Hockey fans say world juniors are a success despite recent scandals

HALIFAX — Capping off a year that saw Hockey Canada mired in scandal over its handling of sexual assault allegations, the world junior hockey championship in Halifax and Moncton, N.B., opened last month under a cloud.

But as it comes to an end Thursday night with a final pitting Canada against Czechia, fans and businesses in both cities say the tournament has been a resounding success, with packed stands, thrilling on-ice performances and an influx of visitors.

Fans interviewed before Wednesday's semifinal between Sweden and Czechia said the tournament has been a blast.

Teannah McMullen, 19, and Nicole Patterson, 21, have attended every tournament and pre-tournament game in Halifax. They have tickets to Thursday’s bronze medal match between the USA and Sweden, and the gold medal final. Canada defeated the United States in their semifinal Wednesday night.

“It has been just amazing," McMullen said. "We watch everything. It’s been an experience like I couldn’t even imagine."

Patterson said the calibre of hockey and the energy of the crowds have been incredible.

“You don’t see any empty seats, even when Canada isn’t playing,” she said.

Gordie Plagenz, from Saint John, N.B., travelled to Halifax for the week to attend the games. He said seeing Team Canada superstar Connor Bedard in action has been particularly exciting and that “the atmosphere here in downtown Halifax is crazy.”

When asked how Hockey Canada’s year of scandal has affected the tournament, Plagenz said, “you can’t paint people with the same brush. We’re just here to enjoy the junior hockey that we have here and now.”

McMullen and Patterson said they were thrilled when they found out Halifax would co-host the yearly tournament.

“Hockey is what we love … and it’s in our city," McMullen said, adding that the two planned to see all the games as soon as they heard the tournament would be coming to Halifax.

"We get to see some of the very best players that are coming up who will be drafted soon. And we get to see some players that we see all year round,” McMullen said, in reference to some players with the Halifax Mooseheads — of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League — who are taking part in the world junior tournament.

Ahead of the tournament, some fans said their excitement was accompanied by tough conversations about Hockey Canada‘s handling of sexual assault allegations.

The national hockey governing body has been mired in controversy for months after it was revealed in May that it settled a lawsuit with a woman who alleged she had been sexually assaulted by several members of the 2018 world junior team. Then in July, Halifax Regional Police began investigating allegations that members of the 2003 team sexually assaulted a woman and filmed the attack during that year's tournament.

None of the allegations has been proven in court and no charges have been laid.

Hockey Canada executives in July revealed that they had paid out $8.9 million in sexual abuse settlements since 1989, excluding the 2018 deal. The organization elected a new board of directors on Dec. 17 and is still searching for a new chief executive officer. The previous board resigned and president and CEO Scott Smith was ousted as a result of the controversies.

Halifax Mayor Mike Savage has said the board and CEO resignations were overdue. In a recent interview, he said the “dramatic” leadership change "cleared the way for the mayor of Moncton and myself to focus on the hockey and on the benefits that come to our two cities.”

The benefits of the tournament to Halifax and Moncton restaurants have been significant, says industry group Restaurants Canada.

“One (restaurant) operator summed up what I’m hearing from both cities, that is that this feels like the height of the tourism season in August, but in January — which is our slowest time of the year,” Richard Alexander, Atlantic vice-president of Restaurants Canada, said in an interview. “So it has been fantastic for the industry.”

Hockey Canada spokesperson Spencer Sharkey said in an email that more than 280,000 seats have been sold for this year's world junior championship, with an average attendance for tournament games of 8,610 in Halifax and 5,550 in Moncton.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 5, 2023.

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This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Meta and Canadian Press News Fellowship.

Lyndsay Armstrong, The Canadian Press