When coach and retired professional runner Lauren Fleshman attended the Olympic Marathon Trials in February
Nova Scotia's decision to cancel the upcoming 2021 IIHF Ice Hockey Women's World Championship, scheduled for May 6-16, on the eve of teams' arrivals, may well be in the province's best interest. But with it being the tournament's third postponement, it's hard to trust.
In the face of rising COVID-19 cases, the Government of Nova Scotia announced on Tuesday, April 20 a series of reinforced travel restrictions that severely limit entry into the province. Those restrictions were to take effect as of 8:00 AM Atlantic Daylight Time on April 22, the same day that international teams were set to arrive in Halifax and Truro ahead of the Women's World Championship. Whereas entry into Nova Scotia previously was open to all (provided that travellers completed a 14-day quarantine upon arrival), the new rules prevent anyone from outside of the province, Prince Edward Island, or Newfoundland and Labrador from entering Nova Scotia unless their travel is essential or they are a permanent resident of Nova Scotia. Upon announcing the limitations, though, Nova Scotia's Chief Medical Officer of Health reaffirmed that the event could nonetheless be staged.
"That tournament, in my opinion," Dr. Robert Strang said on Tuesday, "does not present a risk of bringing COVID then transmitting it into Nova Scotia, with all the very strict protocols they have, even before they leave their home countries."
But the very next day, it was over before it began.
Hockey Canada President and Chief Operating Officer Scott Smith said on April 21 that as recently as overnight between Tuesday and Wednesday, medical authorities in Nova Scotia had advised that all was well. Then, at approximately 10:35 AM ADT, Hockey Canada officials received a letter informing them that the tournament could not take place, a decision Smith said came from the top of the government. There was no space to negotiate, no question of whether simply holding the event in its bubble, without fans, might be a feasible option. The letter provided no clear indication of what had changed in the handful of hours since they'd last heard from provincial authorities.
In discussions with the IIHF earlier this winter, Hockey Canada had proposed two options for holding the tournament. One was to push the event to May, and the other was to push it to August. Confident in the assurances given by the province, Smith said that the August dates were never seriously pursued. In a joint statement announcing the tournament's postponement, the IIHF and Hockey Canada reaffirmed their commitment to hosting the Women's World Championship at a later date. With Olympic preparations looming, though, a summer tournament will require a complete reimagination of the usual selection and training process. Though CEO Tom Renney indicated that both Hockey Canada and IIHF share the continued priority of hosting the event in Canada, all options are effectively on the table.
"Unfortunately, a decision was made beyond our control, and we're required to follow that decision," said Smith. "Although it's supremely difficult to hear, we respect the decision because it's intended to protect the health and safety of the people in Nova Scotia. Our desire and our commitment will continue, and we will look at every opportunity possible to deliver this event in a location where we are told ― and have the commitment ― that it's safe to do so."
Whereas some have wondered why no contingency plans were in place akin to the February decision to move the U18 Men's tournament from Michigan to Texas, it's worth noting that that decision likely had more to do with avoiding restrictions that would limit attendance capacities than with any genuine concern for health and safety, or even a risk of cancellation. (Current measures in Michigan, though stricter than in Texas, are not particularly stringent, and professional sports teams have been playing throughout the season.) On Wednesday, Michigan reported 5,584 new cases, and Texas reported 4,856.
"In the letter that we received from the province they referenced the increase in cases and the spike in cases, including the reference to an increased amount that would be announced later today," Smith said of Nova Scotia's decision. "That's really all we know."
For much of the world, it's a tiny figure. For Nova Scotia, though, it's the highest number of new cases since November 23, 2020 ― and the highest before that was last spring. It's easy to compare the data from Nova Scotia to outbreaks elsewhere and call the response an overreaction. But the province's proactive measures could just as easily be credited for keeping rates so low in the first place. Nova Scotia had reported between two and 15 daily new cases in the week leading up to the cancellation.
In a Wednesday afternoon press release, the province announced that Premier Iain Rankin had withdrawn permission for the event to take place in the province at this time because of the evolving situation with COVID-19 and the circulation of variants.
"It was my recommendation the 2021 IIHF Women's World Hockey Championships be cancelled," Rankin said in a statement. "I sincerely regret the short notice, but the rapidly changing environment dictates this decision in the interest of the safety of Nova Scotians and participants. We have worked diligently with Hockey Canada to ensure we can stage a safe and successful world hockey championship and they have been a great partner, but the safety of the Nova Scotia public and participants is paramount and is the reason for our decision."
Yet while the increase in daily new cases is certainly concerning, it's not immediately clear how the confidence in the tournament's COVID-19 protocols that was expressed by Dr. Strang on Tuesday could so suddenly have devolved into the Premier's withdrawal of consent.
Protocols in place for the event included self-isolation for all participants from April 22-30, at which point, upon three negative tests per person, a team isolation bubble allowing for on-ice training would have been established for the remainder of the 14-day quarantine. Two further PCR tests would've been required prior to the start of games, along with another two during the competition and before departure. All participants were required to wear TraceSafe tracking bracelets for the duration of the event, in order to monitor compliance and facilitate contact tracing.
Premier Rankin's comments, paired with Dr. Strang's, suggest that the decision may not have originated from the province's medical advisors.
"We received information through the night from Dr. [Shelley] Deeks, who works directly with Dr. Strang, that reinforced the operation of the event and the arrival of the teams tomorrow," Smith said, emphasizing the extent to which Hockey Canada was surprised by the news.
If the swift change of direction came directly from politicians, it inevitably raises the question of whether priorities were purely a matter of health and safety, or perhaps political in nature. The travel restrictions announced on Tuesday are particularly impactful for those with family outside of the province who are no longer permitted to visit, even to attend a funeral. In that context, what are the optics of hosting an international sporting event, regardless of how sealed the bubble may be?
My family is from Newfoundland, where similar travel restrictions have been in place for many, many months. Even with relatives there and a safe place to quarantine, I am not permitted to enter the province, and don't know when I will be. I also understand the value of stringent measures in keeping the virus out, and the primordial importance of doing so in regions where the demographics and geography mean that even relatively low levels of spread could quickly decimate communities and overwhelm healthcare infrastructure. I wonder how I'd feel knowing that hundreds of athletes and team personnel could travel to the province, while I was stuck outside, waiting. I suspect I might be frustrated at first. I also suspect I eventually wouldn't much care, just as I don't much care that high performance athletes are training in groups in Montreal, while sport and recreation options for the rest of us are few and far between.
I don't know whether Premier Rankin's decision to cancel the Women's World Championship came down to medical recommendations, political pressure, pandemic theatre, or some combination thereof. We may never find out. But the notion that it could, even potentially, be an issue of optics, brings with it another set of questions. Would a major men's event with stringent protocols be cancelled over appearances? If a major men's event had been cancelled, would the possibility that it was done for anything other than legitimate public health concerns even come to mind?
At the end of the day, we're left wondering. We're left wondering because since cancelling all outstanding tournaments last spring in the first wave of the pandemic, the IIHF has already held, or appears on track to successfully hold, every single top division men's competition, from U18 through to the senior level. We're left wondering because there has not been a top division women's tournament since the 2020 U18 Women's Worlds in December of 2019 ― a tournament that was initially streamed on what amounted to a glorified doorbell camera. We're left wondering because the IIHF announced the cancellation of the 2021 U18 Women's World Championship in September of 2020 ― without having put much apparent effort into seeking alternative arrangements ― on the same day it announced that the 2021 World Junior Championship would continue.
Nova Scotia has enacted strict COVID-19 prevention measures from the very onset of the pandemic. The 2020 Women's World Championship was among the first major events to be cancelled in North America, and that decision proved prescient. The province's efforts to control the virus' spread have by and large been successful, due in no small part to taking strong, proactive action.
"Had it been a men's event in the same situation in this province, we really think the decision would've been the same," said Gina Kingsbury, Hockey Canada's Director of National Women's Teams.
Given Nova Scotia's track record, it's not all that hard to believe that the 2021 IIHF Women's World Championship was simply the unfortunate casualty of a jurisdiction that is actively committed to protecting its population from the pandemic. But the track record of governing bodies with regards to women's hockey make that harder to accept at face value, and with good reason. Until federations prove, consistently, that they value women's hockey and are invested in the success of the sport and its athletes, there will always be that nagging doubt. We shouldn't have to wonder.
Filed under: 2020 IIHF Women's World Championship; IIHF; ice hockey; 2021 iihf women's world championship; Hockey Canada
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