HALIFAX – Although still much in the hunt for gold on the ice, Canada will likely be out of the medals when it comes to putting bums in seats.
Despite hoping to set an attendance record in its first try as host of the IIHF World Hockey Championship, Canada will fall well short of the 552,097 who attended the 2004 tournament in Prague and Ostrava, Czech Republic.
With only a few days left to play in both Halifax and Quebec City, the final attendance is projected to hit about 450,000 – about 100,000 short of the record and only the fourth-best total in the modern history of the event.
“We always want the record,” Hockey Canada president Bob Nicholson conceded Tuesday as he watched Team Canada practise at the Halifax Metro Centre for its quarter-final game Wednesday against Norway.
“But if somebody had said before the tournament that you’ll have the third-or fourth-highest attendance in the history of the tournament, we would have been very happy.”
Still, the fact Team Canada has sold out only one of its six games so far in Halifax, a city with a history of strong support for international hockey, has been surprising.
An average of 8,463 fans have attended Canada’s games in an arena that has a capacity of 9,291 for this tournament. The lone sellout came in last week’s 5-4 win over the United States.
In 2003, Halifax shattered the attendance mark for a world junior championship – a record that has since been eclipsed by Vancouver – and also holds the record for a world women’s championship, held here in 2004.
Fred MacGillivray, chairman of the host organizing committee, said they hoped to smash the record when Halifax put in its successful bid to host.
“We certainly have enough seats there,” he said. “Had we sold out every game here and every game in Quebec, we would have broken the record.”
Still, he insisted Tuesday he’s not disappointed.
“We achieved the levels that we thought we would achieve. It was the first time ever in Canada. People have certainly enjoyed it and the attendance has built as we’ve gone along.”
Derek Roy is the only member of the current Team Canada to have played in Halifax for the 2003 juniors.
He remembers sitting in the dressing room below the stands prior to games against the Americans and Russians and listening to the thunderous boom of stomping feet.
“It was crazy. The whole city was going crazy,” he said of that tournament. “Especially when you’re a young kid. Nineteen years old. Some of us were 18.
“The fire and adrenalin just built up.”
Roy is among those who believes the 4:30 p.m. local start time for all of Canada’s games has made it difficult for the average working person to take in many games.
He also believes the senior championship doesn’t enjoy the same hold on Canadians yet as the world juniors do.
“It’s a huge thing,” he said. “Everybody on Boxing Day watches that first (junior) game.
“Everybody embraces the world junior format maybe a little more. They’re cheering on their country and their kids.”
Although he’s been surprised and disappointed by the scattering of empty seats at Canada’s games, Nicholson said Hockey Canada chose the afternoon slot so they wouldn’t go head-to-head with the Stanley Cup playoffs.
“And if we had to do it again, I don’t think we’d do it differently,” he said.
“This is only the start. When the first world junior tournament was held in Canada in 1978, the crowds were small but it grew into what it is today.”
Average attendance for all games in Halifax and Quebec City has been about 8,300. That figure is particularly impressive in Quebec, where Canada won’t play a game unless it makes it to the semifinals as expected.
There’s been some grumbling in Quebec about Halifax getting the majority of Canada’s games even though the Pepsi Colisee can seat up to 13,336 spectators.
MacGillivray said the answer is simple.
“This was a Halifax bid and we chose Quebec as our partner,” he said. “It was a decision that we made very early, that having Team Canada in Halifax was something we wanted to do.
“We were happy to have the semifinals and finals in Quebec City with the bigger rink and the opportunity to sell more tickets.”