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The IIHF’s U18 World decisions show a lack of care about the women’s game

For the last two years, the IIHF has done the U18 tournament, and the future of women’s hockey, wrong.

Steve Kingsman/HHOF-IIHF

Earlier today the IIHF cancelled all five of the U18 Women’s World Championship tournaments in 2021.

The top level tournament was set to be played in Sweden from Jan. 5-12, 2021. Obviously, the world is in the midst of a pandemic and having teams from eight nations from around the world converge on two cities in Sweden presents numerous problems. The IIHF said the financial aspect of creating a bubble and also testing everyone necessary was out of reach for many of the host nations and also the IIHF itself. Taking that at face value, that’s the right move to make. The health and safety of players, coaches, staffs, and the communities they play in and will return too should be paramount.

But then the IIHF announced the 2021 U20 Men’s World Championship, better known as World Juniors, would still take place from Dec. 26, 2020 to Jan. 5, 2021, but would be played without fans and in a bubble in at Rogers Place in Edmonton, Canada. The tournament was already set to be held there.

These two decisions beg the question: what makes U20 Men’s more important than U18 Women’s, especially given that the women’s side only has the U18 and the senior level.

I know the answer is money, as many people pointed out to me on Twitter this morning.

World Juniors makes Hockey Canada and the IIHF tons of money in broadcast rights, and the women’s tournaments, let alone the U18, don’t come close to generating similar revenue. I’m not an idiot. But, as was much discussed last year during a huge streaming debacle at the U18 tournament, a television deal in Canada is what made the U20 men’s tournament in World Juniors.

This decision screams to me that the IIHF does not care about the women’s game. If it did, it would not have made a decision that will negatively impact the growth of the women’s hockey for years to come.

Clearly, the decision to move to a bubble situation for World Juniors was in the works for a long time. They’ll be following in the NHL’s footsteps as Edmonton was one of their two initial Stanley Cup Playoff sites.

Given this, the answer to keep the women’s U18 top level tournament seems fairly simple: move it to the same bubble and play the tournament. Clearly, it’s more complicated than snapping your fingers and getting eight teams worth of players to Canada in five months, but it is 100 percent possible.

Again, I know the argument against this is money. It wouldn’t be financially feasible to host a tournament that won’t make Hockey Canada or the IIHF money.

But if the IIHF is going to stay true to its stated mission to “govern, develop and promote men and women’s ice hockey” then the driving factor should be what impact the cancellation will have on the sport.

And at the U18 women’s level, it will be huge.

It’s no secret that at the senior level there’s still a decent gap between the US, Canada, Finland and the rest of the world.

At the U18 level, however, that gap is closing. In 2018, Russia stunned Canada and became the first European team to hand a North American team a loss at a U18 tournament. At last year’s U18 World Championship, Russia took Canada to overtime and played an extremely tight game against the US in the preliminary round.

The U18 tournament provides a preview of what’s to come at the senior level. It’s a critical way for the counties to see where their pipelines stack up and, hopefully, how best to support their girls’ and women’s programs.

More importantly though, it is a crucial proving ground for the players on their path to the senior team, an incredible opportunity on an international stage for them and a crucial step in their development.

For the IIHF to just cancel the tournament is a blow to the pipeline of women’s hockey and to the players, coaches, and staffs who have worked so hard to get there.

This is not the first time we’ve seen the IIHF not care about women’s hockey or the U18 tournament.

Last year’s U18 tournament date was moved and placed in direct competition with World Juniors for viewers and media attention. Overlapping the biggest international event in any non-Olympic year with another tournament — specifically a women’s event — shows a lack of forethought and care for how a simultaneously scheduled tournament performs in media attention.

Once the tournament did kick off in Bratislava, Slovakia, the stream was quite literally unwatchable. It looked as if the games were filmed on, what Kirsten Whalen so aptly called, a doorbell camera. When questioned, the IIHF’s response was that they had not checked the stream before the tournament started. It was a disgraceful lack of oversight.

The last two years show that growing the game is not a priority for the IIHF, which is a shame and a disappointment at a time when women’s hockey is on the rise. The terrible viewing experience of a doorbell camera style video feed and then straight up cancelling the tournament itself severely inhibits the exposure of the game. If new fans can’t see the games, if youth players don’t see something to strive for, if the media can’t show highlights, how can the sport expect to continue its growth? The answer is it can’t and the sport will only suffer because of this continued imbalance by the IIHF.

By continually putting less resources and time into the U18 level, they show they do not care about the women’s game.