Cases of COVID-19 emerged in the world junior selection camp
Ryerson Rams forward Mathew Santos remembers scoring a goal for the U SPORTS all-star team against the Canadian world junior selection camp last season in Oakville, Ont. With a power-play slap shot from the point, Santos helped U SPORTS to a 2-1 win, splitting the two-game series against Team Canada.
It’s an experience he regards as a highlight of his hockey career, having the opportunity to play with fellow U SPORTS all-stars from across the country and matching up against what he calls “the future of Canadian hockey” in the selection camp.
This year, however, with all U SPORTS hockey games cancelled due to COVID-19, there was still hope that some matchups between U SPORTS and Team Canada would happen. That was until positive cases were discovered in the selection camp.
An all-star U SPORTS team was not named this season, but there were plans to have the University of Alberta Golden Bears play the world junior selection camp. This was halted when Hockey Canada announced two players tested positive for COVID-19 on Nov. 24. The camp’s players and staff entered a 14-day isolation in their hotel rooms in Red Deer, Alta.
Santos, who would have likely been an all-star again this year based on his previous performances for the Rams, is disappointed about the cancellations because the series and games against Team Canada have helped U SPORTS develop a larger platform and gain more of the recognition he feels it deserves.
“I believe that it’s something that is very important for both parties partaking. For the university players, it gives us more exposure and opportunity to make a name for ourselves, and for the world juniors, I think it’s a great way to get a competitive flow in and play up against more physically developed hockey players,” Santos said. “I believe it’s very important for U SPORTS because it showcases the hockey that is being played in our league and gives us a good name.”
Although Santos understands these decisions were necessary for terms of safety for all parties involved, he is staying game ready and adapting to any circumstances that may arise as the pandemic continues.
“Luckily for me, my best friend has a home gym, so I’ve been using that to stay in shape and before stricter restrictions were implemented, Ryerson had ice for up to 10 players three times a week.”
U SPORTS reporter Ben Steiner was also disappointed that games against Team Canada were cancelled because university teams on the west coast were attempting to salvage a season.
“I was sort of hoping to see it in some way this year,” said Steiner. “There was a possibility of a tournament, the Captain’s Cup out of UBC (University of British Columbia), Simon Fraser and Trinity Western, then it got cancelled when B.C. introduced more restrictions.”
Steiner said there was a plan for the University of Calgary to play against the selection camp as well, but it was scrapped as cases in Alberta continued to rise. He says these games help showcase the talent of U SPORTS.
“It is quite good for U SPORTS,” he said. “It sort of gives them that one time of the year, and (sees) them with their best players.”
Even with the cancelled season, Steiner said the big opportunity lost was “that a U SPORTS team, and not just an all-star team, could have beaten the world junior team and brought a spotlight to U SPORTS at the program-based level.”
The Golden Bears men’s hockey team is considered one of the most successful U SPORTS programs in Canada, having won 15 national championships and 25 Canada West division championships.
Before the Nov. 24 cancellation, Steiner said the University of Alberta maintained strict protocols prior to resuming training in preparation for the games.
“Golden Bears head coach Ian Herbers said they were taking every precaution needed to get to the game (against Team Canada) without getting infected,” said Steiner.
For the world junior tournament, Steiner believes games can safely happen once teams enter the Edmonton bubble. He doesn’t think it will be affected by the emergence of positive cases in the lead up to pre-tournament games involving the Canadian universities.
An update on the world junior selection camp
Broadcast sports journalist Lukas Weese said the media was updated more than a week ago by head coach André Tourigny and Hockey Canada senior-vice president Scott Salmond on how players are coping in isolation.
“They are trying to make sure the players are doing Zoom workouts,” said Weese. As players are mandated to stay in shape in their hotel rooms, this isolation is being used as a time away from hockey as well.
“They formed a social committee,” he said. These activities include card games and guest speakers to give players a break from the tournament prep.
The selection camp is usually one week, and Weese said it will be interesting to see how the pause will affect the process moving forward. However, Hockey Canada was ready for this possibility.
“They built time into this camp, given the circumstances.”
Hockey Canada invited more players than usual for the camp this year, with 46 invitees competing for 25 spots on the roster. This list includes 26 first-round picks in the NHL draft, making this team one of the deepest in the tournament, according to Weese.
Due to the NHL’s proposed start of mid-January for the 2021 season, there will be six returnees from last year’s gold medal-winning team who could be on NHL rosters under regular circumstances. Returning players include Los Angeles Kings centre Quinton Byfield, Colorado Avalanche defenceman Bowen Byram and Anaheim Ducks defenceman Jamie Drysdale. Chicago Blackhawks centre Kirby Dach was not on the team last year but, according to Weese, is considered a main factor based on his experience playing in the NHL last season.
Weese believes the “robust” safety protocols for the tournament will allow games to happen despite the initial step back with isolation. He says this tournament comes at a time when the country needs good news.
“We have seen bubbles work before on the professional levels. I think Hockey Canada wants this to happen. The government of Alberta really hopes this happens from an economic perspective, but also from a morale perspective,” he said. “I think there is a sense that this is a huge moment for the sport and the country that needs a distraction. It has been a challenging year.”
The 2021 IIHF (International Ice Hockey Federation) World Junior Championship is set to begin on Christmas Day and conclude on Jan. 5.
As of Dec. 8, Hockey Canada announced the camp will resume following the 14-day quarantine. Five players “deemed unfit to play” have been released. The selection camp now stands at 41 players, with 16 more cuts expected to finalize the roster by Dec.12.
Other world junior selection camps, including the U.S. and Sweden, have had to make cuts when players tested positive for COVID-19 and were deemed unfit to play.
All 10 teams competing in the tournament are required to be ready in Edmonton by Dec. 13.