MALMÖ – They made Isstadion a red-and-white enclave. Soon roughly 1,000 Canadians will cheer on their team at Malmö Arena hoping to celebrate the first gold since 2009.
Despite anticipating the 2014 IIHF World Junior Championship for many weeks, inhabitants and local businesses in Malmö were rather surprised by the sheer number of Canadians that came to southern Sweden to attend the tournament featuring the world’s top U20 players.
Watching juniors play hockey hasn’t been fashionable in Europe in the past although the attendance figures in Malmö this year and in Ufa, Russia, last year have shown a clear upward trend for the popularity of the World Juniors. And the reason is clear: attractive and entertaining hockey according to the organizer’s slogan in Malmö: Fast – Young – Tough.
For Canadian fans it’s nothing new. The hockey market is so big that major junior league games are attended like minor professional leagues in North America or Europe, some of them even better.
“It’s kids living their dream. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience for them to play for the maple leaf and see all the fans cheering on them,” said Ray from Victoria, British Columbia, when asked about the fascination of the World Juniors.
“A co-worker of mine told me about the trip when we were at a pub and then I booked,” he said. And he hasn’t regretted it. “It’s my first time. It’s great here. The organization is top notch and the crowds good. I think about going to Finland in two years,” he said. “In Canada, we love hockey, and we love our country. If both come together, we travel everywhere.”
The biggest group of Canadians came through tour organizer Destiny Tours with 518 participants who covered one of the tribunes at Isstadion mostly dressed in their special red Bauer jackets they received. They have so many fans at different hotels that they needed 11 buses and a huge room at the football stadium near Isstadion for a reception with lunch. The entertainment program was run by Neil Aitchison dressed as a Mountie who controlled all fans coming in.
“I can now go to the IIHF and secure that the Canadians are the best and most respectful fans here,” he said and announced that fans came from all provinces and territories of Canada except Nunavut, from Newfoundland to Yellowknife to Vancouver.
And the group also includes former NHL linesman Ron Asselstine, who works as one of the volunteer group leaders.
“We started for the first time in 1999/2000 in Skellefteå with 22 fans,” said John Carroll, “and since then we have specialized in World Juniors trips to Europe.”
His wife Rita added: “We were watching the World Juniors [in Winnipeg] and John said we should organize a tour over there. First I thought it was just a joke but then he started working on it. In all the years we have had fans who have been with us up to seven times.”
Now the group is more than 20 times bigger and also the World Juniors have grown from being played at small rinks and small towns to top-notch venues like Malmö Arena this year, or NHL venues in cities like Buffalo, Calgary, Edmonton, Ottawa and next year in Montreal and Toronto.
The group even included a few fans from outside of Canada.
“I love the World Juniors very much,” said Charles from Florida. “Many people recognize me because when I came the first time I was the only American with them. I enjoy the trips to Europe and the camaraderie.”
Fans also enjoyed the fan zone installed at the sport hall in the same building with Isstadion. They enjoyed the pre-game warm-up with food, drink and entertainment as well as the various kinds of hockey games from the synthetic ice rink to cage hockey and table hockey to video games.
Many fans of the group arrived before Christmas to see Copenhagen before crossing the Øresund Bridge to Malmö. Some also went far to the north to stay in the Icehotel near Kiruna before the event while others did a daytrip to Stockholm on an off day.
“It’s really good here and you have really nice people all round the world. It’s already my eighth World Juniors in total and my second in Europe after Ufa,” said Millie from Rocky Mountain House, Alberta.
And for many of them it won’t be the last World Juniors as ticket sales have already started for Toronto and Montreal in a year. And by then the host cities for the 2016 World Juniors in Finland should be known. They can be sure to accommodate many maple-leaf-dressed fans enjoying the fascination of the world’s best junior hockey.