GELSENKIRCHEN – Welcome to the future. The future is now. Gelsenkirchen has put on a show for the ages, one that should become an annual event. American college had its “Cold War”. The NHL has its “Winter Classic”. So why not a “Championship Challenge” every year to kick off the IIHF World Championship?
After all, big outdoor games began in Moscow in 1957 when the Soviets and Swedes played before an estimated 55,000 fans on a makeshift sheet of ice at a football stadium.
Are you up for the Challenge, Slovakia (2011)? Finland and Sweden (2012 and ’13)? Belarus (’14)?
Every great hockey nation has its rival. Imagine if Slovakia played the Czech Republic in such a place, or Sweden and Finland battled it out. Imagine if Canada and the United States played their gold-medal game at Vancouver’s football stadium! Gelsenkirchen is the way of the future.
And if anyone from the Toronto Maple Leafs executive was at the game tonight, he’d be drooling right now. Imagine building a palace specifically for hockey that seats 50,000! All those long-suffering Leafs fans who have been on the season’s tickets waiting list for decades could finally get to a game (well, most of them, anyway).
What was so great about tonight’s game? Big picture answer: everything. But let’s look at a few details.
Appearances. The people here in Gelsenkirchen had fans around the rails, filling in the usual dead space of a football field between the playing area and the stadium seating. When you walk into Gelsenkirchen for the first time and look around, you really have no idea you’re in a football stadium. And, there are no kilometres of tubes and ice freezing equipment all around the field. There are no play areas, no distracting, smaller patches of ice for kids, no loitering stadium employees. Just like a typical arena, it’s all ice and fans.
The ice. Although not flawless, there were no delays to fill in holes, no worried conversations between referees and coaches, no pucks bouncing wildly. The ice definitely got more than usually snowy as the period went on, but not so much as to affect play.
Indoor-outdoor. Because the World Championship is taking place in May in Germany, with snow long gone, a true outdoor game wasn’t possible. Moving the game indoors, but to a larger arena, was the main reason for the game’s success.
Sightlines. From the media tribune, near the back of the seating area, sightlines were excellent. In fact, there didn’t seem to be a bad seat in the house. There were no obstructed views from afar (though likely there were some closer to the action). What Gelsenkirchen shows is that you CAN have more than 50,000 fans for a hockey game without sacrificing the quality of the experience compared to a traditional 20,000-seat arena.
Cool moments. How strange is it to watch a game and have a bird fly by your laptop? How cool is it to watch the Zambonis drive out from underneath the stadium, making their way through the crowd like Ali approaching the ring? How spectacular was it to not be able to hear the referee’s whistle, the smack of the puck against the stick, the crunch of bodies against the glass because the chanting, drumming, and cheering of 77,803 fans were deafening? And how about the "Spiderman camera" that moved in the huge expanse of air above the ice and fans via a network of cables?
Welcome to the Championship Challenge. Oh, and by the way, Germany won the game, 2-1, in overtime no less!