HALIFAX, Canada - Beautiful, historic port cities have witnessed some of the most memorable IIHF World Championship hockey in the new millennium. Remember Gothenburg, Sweden in 2002, where Peter Bondra's late goal against Russia earned Slovakia its first-ever IIHF gold medal? Or how about Riga, Latvia in 2006, where Tre Kronor became the first national team to win World and Olympic gold in the same calendar year?
Now, get ready to add Halifax to that list of peerless ports.
It's no surprise that this windswept city of 380,000 was chosen to co-host, along with Quebec City, the first World Championship ever held in Canada. Halifax has an amazing track record when it comes to international hockey. It has recently hosted two top-level IIHF tournaments.
In 2003, the Nova Scotia capital hosted the World U20 Championship, and although Canadian fans were disappointed their team lost 3-2 to Russia in the gold medal game, the tournament set new benchmarks in many areas. Total attendance was a then-record 242,173, profits hit $3.6 million, and TSN had 3.45 million viewers for the final.
The exuberant fans also made those World Juniors special. "I remember the hair standing up on the back of my neck, because the building was so loud," said Scott Ferguson about the Canada-USA semi-final that year.
Ferguson, currently the Halifax chair of the 2008 Worlds, recalls the lengths to which he and his colleagues went to ensure his city's '03 World Junior bid would win: "Leading into the bid, we had a two-week campaign to sell the event out. We were on TV every morning at 6 am, with a 'thermometer' to show how many tickets had been sold. I remember finally presenting the guarantee of a sold-out building to Hockey Canada, and they were quite amazed"
The 2004 IIHF World Women's Championship also established a new tournament attendance record of 94,001 as huge crowds are the norm here. (In fact, the 2003 World Juniors didn't just sell out on paper, but also achieved 99 percent seat occupancy, an important distinction.) With less than 70 days left until the World Championship kicks off, over 65 percent of the tickets for the 26 games scheduled for the 10,000-capacity Halifax Metro Centre are already sold.
Fred MacGillivray, who chairs the tournament organising committee, told IIHF.com: "I think that the fact that the tournament is taking place for the first time in Canada and just the second time in North America will make a lot of Canadian and American players want to come here as a point of pride, and for the European players who don't have to go back across the Atlantic, they'll want to play for their teams too. Speculation will soon grow about who the players will be, as NHL teams will start being eliminated from the playoffs. Then sportscasters and fans will really understand: 'My golly! Some great players are coming.' And that all spurs ticket sales. It's not just Team Canada. It's Team USA, Team Slovakia, Team Finland."
While rosters are far from being determined, some numbers have already come together in terms of off-ice activities. A group of 600 local volunteers is ready to care for the needs of players and tournament officials, as well as the 500 odd media that will descend upon Halifax. Up to 5,000 fans from across Canada, the United States, and Europe are expected to get hotels and celebrate in the city's compact downtown, replete with historic brick buildings and narrow streets.
The Pier 21 museum on the Halifax waterfront was Canada's maritime immigration gateway between 1928 and 1971, and somewhat fittingly, about 1,200 of the fans coming to Halifax are expected to be European. Which countries will be most heavily represented? "We've had hundreds of requests for hotel rooms from Latvia," MacGillivray said. "They were the first ones who registered on a large scale. We've also had exceptional interest from Slovakia. Those two stand out in my mind."
Wherever they hail from, fans will enjoy seeing tournament banners and signage in their own language, showing the organisers' attention to detail. Hockey lovers will be everywhere in Halifax May 2-14. The World Oldtimers Hockey tournament will take place between the 5th and 10th. A special trade mission will see about 20 European companies feeding off the hockey synergy and networking with Nova Scotia counterparts. You're sure to find Finnish fans belting out songs at traditional pubs like The Lower Deck in the Historic Properties, and German supporters tucking into fish and roasties at The Wooden Monkey (the preferred restaurant of Halifax-born, Oscar-nominated actress Ellen Page at 1685 Argyle St.).
A unique taste of hockey culture will be found at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, which is organising a special exhibit called Arena: The Art of Hockey (April 5-June 8, 1723 Hollis St.). "When I heard the IIHF World Championship was coming to Halifax, it seemed to me to be a perfect opportunity to combine two passions: hockey and contemporary art," explained curator Ray Cronin. "A lot of young Canadian artists use hockey as a theme. They're interested in it as fans of the game and as a great vehicle for analysing other aspects of culture and society."
More than 50 artists will be showcased, including international talents like Annika Larsson (Sweden) and Kristian Simolin (Finland). Signature pieces on display will include a full-sized Zamboni completely carved out of high-density foam by Chris Hanson and Hendrika Sonnenberg, and a replica of the Stanley Cup cast in bronze atop a washing machine by Greg Forrest. A hockey film festival in the Art Gallery's 80-seat theatre will feature everything from Hollywood fare like Slapshot to artsy Canadian flicks such as Valery's Ankle.
But ultimately, the main focus will be on the ice. Which goalie will elevate his game in the quarter-finals and prove as impregnable as the Halifax Citadel? Which contending team's gold medal hopes are as doomed as the Titanic?
It'll all be unforgettable, as Canada 2008 will see the nine top teams in the IIHF World Ranking qualifying directly for the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver.
Halifax organisers also hope a successful tournament will increase their odds of landing the World Juniors again in either 2010 or 2012.
"This certainly increases our place on the international map," said MacGillivray. "We want to be known as a great city for international events. This region will adopt the IIHF World Championship as its own, and nothing else of significance will take place while it's on. The whole focus will be on the tournament."