This WJC is About More Than Gold, Silver or Bronze
By Scott Lowe - MYHockeyRankings.com
Last week I turned on one of Team USA’s preliminary-round World Junior Championship games – I can’t remember which one, because the opening round mostly has been pretty much uninteresting – and had to do a double take.
Rogers Place in Edmonton was empty. What was going on?
I checked my watch to make sure I had the correct date and time. Then I pulled up the WJC schedule on my computer to see if I had read something wrong. Was this a replay from the 2021 COVID bubble tournament?
I had the right day, time and channel. Despite the prime-time puck drop in the good folks of Western Canada, there was almost no one at the game.
Granted, Canada wasn’t playing, but that had never been an issue in the past when the tournament was hosted north of the border. There always seemed to be a group of rabid Canadian hockey fans who were more than happy to show up in hopes of seeing the hated Americans lose as well as more than a few U.S. supporters who would make the trip across the border to root their boys on to victory.
Not this time. Not that night.
Low attendance has been a theme throughout the preliminary round, even for the home team. Through the first two days of competition an average of about 900 fans turned out in an arena that holds 18,500. Even for Canada’s opening matchup against Latvia the building only was at 15 percent of capacity, with 2,779 spectators turning out. Four of the first six games were played in front of crowds of fewer than 500.
Compare that to an average attendance of nearly 8,500 for the five WJC’s leading up to the bubbled version in 2021. Average attendance usually has eclipsed 6,000 and has been has high as 14,000 for past tournaments hosted in Canada, and events outside of North America typically have averaged between 2,000 and 7,000 spectators per contest.
The lack of enthusiasm for the event prompted U.S. Coach Nate Leaman to tell Global News, “It feels like a bubble tournament.”
That may or not have been a complaint since the Americans captured the gold medal at the bubbled WJC, which began Dec. 26, 2020, and concluded in early 2021. All COVID restrictions have been removed this time around, but it’s surprising to see any hockey game at any level played in Canada in front of the small number of spectators that were on hand for an opening-round matchup between Austria and Sweden.
When Edmonton and Calgary teamed up to host 2012 WJC, more than 450,000 spectators turned out, setting a tournament record. Attendance this year picked up a tad with some more attractive matchups scheduled later last week, but even Canada’s toughest matchup to date, a 5-1 victory against Czechia, drew only 5,135 fans, leaving Rogers Place at below 30-percent capacity. The most-attended game not featuring the host team was Sunday’s 3-2 victory for the U.S. against Sweden, arguably the second most-attractive matchup of pool play, which was played in front of 2,025 spectators.
Monday brings the most-anticipated preliminary-round game of the 2022 tournament as the Canadians take on Finland at 6 p.m. Eastern in a game that will decide first place in Group A. Thus far, the best-attended contest not featuring the Canadians or Americans was the Aug. 14 matchup between Finland and Slovakia, which drew 659 hockey diehards.
With three remaining opening-round matchups scheduled for Monday and the playoff rounds slated to begin Wednesday, the tournament had drawn roughly 20,500 spectators or about 1,200 per contest. Only 4,545 (22 percent) of those fans have attended games not featuring either North American team.
Those numbers figure to get a boost Monday with first place in Group A on the line and two teams that have combined to capture six of the last nine WJC gold medals playing to close out pool play. But even a sellout, which at this point doesn’t seem likely, would leave the overall turnout to date at a disappointing level.
It’s easy to point to the timing of this year’s rescheduled WJC, which originally got underway last Dec. 26 before being postponed until August because of the spread of the COVID-19 Omicron variant, as the main culprit for the low turnout. But this is Canada, the nation that has hosted more than twice as many WJCs as any other country, we are talking about.
Hockey traditionally is a source of enormous national pride in Canada, which also has been selected to host the 2023, 2026, 2028 and 2031 tournaments – and for good reason. This is the 16th time the WJC has been contested in the hockey-crazed nation, and past Canadian-hosted WJC’s have been known for their strong spectator turnouts and unmatched arena atmosphere.
This year’s event initially was awarded to Sweden, but after hosting the bubbled tournament in 2021, Edmonton was given the opportunity to host again in 2022 by the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF). Original 2022-host Gothenburg, Sweden instead will host the 2024 tournament. That means the WJC returns to Canada in 2023, with New Brunswick and Nova Scotia hosting.
The rescheduled IIHF Women’s U18 World Championship, which recently was held in Madison, Wisc., received more public and media attention that in previous years, with games being carried by NHL Network and ESPN in the United States, and more than 22,000 spectators turning out for 20 games. The per-game average attendance of more than 1,071 lags only slightly behind the current WJC average of 1,208.
So, it’s hard to point simply to the time of year being a deterrent to Canadian fans attending high-level hockey games with national pride on the line. Hockey enthusiasts in Canada eagerly have filled arenas during past summers for tournaments such as the Canada Cup and World Cup of Hockey.
Finding information about game attendance for the December 2021 WJC games that ultimately didn’t count before the tournament was postponed is nearly impossible, but at that point the arenas were limited to 50-percent of capacity because of COVID restrictions. Video clips from the Dec. 26 game between Canada and Czechia show an arena that appears to have plenty of open seats, however.
It is plausible to argue that so much high-level hockey has been played in Alberta during the COVID era that the market simply is over-saturated. But again, we are talking about Canada here, and much of that hockey – the National Hockey League Playoffs, Women’s World Championship and World Junior Championship – essentially was played behind closed doors in empty arenas.
Ticket prices and the cost of attending games also can be an argument when it comes to declining fan attendance. On the Rogers Place website, four-game Team Canada ticket packages start at $295 ($73.75 per game), with lower-level tickets for the Finland game listing online for $162 and gold-medal game lower-level tickets starting at $204.
With Russia, one of the world’s top hockey-playing nations and a top rival of the U.S. and Canada, being banned from the tournament because of the invasion of Ukraine, the overall level of play and competitiveness of the games featuring the two North American teams has dropped considerably from past years. The Americans already rolled through pool play with a perfect 4-0 record and outscored their opponents, 22-4, while Canada carries a 3-0 record and plus-17 scoring margin into Monday’s game vs. Finland.
It's easy to see why fans who are treated to the highest levels of professional and junior hockey for 10 months out of every non-COVID year might balk at paying more than $70 a game to attend a tournament in which eight contests have been by decided four or more goals and that has featured final scores like 11-1, 7-0, 9-3, 7-1, 6-1 and 5-1. On the flip side, however, there have been five games decided by a single tally, but only one of those has included a North American team.
The lopsided results in so many contests prompted Dave Starman, the NHL Network’s WJC color analyst and a longtime voice of the WJC and college hockey in the United States, to call for the IIHF to consider a possible format change.
“So far at WJC, four games decided by one goal, one game by two goals, one game by three goals, three games by four goals, six games decided by five or more,” Starman Tweeted Sunday. “So that's nine of 15 where the margin of victory was 4+ goals and we've had a couple of blowouts. Format needs revisiting.”
The lack of competition for the North American contingent and overall lack of exciting games and storylines hasn’t provided the type of in-tournament excitement that can create a buzz and generate additional fan interest. The U.S. held on for a 3-2 victory in its final preliminary-round game against Sweden Sunday, and Canada figures to get pushed to the limit by the Finns Monday.
Will that be enough to bring more fans to the arena to cheer on the hosts Monday, for the playoff rounds and a for potential gold-medal showdown between the Americans and Canadians?
The interest in the tournament can’t do anything but increase at this point, and there are always going to be hockey fans in Canada who will flock to the arena for an opportunity to see any group of players wearing the maple leaf compete for a gold medal.
So, the even shorter answer is yes. As the games ramp up in importance and intensity, naturally more fans will head to the arena to see great hockey and cheer on the home side. But there is a black cloud hanging over this tournament that will continue putting a damper on the attendance and atmosphere.
The truth is that while all of these factors likely have contributed at least somewhat to the decline in WJC fan interest and attendance, none of them is – or should be – the major factor.
If you are a regular annual viewer of the WJC you might have noticed that there isn’t as much advertising around the arena as usual. The normal array of sponsor logos and advertisements is missing.
There are no ads on the ice, only painted lines, and only a single sponsor ad appears on the boards. Brands such as Tim Hortons, Telus, Scotiabank and Canadian Tire that have become synonymous with hockey in Canada are nowhere to be found.
A closer look into the lack of corporate-sponsor presence at the 2022 WJC provides perhaps the biggest reason why Canada seemingly has turned its collective back on this year’s tournament. These corporations suspended their financial support of Hockey Canada after reports surfaced that the governing body had paid millions of dollars to victims to settle sexual assault and abuse claims.
Since those revelations, some of which reportedly were related to incidents involving past members of Canada’s World Junior teams, there has been an outpouring of support for an overhaul of Hockey Canada and pleas for a concerted effort by the organization to effect change in the sport’s culture. The New York Times reported that Hockey Canada testified it “had used a special fund to cover $7.6 million to settle nine sexual assault and sexual abuse clams since 1989.
Hockey Canada recently announced that a former Supreme Court justice would lead an independent investigation of the organization, and it published this open letter apologizing to all Canadians on its website.
The letter stated that the organization would “reopen an investigation into alleged sexual assault perpetrated by members of the 2018 National Junior Team;” would “require all high-performance players, coaches, team staff and volunteers to participate in mandatory sexual violence and consent training;” would “conduct a full governance review of Hockey Canada;” and “would create a new independent and confidential complaint mechanism.”
“Canada recognizes that toxic behavior in our sport is a systemic issue that must end,” the letter continued. “We need to provide victims and survivors with the tools and support to come forward … Changes to policies and procedures can occur with the stroke of a pen. Those changes are meaningless, however, without an equal commitment to addressing the toxic behavior that exists in many corners of the game. We know this change will not occur overnight, but we are committed to learning, and working with our partners to do better.”
While Hockey Canada has stated its commitment to addressing concerns that have been expressed by athletes, coaches, politicians and everyday citizens around the country – and to working toward changing the sexualized culture that exists within the sport – the organization’s sponsors and the sport’s biggest supporters, the fans, are making the loudest statement. They are hitting Hockey Canada where it hurts the most: in the pocketbook.
The loss of sponsorship dollars and dramatic decline in ticket revenue means that the 2022 WJC likely will be the first hosted by Canada to lose money. For better or worse, money talks, and Canadian hockey fans staying away in droves from something that is such an ingrained part of their lives and that typically brings so much joy, pride and unity to the nation sends the loudest message of all.
While it’s unfortunate that the participants in this year’s WJC won’t get to experience the usual level of excitement that a Canadian-hosted WJC normally generates or the “hospitality” that is usually provided by the host-team’s fans, at least they still get to compete. And we still get to watch.
And hopefully the long-term results will mean much more to hockey’s future in Canada and abroad than winning a gold, silver or bronze medal at one tournament.