Ufa best Euro U20?

City, fans, games all first rate

02.01.2013
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Two Russian fans cheer on their team at the 2013 IIHF Ice Hockey U20 World Championship in Ufa. Photo: Andre Ringuette / HHOF-IIHF Images

UFA – Over the last decade Europe has hosted the U20 only three times. The last time was in the Czech Republic in 2008.

Over this time it became clearer and clearer how much more successful the event was when it was played in Canada or accessible to Canadian fans. Attendance, television ratings, revenue all shot through the roof when Canada hosted the event. The IIHF even went so far as to guarantee Canada a hosting every three years, and under that mandate the event grew even more to the point it was promised a U20 every two years. As a result, Canada will host in 2015, 2017, 2019, 2021 under the current arrangements.

But happy as he was with this setup, Hockey Canada president Bob Nicholson knew it was important the U20 return to Europe – and the necessity for it to be embraced by European fans. He hoped that after a few years in North America, where European players and fans could watch in awe at 19,000 Canadians cheering on their home team – and near sellouts attend games played by the lower-ranked teams – that Europeans would come to appreciate the quality of hockey and the importance of the event.

If Ufa 2013 is any indication, Europe seems ready to embrace the U20 as never before. This year is arguably the most successful U20 ever held in Europe and points to a maturation of the event we haven’t seen before here. There are many reasons for this success.

First and foremost, organizers have chosen a host city to match their expectations in a realistic way. This was key to USA Hockey’s successful hosting of the Women’s Worlds in Burlington, Vermont. Aim high – but be realistic.

Ufa is a great hockey city. True, it’s somewhat far away from the other European countries geographically, but it has a KHL team that is well supported (Salavat Yulayev) and has arenas of appropriate size to what the U20 can be right now. The main venue holds almost 8,000 fans and has been full when the Russians play, while the secondary venue, just a 10-minute drive away, has a capacity of about 3,000 and has never been embarrassingly empty (as used to be the case in other World Juniors editions).

Fresh snow blankets the city almost daily, and the weather is not as bitterly cold as one might have expected. Ufa reeks of hockey and winter, giving the U20 the perfect urban atmosphere and landscape for hosting. And while filling an 8,000-seat arena is not the same as filling 19,000, that is beside the point. A packed house of 8,000 is so much more impressive than 8,000 people sprinkled throughout an 19,000-seat arena.

Inside Ufa Arena before the Russia-Canada game on New Year’s Eve was as a palpable sense of hockey excitement as one could hope for. Thousands of fans walked the concourse getting food and drink, shouting “Rossiya!”, playing interactive games, and making festive noise. The few hundred Canadian fans, many decked in vintage Summit Series sweaters, were having a blast taking pictures and soaking up the rivalry. This was what a U20 game should be all about.

In terms of numbers, attendance through 20 games is 66,069, and as we head to Ufa Arena for the playoffs, this figure will climb substantially. It might not be enough to break the European record of 139,680 established by Helsinki and Hämeenlinna in 1998, but it will surpass 100,000. Yet numbers don’t tell the whole story. There have never been more press to a Euro U20; television coverage in North America (TSN/RDS, NHL Network) has been unprecedented, and European coverage has never been so comprehensive. There is a buzz here. Hockey is in the air – and it’s all about the U20.

No one in Ufa is complaining about ten teams and lopsided scores. No one here is complaining about lack of atmosphere or poor local support of the event. Ufa 2013 has all the makings of the best U20 ever held in Europe, putting the pressure on Malmö, Sweden, to do as good or better a job next year, before the every-two-years agreement with Canada kicks in.

It would be great to know the tournament would leave for Canada in 2015 with tremendous prospects for a superb Euro hosting in 2016. No doubt about it, though, all signs point to a development of the event in Europe that we have never seen previously. It’s not Canada – not yet – but it is very encouraging all the same.

ANDREW PODNIEKS

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