QUEBEC CITY, Canada – On occasion, the IIHF World Championship demonstrates how curious some decisions by NHL general managers really are.
Down in Philadelphia, the Flyers have chased Montreal’s rookie netminding sensation Carey Price out of his net. Meanwhile, up here in La Belle Province, in the old Colisée in Trois Rivieres, fans sporting Montreal jerseys have gotten to ask Cristobal Huet for autographs. The veteran goalie is available to play for Team France at this tournament because Montreal traded him to Washington at the deadline.
Now, pre-tournament exhibitions are no big deal in Europe. Only the home team attracts a good showing from the fans. Otherwise, the teams play in more or less empty arenas. But the Colisée in Trois Rivières was sold out when Russia steamrolled Switzerland. And it was also crowded when France faced the Czech Republic, even though the Canadiens and Flyers were live on TV at the same time. After the game, they organised a autograph session with Huet. Yes, this meaningless exhibition was a real event.
You see, Quebec is the heartland of hockey. The Canadian media from big Anglophone cities like Toronto may not follow the action at the IIHF World Championship in Quebec quite as closely as the NHL. And some may think you can’t have the Worlds on the same continent as the Stanley Cup playoffs.
But the 2008 tournament in Quebec will be a tremendous success. Not just because hockey is part of Quebec’s culture, but also because the proud Quebecois will want to show the rest of Canada--and the world--what they are able to do. Just like they did at the famous Rendez-Vous’87 two-game series between the NHL All-Stars and the Soviet Union.
As a Swiss citizen, I know from long experience how powerful and effective the Francophones can be when they get a chance to celebrate themselves and their culture. Here’s an example to show you how things are likely to unfold in Quebec. Switzerland’s biggest sporting event is the Federal Festival of Wrestling. The winner is, over a period of three years, treated like a king, and becomes as popular as any hockey ace or soccer superstar. The event is a fascinating mix of sports and folklore, much like hockey in Quebec. The event was held in 2001 in Nyon, deep in the Francophone part of Switzerland. Some Swiss Germans were unhappy with the choice of Nyon, and questioned whether the locals would be able to organise the festival in the appropriate style.
It was quite the opposite. Nyon 2001 became known as one of the best festivals of all time in the history of Swiss wrestling. Everything worked to perfection.
Well, Quebec in 2008 will be like Nyon in 2001. It’ll be a perfect festival of hockey. In past tournaments in Europe, top teams have attracted big crowds, while less-heralded teams like Belarus or France or Norway have played in sparsely populated arenas. But here, even the so-called nobodies will enjoy the enthusiasm of hockey-crazed spectators. France, with Cristobal Huet, may even feel like a home team.
With all due respect to the co-hosting city of Halifax, there is no better place in the world to host the 2008 IIHF World Championship than Quebec City. It’ll be the world capital of hockey for the next two weeks. And some Montreal fans may travel to Quebec City next week, just to watch Huet and dream about how far their beloved Canadiens could have gone with him between the pipes.
Klaus Zaugg is a Swiss hockey journalist who has covered the IIHF World Championship since 1981. The opinions expressed in this column do not necessarily reflect the official views of the IIHF.