What’s changed with Hockey Canada at the World Juniors?

The Men’s World Junior Championships (WJC) are back, coming at the close of the year where Hockey Canada’s shadowy, unaccountable leadership has fallen apart and their image tarnished. The year has seen two Hockey Canada CEOs go, two Hockey Canada Board Chairs resign, and two secret slush funds for sexual assault claims exposed. All of Hockey Canada’s sponsors either cancelled (Canadian Tire, Telus, Scotiabank, Tim Hortons, Sobeys, The Keg, Chevrolet, and Skip the Dishes) or “paused” (Pepsi, Esso, Scotiabank, Nike, and Bauer) their advertising. Hockey Canada announced their new board just before the tournament, and they have a lot of work to do to rebuild the organization’s reputation. I’m checking in on the advertising and media around the WJC to examine the current state of sponsorship and media promotion for Canada at the tournament.

This is technically the second WJC since the scandal broke, with a make-up tournament for the COVID cancelled 2021/22 edition held this August in Edmonton. However, this is the first tournament in the traditional holiday broadcast slot which TSN has made an annual spectacle. Advertising wise, the sponsors have not quietly returned, nor have other companies replaced them (I have a tiny bit of relief that supporting Hockey Canada did not become a “culture war” fraction point. Though this likely is also because the only brands who would support them probably couldn’t afford the advertising prices).

Instead the boards feature the IIHF and tourism sites for hosts New Brunswick and Halifax. The Canadian Hockey League, who were also involved with Hockey Canada in settling the 2018 lawsuit, has a prominent ad behind the net which reads “Developing tomorrow’s stars”. And in their first test run of redeeming their image, Hockey Canada is advertising their “Assist Fund” (for which they also bought commercials on TSN). The National Assist Fund asks for individual donors (which I suppose they need a lot more of now that there’s no corporate sponsors) to help subsidize hockey registration fees. If I was running an organization which had just had their “National Equity Fund”, collected from registration fees, exposed as going towards settling sexual assault cases, I wouldn’t be asking for public donations towards another fund as the first step in my redemption project. Instead, I’d focus on proving change before asking for money. Or finding ways to lower registration fees so kids don’t depend on public charity would be a better use of money than luxury condo investments or $3000 championship rings for board members. The board ad feels like a sign that Hockey Canada is still not getting it.

On the ice, two of Hockey Canada’s former sponsors are still very visible. Bauer no longer provides equipment, but still sells to Hockey Canada and will “redistribute the profits to “increase accessibility and equity in girl’s, women’s, para hockey and other underrepresented communities.” Despite there being many equipment options out there, Team Canada’s players remain all in Bauer helmets, skates, and gloves, which seems like an amazing deal for Bauer as they still get the exposure without paying anything for it. Nike also has a loophole to benefit from the WJC, as while they are no longer sponsoring Hockey Canada, they remain the official jersey provider for the IIHF, and so still make money from people purchasing a Canada jersey. The only area on the players where Canada’s lack of sponsorship is notable is they no longer have a helmet advertising sticker, like every other team.

Nike and Bauer are prominently on display, such as in this Tweet:

Hockey Canada’s most important partner has always been TSN, who took the WJC from an afterthought in the annual hockey schedule to a nationalistic spectacle, creating massive profits for both the network and Hockey Canada. Hockey Canada’s sponsors were primarily invested in them because of the WJC. TSN claims 36% of Canadians watched the 2021 Gold Medal, creating one of the most valuable advertising slots on the nation’s televisions. Unlike the other sponsors, TSN actually had something to lose from the Hockey Canada debacle. While Tim Hortons or Scotiabank can easily move their sponsorships to literally anything else, TSN is invested in the WJC until at least 2034 and isn’t interested in the effort to build another event to attract such an audience.

While TSN employs Rick Westhead, who broke much of the Hockey Canada scandal news on their website, the support for Westhead doesn’t go as far as incorporating him into their actual TV coverage. And this is TSN’s main approach – leaving things about Hockey Canada unsaid. The only hopeful sign is the tournament coverage has less rah-rah nationalism than prior years. TSN hasn’t yet dropped anything so painfully nationalistic as the Reklaws “Roots“, with its cringey Canadiana of “star of his hometown team, got the grades, got the girl”. Andy Williams “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” once again soundtracks the TSN commercial, but while the version ten years ago was Canada-centric, the current one showcases a wider variety of teams. Similarly, another ad promotes the tournaments as a place to see future NHL stars, with clips of players like Auston Matthews in a USA jersey at the WJCs before they play in the NHL.

The actual hockey discussion has not changed, with a continued focus on the grit and grind cultural mindset I covered in my debut post for Hockey in Society six years ago. TSN’s Gord Miller interviewed head coach Dennis Williams who emphasized “we hold everyone to a high standard” (which he means in the context of being responsible with the puck on the ice). There’s concern about Canada trying two unsuccessful “Michigan” moves and how that shows they are more individual than team focused. All it took was one loss to get back to, as I wrote in 2016, “an imagined essential Canadianess of, despite supposedly being the best, not high skill but rather grit and hard work, that has been lost over time.”

In addition to TSN, a lot of the tournament hype is done by Hockey Canada itself on their social media channels. Kristi Allain noted there’s been no change in their approach:

Similarly, Hockey Canada’s hype video for the tournament announces “this year we get back to our traditions”. Once again, Hockey Canada communicates all solutions lie in the past, not the future.

In 2016, I quoted philosopher Achille Mbembe that

the term “culture” is often used to assert the impossibility of change…Culture is fundamentally about becoming. It is about creativity, indeterminacy and transformation. It is not about pastness, fixed essences and customs.

Hockey Canada this year exposed that the “fixed essences and customs” of their culture were rotten, and the demands for accountability extended only on the ice. This is the chance to be about becoming for a new Hockey Canada, but there is no sense of becoming at this tournament, just a sense of biding time (or in the case of the Assist Fund, not even biding enough time). Perhaps next year, with the new board more firmly established, there will be some becoming, as every attempt Hockey Canada has made to hope their scandal fades from public conscious has so far failed. Let’s keep up the push for change into 2023.

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