Logan Stankoven knows he and the rest of Team Canada are under the microscope as the world junior hockey championship begins.
Not only will the squad be playing on home soil when they face Latvia in their first game of the tournament on Wednesday, they’ll be doing so during a period of intense scrutiny for Canadian hockey.
Hockey players across the country are used to being under a microscope, Stankoven said.
“I don’t think it matters who the player is or what the team is — hockey’s a big thing in the country of Canada and it kind of brings people together,” he said, noting that growing up in Kamloops, B.C., he carefully watched everything players on the Kamloops Blazers did.
“So I think that the spotlight’s always on us no matter what, and you want to be a great role model for the younger kids.”
Criticism of Hockey Canada loomed large as the 10-team tournament began Tuesday in Edmonton.
The national sports organization has faced intense criticism in recent months for its handling of sexual assault allegations levied against members of former world junior teams.
The allegations prompted parliamentary inquiries and the federal government has frozen its funding of the organization.
Big-name sponsors — including Telus and Canadian Tire — followed suit, leaving the ice at Rogers Place free of ads and the surrounding boards devoid of the usual logos.
Players have largely been insulated from what’s happening, said Team Canada goalie Dylan Garand.
“The people at Hockey Canada, the staff above have done a really good job of making sure and letting us know that they’re taking care of the stuff off the ice. And our job is to focus on what’s on the ice and on our group,” he said. “So it’s been good and I wouldn’t say there’s any added pressure for us. We’re just focused on hockey.”
The buzz and excitement that surrounded the initial 2022 tournament in Edmonton and Red Deer, Alta., is largely absent.
That iteration was called off on Dec. 29 after just four days as rising COVID-19 cases among players and officials forced games to be forfeited.
Holding the delayed version in August means it may take some players longer to get up to speed, said Czechia’s head coach Radim Rulik.
“There’s definitely a big difference in terms of players’ bodies because in December obviously they’re in the middle of the season,” he said through a translator on Tuesday. “However (I) think in the matter of the tournament, it’s going to shift back to normal because young players are very adaptable.”
The world juniors are a showcase of the best under-20 players across the globe, but the International Ice Hockey Federation has allowed athletes born in 2002 who have already turned 20 to play in this summer’s championship.
Despite the rejigged eligibility, several big Canadian talents are missing from the tournament, including former captain Kaiden Guhle (a Montreal Canadiens prospect) and defenceman Owen Power, who the Buffalo Sabres’ first overall selection in the 2021 NHL entry draft. Forward Shane Wright, taken fourth overall by the Seattle Kraken at the 2022 draft last month, is also absence,
Team Canada will be headlined by Regina Pats forward Connor Bedard and Kent Johnson, who was part of the Olympic men’s team that finished sixth at the Beijing Games.
Mason McTavish also wore the Maple Leaf at the Olympics and is captaining the Canadian crew in Edmonton.
“It means so much to me. Obviously I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t want to be,” he said. “Something I love to do is play hockey and compete. The world junior tournament is one of the best tournaments in the world. To be here and be captain of this team is so humbling to me. I’m really looking forward to Wednesday.”
The delayed 2022 tournament is also missing a big competitive threat, with the International Ice Hockey Federation barring Russia from the competition over the country’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine.
Unlike previous versions of the event, tickets for the 2022 world juniors are still readily available through Ticketmaster, including about 1,300 for Wednesday’s tilt between Canada and Latvia. More than 1,500 seats for the final game of the 11-day tournament are still up for grabs, too.
Less than 200 people were in the stands for the first game of the tournament Tuesday, an afternoon tilt between Slovakia and Czechia.
The Slovaks (0-1-0) jumped out to a 2-0 lead before the end of the first period but the Czechs (1-0-0) battled back to take a 5-4 victory.
A lack of spectators didn’t trouble Slovakian forward Servac Petrovsky.
“I wasn’t surprised because it’s a 12 p.m. game,” he said.
Back in Slovakia, it was 8 p.m. when the puck dropped, so there were likely more people watching on TV, he added.
Even more seats were empty when Finland (1-0-0) took a decisive 6-1 victory over Latvia (0-0-1) later in the day.
The defending champion Americans made it look easy by beating Germany 5-1 in the final game of the day on Tuesday.
Gemma Karstens-Smith, The Canadian Press