BUFFALO – Just so we all have this straight, the reason the crowds for the World Junior Championship this year have been so epically bad is the weather. At least that’s what the International Ice Hockey Federation and USA Hockey would have you believe. It’s almost as though nobody anticipated there might be less-than-ideal conditions in the middle of the winter along a part of the U.S.-Canada border that is surrounded by Great Lakes.
The IIHF held its annual WJC news conference prior to the semifinals Thursday afternoon and everyone from IIHF president Rene Fasel to USA Hockey executive director Pat Kelleher to IIHF tournament chairman Luc Tardif pointed to inclement weather as a major factor in the disappointing attendance figures. Of course that doesn’t account for the fact that on the worst weather day of the tournament, a WJC-record 44,592 showed up for the outdoor game, many of them snaking their way through small-town Ontario after a massive accident closed the main artery connecting Ontario to the 190 Interstate. Or that there were huge swaths of empty seats in the lower bowl and virtually no one in the upper bowl at the Key Bank Arena for Thursday’s semifinal between USA and Sweden on a day that was clear and relatively pleasant.
It also doesn’t take into account that weather had nothing to do with the fact that ticket sales were so sluggish prior to the tournament that ticket parameters were adjusted three times before the tournament even began. But these guys were having none of it. In an event that could best be described as a theater of the absurd, USA Hockey communications director Dave Fisher went all Sarah Huckabee on your trusty correspondent after it was pointed out that the past three WJCs in North America have had attendance issues. Tardif, who is supposed to be the IIHF’s point man for this event, had no idea what the seating capacity is at the Save On Foods Centre in Victoria, B.C., where one of the groups will play its preliminary round games next year (note: it's 7,006 for hockey.) “Next year it’s going to be in Vancouver and Victoria, I think,” Tardif said. “I don’t know the attendance in Victoria, it’s a big rink, I think.”
In reality, the weather had nothing to do with this debacle. The fact that the IIHF awarded three of the past four events to two cities within 100 miles of each other has taken the luster off it to the point where it is no longer special. And no matter how they try to shine up this thing, attendance has been atrocious. When this event was last held in Buffalo in 2011, it attracted an average of 10,635 per game. Buttressed by the outdoor game, the average attendance at this year’s event going into the four semifinal and medal games was just 6,453. If you take out the outdoor game, the average attendance at the event is just 4,928, less than half what it attracted seven years ago in the same market. Again taking out the outdoor game, the attendance for the games involving Canada and USA going into the semifinals was 6,790 in an arena that has a seating capacity of 19,070.
“Actually we tried, but it shows us that in the future we should be a little more careful,” Fasel said. “You get experience only when you make mistakes. This is one experience.”
It would be one thing if this were just a one-off. But the fact of the matter is that there have been significant attendance issues at each of the past three WJC tournaments that have been held in North America. When the event was held in 2015 and 2017 in Toronto and Montreal, there were major attendance issues on the Montreal side. Fasel reported that 50 percent of the tickets have already been sold for Vancouver-Victoria, which is quite a feat considering the 18-game pack (and one pre-tournament game) for Vancouver ranges in price from $650 ($34 per game) to $2,250 ($118 per game).
Perhaps that’s because the event will be held in a place far, far away from where it has been lately and in a market that will not have hosted the event in 13 years. Because in this part of the world, at least, it appears as though they’ve managed to do something that was not thought to be possible. They’ve killed the golden goose in a part of the world with millions of hockey-mad people. That’s not an easy thing to do.
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