CERGY-PONTOISE, France – The Women’s Olympic Qualification tournament was the international debut for Aren’Ice, the new venue in Cergy-Pontoise outside of Paris. It was just fitting that a women’s hockey tournament had the premiere after the many French women’s championships the local club has won.
It won’t be the last international event. That’s for sure. The venue with two ice sheets serves as new national ice hockey centre and the French Ice Hockey Federation moved its office to the facility that opened in early November with a game of the Jokers, the men’s team that currently plays in the third-tier Division 2 and as leader of its group aims at promotion.
The opening followed many years of planning for the young federation that was founded in 2006 after separating from the ice sports federation in order to better develop the sport of ice hockey in France.
The development since then has been positive with more hockey players, more arenas and more officials. In 2006 the federation had a budget of €2.3 million and 12 people working at the office, now these numbers have doubled.
The men’s national team moved from 19th to 14th (and temporarily 12th) place in the IIHF World Ranking, the women’s national team from 14th to 12th. Since 2008 the men’s team has played in the top division and been ranked among the best 14 nations in the world and most recently the U20 and U18 team ranked in the same area. Women’s ice hockey is moving forward with a 10th-place finish overall in the 2016 IIHF Ice Hockey Women’s World Championship program and last season the U18 women’s team played in the top division as the first French team ever in women’s hockey even if the adventure ended in 8th place and relegation.
“In 2006 we wanted to make an ice rink plan, find out how many rinks we have, at which size and configuration and try to build tools to come to a mayor of a city to improve the situation,” says Luc Tardif, who has been the President of the French Ice Hockey Federation since its founding and serves as an IIHF Council member and Treasurer.
After that process came the idea of finding a community in the Paris area to build such a facility. For ice hockey Paris is the second-biggest region after Rhone-Alpes, Tardif says, but the conditions for the players in the capital area were far from ideal.
“We had more ice rinks closing that being built. That was a problem also to play international games with top teams. We just had two old rinks in Paris itself and we hosted the Division I in Amiens but you cannot host top countries like Canada or Finland in these kinds of rinks,” says Tardif.
“Many players from this area left early like 13, 14 to other places like Rouen, Amiens or Grenoble due to the ice rink situation. And that age is important moment of their development. The region lost many players due to that kind of migration and we wanted to build a new and nice rink to stop this. We do something for the area of Paris bringing a new rink and new spirit and try to keep the young players from Paris not too far from their families.”
While it’s difficult and expensive to find something in the centre of Paris, the federation has been in touch with many communities around. Cergy-Pontoise proved to be ideal with land available, a mayor behind the project and its proximity to the Charles de Gaulle airport, the biggest in France and one of the biggest in Europe.
“We saw that rugby was a south-west game. But since there are two professional teams in Paris, media has another view. You need to do something in Paris if you want to have national impact but you need a facility,” he adds.
The federation also brought ice hockey back to the country’s biggest indoor sporting venue in Paris in the Bercy district when it started to host the final of the French Cup there in 2007 – an event that has since been attended by over 10,000 fans each time it took place in Paris. Pre-World Championship games were hosted in this venue now called AccordHotels Arena as well and in May the arena will co-host the 2017 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship together with Cologne, Germany.
But the ice rink was of course not just built to have the administration there even though having the sport and the offices in the same building will make things easier. Beside the local ice hockey club, the Jokers, the ice skating club and for public skating, it will also be used for national team projects. That’s needed to improve the status of French ice hockey.
“We need international results. Winning a medal is pretty tough but I saw the impact when we beat Russia and Canada in the World Championship, when we reached the quarter-finals twice. Coming there is important to be recognized in French sports,” Tardif says. “The level of French ice hockey is well recognized in international ice hockey but not so much in France even though we have more people at ice rinks than they have in handball, volleyball and are not far behind basketball.”
The federation already started several years ago to bring the best female U18 players together in Chambery for a project called Pole France. The young players and some who stay on are centralized, learn on and off the ice and play in the boys’ U17 league. The plan is to move this team to Cergy-Pontoise and do this project on the boys’ side earliest for the 2017/2018 season and have them play in a senior league. In exhibition games with club teams from the second and third tier they want to see where their level is at.
“If we want to have better international results, we should have more time to spend with the players to bring them at the international level. It’s not that the clubs don’t do the best but we want to do something more with more camps, more physical, psychological and tactical teaching,” says Tardif. “If we want to reach a little bit more, we need to do a little bit more and we want to do this for U18 boys and girls. We saw that our girls are getting better so we want to do this with the boys too.”
What makes the President proud is that the French Ice Hockey Federation is now in a good society with having a national centre. It’s only the fifth sport to have something like that in France beside football, rugby, tennis and cycling.
“We are happy that a young federation like us has arrived to that level. Now other federations ask us how we did it. The first thing is that you believe it can happen,” he says.
The building cost €27 million. A 20-year contract was signed with the community and region owning the arena, the arena operator and the French federation.
“We were involved in the building process. French architects often look at the design while when you go to Finland it’s more a box with everything in. We did it more like that. It’s a good compromise. We have a nice building and it was good to move the hockey family here. Other cities came here, filmed and asked what is the best thing to do for them,” he says.
“We have almost every year one or two new ice rinks coming. This project here gives us more credibility. Other cities see that we did it.”
The building with fancy elements especially in the facade outside focuses on functionality. The Aren’Ice seems to have everything a rink needs just at a smaller size in terms of spectator capacity including two ice sheets, 3,000 seats for ice sports in the big hall including a video cube and VIP boxes, and offices, six dressing rooms and storage behind the scenes.
What Tardif really likes is that it has two international-size ice sheets and thus double the ice time than at the old rink. While the women’s teams in the Olympic Qualification were practising on Saturday afternoon followed by a game of the local men’s team, the second ice sheet was full of kids and adults for ice skating.
“Each weekend we have had almost 2,000 people coming to skate since the opening. We’ve tripled the numbers of the old rink. We’re happy with the numbers. It’s what we were hoping for also since we have more ice time now with two ice sheets,” says Sabrina Morvan, Event Manager of the arena operator UPCA.
“We’re happy that Cergy-Pontoise won the bid for this project. We want to make ice sports more accessible for the people in the Val-d'Oise prefecture but also to have events and concerts here for which we have space for up to 4,800 people.”
Beside the federation with its offices and teams, the local clubs and free ice skating, UPCA also offers event organization for companies in the new facilities and lounges.
Tardif hopes that other communities will not only envy Cergy-Pontoise for its new bijou but also copy the formula.
“We want to push facilities with two ice sheets. There will be new such facilities in Dunkirk and in Angers, and Nice came here to take pictures. We have something going in the south also with the new rinks in Marseille and Montpellier. We made our league more professional, reduced from 16 to 14 teams and still have big cities coming like Bordeaux and Nice,” Tardif says. And he hopes for a new attendance record when the Winter Classic will be played at the new stadium in Lyons to break the number of the last outdoor game held in Grenoble.
It’s definitely a busy season for the French with the opening of Aren’Ice and the move to Cergy-Pontoise a few months before co-hosting the 2017 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship. It will be the first time the biggest annual winter sport event will be held in Paris and in France since 1951.
After that it will be a new era for French hockey. For the next years it will be more about consolidation, Tardif explains, but also to think about the next board for the election in 2018.
“It’s about consolidation and to use the new facility and tools,” he says, “because you can’t run a marathon at the pace of a 100-metre sprint.”
But for now the federation goes full steam ahead towards the World Championship that promises to become a hockey festival for sport fans in France and hockey fans travelling to Paris.