The International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) women's world championship due to be held in Nova Scotia has been cancelled for the second time.
The IIHF and Hockey Canada announced Wednesday that they received confirmation from the provincial government of Nova Scotia that the championship in Halifax and Truro will be cancelled due to COVID-19 concerns.
Players were set to come from across Canada as well as the Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Hungary, Japan, Russia, Switzerland and the United States for the tournament running May 6-16.
The championship was called off a day before participating countries were to set to arrive and begin quarantine.
'The rapidly changing environment dictates this decision'
"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," Premier Iain Rankin said in a statement Wednesday after withdrawing permission for the event to take place.
Rankin said the province worked closely with Hockey Canada to ensure a safe and successful world hockey championship, "but the safety of the Nova Scotia public and participants is paramount and is the reason for our decision."
Case numbers of the virus have been rising in N.S. over the past couple of weeks, with 25 new cases of COVID-19 reported on Wednesday, bringing the total active caseload to 79.
Officials in the premier's office have spoken with Hockey Canada and shared the hope that the tournament will be rescheduled in Nova Scotia at a future date.
"This is very disappointing news to receive with just a few weeks until the tournament was to begin," IIHF President René Fasel said in a release.
"We strongly believe that we had the adequate safety measures in place to protect players, officials, spectators, and all residents in Halifax and Truro, based on the IIHF and Hockey Canada's experiences from hosting the IIHF World Junior Championship in Edmonton."
Nova Scotia imposed travel restrictions Tuesday barring travellers from outside the province from entering unless travel is essential or they're permanent residents of Nova Scotia. Only those travelling from P.E.I. or Newfoundland and Labrador, where COVID-19 case counts are low, are exempt from the new rules.
'A gut-wrenching experience'
Team Hungary members were just about to leave the rink after their final practice in Budapest and pack for an early-morning flight to N.S. when they heard the news, coach Lisa Haley said.
"It's been a gut-wrenching experience," said Haley, who is originally from Westville, N.S., and was looking forward to being behind the bench in her own backyard.
"Within hours our whole world was upside down."
The team planned to stay together at the hotel Wednesday night and go through the "full spectrum" of emotions, Haley said, and figure out their next steps.
The 2020 championship in Nova Scotia was cancelled because of the global pandemic. The 2021 tournament was scheduled for April 7-17, but then pushed back in hopes the situation would improve.
Haley can't help but feel terrible for her Hungary players, who are having to navigate such a roller coaster after making the top tier for the first time. Many of the women were looking to retire last year but have chose to put families and major events on hold to see the championship through.
Both the IIHF and Hockey Canada have pledged to work toward finding new dates for the tournament, with the goal of hosting the event in the summer of 2021.
While Haley is optimistic their team could still take the ice in the championship this year, she said that "doesn't take away from devastation that everybody feels at the moment."
Haley also said while she respects the province's decision, the "airtight" restrictions that tournament members would have been under seemed the best way to keep everyone safe. She noted every Team Hungary member had been fully vaccinated, and tested multiple times during their isolation bubble in Budapest.
Dr. Robert Strang, Nova Scotia's chief medical officer of health, defended the safety measures last week and reiterated confidence in them during a media conference Tuesday.
'The right decision, as much as I don't like it'
The plan was to have players quarantine individually in their own hotel rooms for an unspecified number of days. After that, they could bubble with their team members to work out and practise but move "in a controlled manner" from the hotel to the arena. They would not have been exposed to any members of the public.
Bill Mills, Truro's mayor, said he wasn't completely surprised to see the announcement given Tuesday's new restrictions but it's the "second disappointment" in two years.
"I think it's the right decision, as much as I don't like it," he said, noting the rise in COVID-19 cases involving variants of concern in other parts of Canada.
Mills said he's assuming Nova Scotia won't be offered a third opportunity to host the tournament this year but is hopeful the event might consider coming back for 2022.
The town of Truro spent about $700,000 renovating the Rath-Eastlink Centre for skyboxes and a room with broadcast-quality outlets for TV coverage, Mills said, with funds coming from municipal reserves and the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency.
Mills said the money is still well spent, even without the IIHF tournament this year, since the town has always planned to do the upgrades and they are now able to host other large-scale sports events.
Hockey Canada said it supports the decision. Despite not being able to host the event in Nova Scotia, it remains committed to hosting the Women's World Championship this year.
"We will explore all options to host the event in the coming months, if it is deemed safe to do so," said Hockey Canada president Tom Renney in a statement.