The women’s world hockey championships in Canada were canceled Saturday because of public health concerns over the spread of the new coronavirus.
The two-week tournament was set to open March 31, with venues in Halifax and Truro, Nova Scotia.
René Fasel, president of the International Ice Hockey Federation, said in a statement there has been "not enough of an improvement to the coronavirus situation to allow us to safely host a 10-team international tournament within this time frame."
Sarah Nurse, a player on Canada's national team, wasn’t really surprised by the announcement. She spoke after participating in a Professional Women’s Hockey Players’ Association event in Tempe, Arizona.
“Nothing was confirmed until this morning,” she said. "This is something that is very sad for all of us."
“Not taking anything away from the severity of the situation, but it's kind of a kick-us-while-we're-down situation. Last year at the world championships, we found that our league was folding. Then the Four Nations Cup (in Sweden) was canceled.”
That event was scrapped last fall because players on Sweden’s national teams refused to compete while demanding better pay and working conditions from their national body.
“It can't really go down any more for us. There's no way but up for us,” Nurse said.
Brianna Decker of the U.S. national team also was disappointed.
“You've got to be cautious,” she said in Tempe. “It stinks for us, we all worked so hard all season, but you've got to be smart. It's a safety thing and obviously I'm in support with the IIHF.”
Fasel told The Associated Press by phone the decision was made by conference call. He noted the concerns over the health of players and fans attending the tournament as well as the difficulties in making travel plans for some nations, in particular, Japan, where almost all sports events and large gatherings have been canceled.
“It’s scary,” he said.
Hockey Canada said holding the event in empty arenas with no fans was not an option the IIHF considered. Hockey Canada CEO Tom Renney said abandoning the tournament was determined to be “the best course of action,” and made under the recommendation of Nova Scotia's chief medical officer and the IIHF.
“It goes without saying there is a great deal of disappointment with this decision,” Renney said on a media conference call. “We fully support the decision rendered by the IIHF. We have spoken to the players who are now aware of the circumstances, and I'm sure you can appreciate their disappointment.”
Scott Smith, Hockey Canada's president and chief operating officer, said the deliberation began after a request from the Japanese national team to arrive early, and subsequent recommendations from Nova Scotia health officials not to hold the tournament were passed on to the IIHF. Renney said the IIHF has assured Hockey Canada that next year's world championships will be in Nova Scotia.
Canada's potential players were informed Saturday.
"I do think they were still very shocked and obviously extremely disappointed," said Gina Kingsbury, Hockey Canada's director of women's national teams. “It's been a very difficult and unique year for women's hockey and certainly for our athletes. With that in mind, everyone understands the importance of health and safety and puts that as a priority.”
The women’s worlds were canceled once before — in Beijing in 2003 because of the SARS outbreak in China.
The escalating virus outbreak has played havoc with numerous sports events across Europe and Asia, with games being canceled or played without spectators.
Fasel said the status of other international hockey tournaments will be determined in the coming month, starting with the under-18 men’s championships in Michigan from April 16-26. Fasel said a decision on that tournament likely will be made within 10 days.
The IIHF will wait until mid-April to determine whether to proceed with the men’s world championships set to open May 8 in Switzerland.
“For sure, we are concerned and we are monitoring this,” Fasel said.
The Canadian women were seeking a chance to bounce back on home ice after finishing third last year in Finland. The U.S. beat Finland in the championship game to win its fifth consecutive title and ninth overall.
“We fully respect this difficult decision and know it was made with the best interests of everyone involved,” USA Hockey spokesman Dave Fischer said. “We're disappointed for our players and staff who have worked so hard in preparing for this event, and for the fans that were looking forward to watching the best athletes in the world compete for a gold medal."
Halifax Mayor Mike Savage posted a note on his Twitter account, saying: “This is tough for players, fans organizers and our local Halifax community. But a sound decision based on public health recommendations. We look forward to hosting when the time is right.”
The cancellation comes at a time when women’s hockey in North America has already been disrupted. In May, U.S. and Canadian national team members were among more than 200 of the world’s top players to vow not to compete professionally in North America this season following the demise of the Canadian Women’s Hockey League.
They then formed the Professional Women’s Hockey Players’ Association to demand the formation of a single league with a sustainable economic model.
The association has been holding barnstorming tours across North America, with the last stop this weekend in Phoenix.
“This has been a very unique and difficult season,” said Gina Kingsbury Hockey Canada's director of women's national teams. “Turning our attention towards the 2021 world championships, nothing changes in our preparations; we will continue to build our team and focus on competing for a gold medal on home ice next year.”
The difficulties of the past year were not lost on Decker.
"We did what we could with the tour and we had these showcases," she said. “We created a lot more visibility for women's hockey. Hopefully we have something a little bit more intact for next year.”
The virus has led to the NHL and NBA considering taking precautionary measures.
On Friday, the NHL issued a memo to its teams urging players to limit contact with fans. The move followed a similar directive this month by the NBA, which has told its players to stop high-fiving fans and strangers, and avoid taking items for autographs.
NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said Wednesday at the general managers meetings in Florida that he's ordered a halt to all business-related travel outside North America for league employees.
AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno and freelance writer Jack Thompson contributed to this report.
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