If your old enough you might remember a bit of a fad in the early to mid 90’s for Ice Hockey in Ireland, well when I say Ice Hockey I really mean roller hockey; kids on roller-blades in oversized Chicago Blackhawks jerseys skating around suburban cul-de-sacs with hockey sticks. There were a few possible explanations for this fad, the growth in popularity of inline skates, the Mighty Ducks film franchise, as well as hockey cropping up in the likes of Wayne’s World, even that brief moment when super-baggy Ice Hockey jerseys were fashionable for about a month in 1995. For me the hook was the Sega mega-drive and the video game classic that is NHL 94, all Hockey Organ music and 16-bit power play bliss. The game was so popular it even crops up in the Vince Vaughan/Jon Favreau comedy Swingers where Vaughan’s character notes the exceptional video game talent of Chicago’s Jeremy Roenick.
Following actual live, non-sega based American sport was a bit harder for an Irish kid in the 90’s. There was the time difference, there was trying to find NHL or the NBA on television. For basketball there was sporadic coverage on Channel 4 and I seem to remember Eurosport(?) showing the NCAA Basketball championships for a couple of years. Dial-up internet wasn’t exactly ready for live streaming of sports so anything else tended to be going around to friends houses where they had good Sky Sport packages to see the odd game.
However I’d always kept a passing interest in the NHL and have been known to indulge in slightly boozy hockey conversations with Canadian tourists in some of Dublin’s finer hostelries. On that basis I had to try and catch a game on a recent trip to Toronto. It was mid September and most days were balmy mid 20’s so not exactly Ice Hockey weather and it was still a few weeks out from the start of the NHL season so no chance to see the Toronto Maple Leafs. The Maple Leafs are one of the “Original Six” founding members of the NHL and have 13 Stanley Cups to their name, though they haven’t won the title in the fifty years since the expansion of the League.
The Maple Leafs play their home games in the impressive indoor arena of the Air Canada Centre, located in downtown Toronto just behind Union Station. The arena also hosts Canada’s only existing NBA team, the Toronto Raptors. They can apparently change over from one sport to another in the space of just six hours. During my visit the Centre was also hosting the Ice Hockey World Cup, that’s the entire World Cup schedule, kind of like the idea for the Centenario in Montevideo for the first football World Cup in 1930.
The hockey World Cup isn’t really comparable with the current version of the FIFA World Cup however, it features only 8 sides for a starter, it occurs somewhat irregularly and features a couple of what you might term hybrid teams. This edition was the first World Cup held since 2004 and only the third ever overall. The World Cup itself was a successor to the invitational Canada Cup tournament that had been held from the 1970s onward. The idea is that in future the World Cup will be held regularly in four year cycles in the month of September. There are a few obvious advantages to this, the International Ice Hockey Federation’s (IIHF) annual World Championship tends to take place during the playoffs of the NHL season meaning that many top players are not released to take part. As the World Cup is organised by the NHL before their pre-season begins it will avoid this conflict and in theory ensure the best players can compete.
Those taking part in the tournament include International Hockey’s “Big Six” of the USA, Canada, Russia, Czech Republic, Sweden and Finland as well as “Europe” a team made up of the best of the rest European players from Austria, Denmark, France, Germany, Norway, Slovakia, Slovenia and Switzerland. The eighth side was North America, a Canada/USA selection of players aged 23 or under which also had the effect of making the individual Canadian and USA teams to be made up of players aged 24 and over.
It was refreshing to be in a North American city and experience something close to the atmosphere you might find in a European city ahead of a big qualifying game in football, if not quite a full-on tournament atmosphere. There were plenty of yellow and blue clad Swedish fans along with reds of the Czech Republic and the blues of Finland populating the bars and patios of downtown Toronto and they were in full voice. Any game involving Canada, the USA or indeed the North America side were all sold out but we did manage to get tickets for the nosebleed seats for the Sweden v Finland game.
The puck drop was set for 3pm and it felt we were swamped with Swedish fans. This being a modern 20,000 seat venue in North America there were plenty of places to grab merchandise and a drink. They do of course allow you to supersize that, you could get a 25oz beer which is a close to about two pints I think.
As I said the arena capacity is just under 20,000 so it was disappointing that the crowd was only around the 12,000 mark. I’d blame the pricing, we’d been cheapskates and got tickets for about $30 each and the seats all around us were full with a fair few locals in among the Swedes and Finns. However the more expensive seats, in the $100+ price range remained mostly empty.
Both squads (apart from a couple of Russian based players in Finland’s party) were comprised of NHL based players. The most prominent probably being the Swedish twin brothers Henrik and Daniel Sedin who both play for the Vancouver Canucks and for Finland it would probably be Minnesota Wild captain Mikko Koivu or goaltender Tuukka Rask. The Finns started the brighter and seemed to play the better hockey in the first period but we weren’t to be provided with a goal. We were kept interested with another round of beers and some chanting from the predominantly Swedish crowd.
In the second period the Swedes came into the game a bit more with the Sedin brothers combining to set up Anton Strålman for the first goal. While Finland came back into the game and forced Sweden’s goal-tender, Henrik Lundqvist of the New York Rangers into a number good saves. The Finns continued to press for an equaliser in the final period, even committing Rask their goalie forward only to be caught out by a very late Swedish counter-attack with Loui Eriksson of the Vancouver Canucks scoring into the open goal. The win guaranteed the Swede’s progression from the group stages while Finland needed a miracle, something their crestfallen fans seemed well aware of.
Sweden would be knocked out the semi-final be the Europe selection, who would be defeated in the final by the heavy favourites Canada. It gives a Canada some what of a clean sweep as they are now World Champions, World Cup winners and Olympic Gold medallists and clearly the most dominant hockey team in the World. If the World Cup does gain some traction and some manages to become a regular fixture and not just a glorified warm-up to the NHL season then it could be the international competition with the highest player quality levels.
While not quite a global festival of sport it was still a chance to see some of the best players of the sport in international competition. Watching and reading the media coverage of the tournament there did seem a genuine pride and indeed novelty for the players taking part, many of whom had previously had scant opportunity to represent their nations.