drops a big bag of coal down the chimneys of female hockey players worldwide.

The IIHF once again has canceled the women’s U18 World Championship, which was scheduled to be held in Sweden Jan. 8-15.

“The medical committee’s recommendation took into account the travel risks that the teams playing in the January tournaments would have faced, and the belief that the tournament organizers would not have been able to safely manage an outbreak,” IIHF Manager of Communications Adam Steiss said in an email to The Canadian Press.

Steiss went on to tell The Canadian Press that “the epidemiological situation changed drastically only after the (men’s) U20 players entered quarantine.”

Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.

The IIHF can spin this however it wants but actions speak louder than words. The message at this point can’t be misunderstood: The international governing body of the sport does not treat men’s and women’s hockey equally. The tournament with the big-money television contract that draws thousands of paying customers will go on as planned, while the equivalent women’s event that usually draws fewer spectators and gets little to no TV coverage is scrapped

Again.

This is not unusual in the sports world, but you would think that after the public embarrassment and outrage experienced by IIHF decisions last year – as well as how the WWC was embraced and enjoyed by hockey fans in August – the IIHF would have learned from its previous blunders. 

There is no doubt that we all got a little too comfortable as our lives returned to near normalcy. Fewer and fewer people have been wearing masks – even in large gatherings – and after 18 months of being locked down, locked up and living in fear, most of the world is ready to let loose and live a little. The result is that we are facing yet another wave of this pandemic that just won’t go away. 

Some of that is on us. Some of it is science and was inevitable. The one thing we have proven during the past two years, however, is that with a little patience, some extra effort, an open mind and a willingness to do whatever it takes to do the right thing, we can still live our lives in the face of this deadly virus. 

More specifically, young and healthy athletes have proven that when the one thing they love most in life is taken away, they are more than willing to sacrifice and do pretty much anything in their power to be able to play again. Quarantine two weeks before a tournament? No problem. Stay away from your family for two weeks when you return home? You got it. Wear your mask all the time when not competing or working out? You bet. Don’t go out and party with friends during the holidays? Sure.

Whatever it takes.

Elite athletes ascend to where they are because they are willing to sacrifice so much along the way to get there. Do we really think they aren’t willing to sacrifice a little bit more for a few weeks, a few months or however long it takes to make sure a world-championship event that they have trained for their entire lives is as safe as possible for everyone involved? Do we think that workers and volunteers who dedicate their lives to a promoting a sport and its participants will mind a few minor inconveniences if it means these athletes can fulfill their dreams and women’s hockey can be showcased on a world stage? 

I’m no doctor, but by all accounts the latest COVID variant, while extremely contagious, seems to be a milder version of its deadly predecessor. There are two college athletes in our family. We live in the youth hockey world year-round, and I have had hundreds of kids skate in my programs during the pandemic. Our family knows many young athletes who have tested positive during the pandemic, and all but maybe two or three have experienced few if any symptoms from the virus.

That is by no means meant to downplay COVID. Those are facts based on personal experience and observation that don’t hold true for every age group and demographic. But at some point, we have to let young people live their lives and engage safely in the activities that bring them joy and help them maintain their physical and mental well-being.

There is no need to cancel the U18 Women’s World Championship.

In fact, the decision is ridiculous. The IIHF’s ability to run similar events successfully with no major COVID-related issues is all the evidence you need to come to that conclusion. The organization’s decision is short-sighted, unfair and frankly lazy.

Push the tournament back two weeks. Two months. Six weeks. Six months. No one would be upset with a decision to postpone. These knee-jerk reactions – and unwillingness to invest the extra time, thought and effort into providing equal opportunities for these athletes – have to stop.

That’s really what it comes down to isn’t it? Oh, and the extra time, effort and thought often costs more money than what was originally budgeted, right? Is that what this really is about?

Well, it seems like a pretty important world men’s tournament with numerous sponsors that generates plenty or revenue starts tomorrow. Would it be so hard to perhaps use a little bit of that cash to make sure we don’t continue crushing the dreams of young female hockey players?

If nothing else, please let this serve as a reminder to all of us that we still are dealing with this pandemic and are heading in the wrong direction again. No matter what, people are going to be divided mostly along political lines as to how we should proceed. But one thing we all can agree on is that we want our lives to continue progressing toward normalcy, and we want to see hockey continue being played all over the world.

When you go to the rink and go out in public, take a moment to think about the past 18 months, about where we were this time last year and about all the sacrifices hockey players and families make around the world on a daily basis. If we must live with a few minor inconveniences a little while longer to keep moving forward and keep our kids on the ice, we can handle that. 

The hockey community is a powerful group that has proven time and again that it can band together in the most difficult of times to defeat just about anything. COVID is no different. We’re almost there. Let’s continue to be smart and raise our collective voices to advocate for the girls and women who sacrifice just as much as their male counterparts and deserve to be afforded the same opportunities to be rewarded for their commitment and efforts. 

As we take a look back for our annual “Hockey Holidays” year in review, our thoughts and prayers continue to be with those who have lost loved ones for any reason as well as those who are battling COVID during this holiday season. 

Happy holidays to all of our members, volunteers, followers and readers!

And happy holidays to: 

All the girls and women playing hockey all over the world, and especially to all the players who earned spots on their U18 national teams. You made it, and no one can ever take that away from you – tournament or no tournament.

Every coach and volunteer who has sacrificed and donated their time to do everything possible to keep their teams on the ice and together. You’ll never be fully recognized for what you have done, but your efforts probably saved lives and definitely contributed positively to the physical and mental well-being of those you work with. It truly has been your finest hour. Thank you from all of us who have or have had kids playing hockey and who love the sport.    

Kyle Beach. If only the Blackhawks were as sorry as the rest of us. Thanks for having the courage to speak out.

Marie-Philip Poulin and Hilary Knight. 

Jon Cooper, Mike Sullivan, Scotty Bowman and Glen Sather.

Andrei Vasilevskiy and Victor Hedman. 

Wayne Gretzky, Gordie Howe, Jaromir Jagr and Alex Ovechkin. 

Brett Hull and Marcel Dionne.

Monique and Jocelyne Lamoreaux, Kacey Bellamy, Gigi Marvin and Meghan Duggan.   

Mike “Doc” Emrick. The real GOAT.

Ryan Miller, Henrik Lundqvist, Corey Crawford, Pekka Rinne and Jimmy Howard.

Jay Bouweester, Mikko Koivu, David Krejci, Andrew Shaw, David Backes and Travis Zajak.

Claude Julien, Torts, Jeremy Colliton, Ralph Krueger, Travis Green, Alain Vigneault and Rick Tocchet. One is missing from this list but won’t be acknowledged. Another is mentioned below.

Tom Wilson, Artemi Panerin, David Quinn and Jeff Gorton. 

Matthew Tkachuk and Drew Doughty.

Brady Tkachuk and Brendan Lemiuex.

Anyone named Tkachuk and the Los Angeles Kings

Jack Eichel and Kevyn Adams.

Gabby. Bruce, there he is. Again. A true hockey lifer. 

Doug Wilson, Kevin Lowe, Jerome Iginla, Kim St.-Pierre, Marian Hossa and Ken Holland.

Jimmy Hayes, Tom Kurvers, Mark Pavelich, Howie Meeker, George Armstrong, Ralph Backstrom, Tony Esposito, Rod Gilbert, Rene Robert, Bob Plager, Bryan Watson and Bobby Schmautz. RIP. Gone, but never forgotten.

Thanks for your support of MYHockey Rankings. Best wishes to you and yours for a healthy, happy holiday season and a prosperous new year!

 
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