HALIFAX – Drums pounded, beer was swilled by the bucketful and the wild and crazy guys of international hockey worked their over-refreshed charm as the IIHF World Hockey Championship came to Canada for the first time Friday.
Fans wearing Team Canada sweaters mingled, drank and sang with Latvians, Germans, Slovenians and others as the championship opened under grey skies, misting drizzle and with an easy Canadian win.
“It’s just amazing the people you see,” said Greg Currie, a Halifax resident who brought his son, Jeremy, to Canada’s 5-1 win over Slovenia.
“The first time here in Canada is just huge. Huge for the country and huge for us fans.”
The Latvians, the lovable rowdies of the hockey world, have descended on Halifax in droves, just as they do for every world championship.
Dressed in maroon-and-white jerseys, multi-coloured fright wigs, horned hats and even clown shoes, they make up the largest contingent of non-Canadians here.
In the middle of the work day, as people in business suits hustled back to their offices after lunch, it was already party mode for most Latvian fans.
“The beer consumption in Halifax has just gone way up,” one quipped as he walked with friends, some of them swigging from beer bottles.
A full seven hours before their team even took to the ice against the United States, a dozen Latvians made the steep climb to the top of Citadel Hill to pound their drums in the mist.
“The hats and wigs and stuff is really neat to see,” said David Chisholm, who travelled from his home in Summerside, P.E.I., to see some games.
Chisholm said the fact the championship is being held in Canada for the first time in the 100-year history of the event was “too difficult to miss.”
“We watch it on TV every spring,” he said. “This is actually the first time I’ve ever seen Team Canada play.
“I had tickets to see the world juniors here in 2003 but couldn’t make it over. I wasn’t going to miss it this time.”
Before the game, fans milled outside the Metro Centre, an arena at the foot of Citadel Hill.
Pat and Jackie Stark of Hepworth, Ont., decided to celebrate their 26th wedding anniversary – and their passion for hockey – by going to both Halifax and Quebec City for the championship.
“We made our decision at Christmas watching the Spengler Cup and the world juniors at home,” Jackie explained. “We looked at each other and said ‘Let’s do it.”‘
About 30 minutes before the opening game, a group of Latvians and Canadians belted out their anthems before dissolving into hugs and handshakes.
“It’s a great pleasure to come here to Canada,” said a young Latvian attending his fourth worlds.
“This is the first country that enjoys hockey. For Canada, this is the top game, so we’re in the right place at the right time.”
For all the merriment outside the arena, the atmosphere was surprisingly subdued inside. There were many empty seats as Canada’s opener against the lightly regarded Slovenians began, and the crowd was mostly quiet.
“It’s early in the tournament – they were loud enough for us,” said Dany Heatley, who led Canada with three goals.
“I’m sure it will get a lot louder.”
In Quebec City, where the other pool is playing, a smattering of Denmark jersey’s and some painted Czech faces provided a sign of what’s to come in the next two weeks.
“Everybody’s talking, thinking hockey,” said Claude Rousseau, a co-organizer of the Quebec City event. “Everybody recognizes the citizens in Quebec are hockey fans.”
Rousseau said organizers have sold nearly 260,000 tickets, but less than half of the 8,369 announced for the Czech Republic’s 5-2 win over Denmark were in their seats.
Gilles Tremblay, a Quebec City resident and a volunteer during the tournament, said Quebec is a hockey town and he expects residents to flock to the arena.
“It’s the first time in Canada and it’s happening in Quebec City. We don’t even have to go anywhere,” Tremblay said.
Still, watching world championship leaves a bitter taste in the mouths of some Quebec City fans who still mourn the loss of their beloved Nordiques.
“I would say we miss them a lot, we still have them in our minds, we never forget them,” said Tremblay, who now supports the hometown Quebec Remparts of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League.
Alain Frechette, another Quebec City resident attending the Czech-Denmark game, said he’s keeping an eye on former Remparts in the tournament, including Russia’s Alexander Radulov.
“We are a hockey town,” Frechette said. “Even if Canada isn’t playing here, there are so many other teams here and there’s going to be some great hockey here.”
Rousseau said he’s not concerned that Canada playing its games in Halifax will cause attendance to dwindle.
“We knew the rules from the beginning,” Rousseau said. “We have great teams in town now with Russia and the Czech Republic.
“Even a team like France with Cristobal Huet, a lot of fans are anxious to see him on the ice in Quebec again.”
Sid Banerjee in Quebec City contributed to this report.