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Hotbeds trump hot homesteads when it comes to placing the World Junior Championship

IIHF is clear in its mandate to keep WJC in hockey-mad markets rather than exploring warmer options.

It was more firing squad than press conference. Sure, the 2018 World Junior Championship delivered the first outdoor game in its history, Canada as gold medalist and Team USA’s Casey Mittelstadt as MVP. But another enduring image from the event was the pre-semifinal media availability in which organizers were blitzed with questions about poor attendance.

Hockey-mad Buffalo is arguably the most successful U.S. NHL market on a pound-for-pound basis, coming close to sellouts regardless of where the Sabres sit in the standings and churning out great TV ratings even when the team misses the playoffs. As WJC host in 2011, the city drew 329,687 spectators, the fourth-most in tournament history. But Buffalo flopped as the WJC host in 2018, drawing 211,210 fans, a number also artificially inflated by the 44,592 attending the Canada-U.S. outdoor game.

In the presser, IIHF president Rene Fasel cited inclement weather as one reason for the consistently half-full KeyBank Center and HarborCenter, as it prevented many Canadians from crossing the border. But the problem was bigger than that, and the attendance dip didn’t start last year. Between 2015 and 2018, Toronto and Montreal joint-hosted the WJC twice and Buffalo did it once, meaning, in the case of Toronto and Buffalo, the event was drawing crowds from the same 60-mile radius in three of four years. Fatigue had set in. “The experience we’ve had now with the almost back-to-back tournaments in Montreal and Toronto tells us we have to think differently the city who hosts the world juniors,” said organizing committee chairman Luc Tardiff to reporters.

The question now is: does the WJC have to rethink its entire hosting strategy? Is it going to the well too often with Canada and American cities bordering Canada? After a year to reflect on what happened in Buffalo, Fasel doesn’t think so. He feels it’s a matter of perspective. As he points out, the 2016 Helsinki tournament was the largest-drawing WJC of all-time outside North America, yet it drew a total of 215,226 fans, good for ninth all-time.

It’s the only WJC across the Atlantic to crack the top 10. So even Canada’s or the U.S.’s “worst” years attract more bodies than the tournament would get anywhere else. “Canada is actually the place where we should play the under-20s maybe every year, because it’s something special the fans like,” Fasel said. “It’s a tradition. That’s why we come back every second year, more or less. We have great arenas, NHL arenas with a high capacity.”

Fasel has the utmost confidence in a massive comeback for the 2019 numbers. Vancouver last hosted in 2006 (with Kamloops and Kelowna), drawing 325,138 spectators, placing it in the top five all-time as a host. There’s little risk of tournament fatigue there. In mid-October, tournament director Riley Wiwchar said ticket sales “exceeded expectations.”

But if Vancouver (with Victoria this time) does end up performing worse than the last time it hosted, might the IIHF rethink its philosophy? Some less conventional suitors have come forward in recent years. St. Louis and Pittsburgh made plays for the 2018 tournament before losing out to Buffalo. Pat Kelleher, executive director of USA Hockey, believes he’ll see another swell of enthusiasm from NHL cities the next time the U.S. gets a chance to host. With a gleeful chuckle, he offers Vegas as an exciting outside-the-box idea. “There are plenty of spots we’ll examine and weigh the pros and cons for, but I think we’ll have some great support,” he said. “If it’s an opportunity to leverage a partnership with an NHL club and work to continuously grow the game, it’ll be a thing we look at.”

Fasel is not as optimistic when it comes to out-of-the-ordinary markets, particularly the idea of a sunbelt city getting a chance. How about a Florida-based WJC, co-hosted by the Panthers’ BB&T Center and the Tampa Bay Lightning’s Amalie Arena? Wouldn’t it attract a fun blend of locals and Canadian Snowbirds who’ve flown south for the holidays? “The idea to put the NHL in Florida was that we have Canadian people who retire for the winter there,” Fasel said, “but even with the top NHL teams, it’s not what they expected to have with the spectators. When you see Toronto, Montreal, the spectators there…here is the place of hockey.”

The IIHF has announced the host nation for its next 14 WJCs through 2032, with Canada getting the nod six times. We thus shouldn’t expect drastic changes in the hosting strategy anytime soon. It took a licking last year, no doubt. But the solution in its mind is returning to another hockey hotbed – just one thousands of miles away from the last few. The IIHF hasn’t yet developed an appetite to take a big risk in North America. The U.S. won’t even get a chance to host again until 2025. The citizens of Las Vegas will have to stay patient.

UPCOMING WJC HOST NATIONS

2019 Canada
2020 Czech Republic
2021 Canada
2022 Sweden
2023 Russia
2024 Canada
2025 USA
2026 Canada
2027 Finland
2028 Czech Republic
2029 Canada
2030 USA
2031 Russia
2032 Canada

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