PULA, Croatia – It’s a famous hockey trivia: Which is the oldest venue where ice hockey is played in?
Knowledgeable hockey fans may say Northeastern University’s Matthews Arena in Boston, originally built in 1910, or the Colosseum in Calumet, Michigan, which has been used constantly since 1913.
These venues will take a back seat this weekend to an ice rink that redefines the term “classic”. It is located in Arena Pula, a Roman amphitheatre built roughly 2,000 years ago between 27 BC and 68 AD in what is now modern-day Croatia.
In ancient times, the Latin word “harena”, from which “arena” is derived, was used to describe the central area of a Roman amphitheatre. “Harena” referred to the fine sand covering the ground, which absorbed the spilled blood of Roman gladiators.
These days Arena Pula is a bit more tame, hosting film festivals, opera singers and pop stars. But on Friday and Sunday, new gladiators will step into the arena when Austrian-based EBEL league’s Croatian hosts Medvescak Zagreb faces off against Olimpija Ljubljana and the Vienna Capitals, on a rink that is unlike anything hockey has seen before.
Who would think of an ice hockey game being played behind these old Roman walls?
The site was open during the construction period and many residents came to witness the rink's creation with their own eyes.
“I cannot believe that this happens in my city,” said Marko, a local teenager who entered the arena with his camera.
Pula, the biggest city of the Istria peninsula is about 260 kilometres west of Zagreb on the Adriatic sea, and is actually closer to the Slovenian capital of Ljubljana, 200 kilometres north from here.
The surface of the old arena was exactly big enough to fit in an ice rink, levelled some centimetres over the ground to protect the site. No stone may be moved and the construction was carefully supervised by the Arena Conservatory. One of the unique features of the arena is that it is the only remaining Roman amphitheatre that has all four side towers intact and features all three Roman architectural styles fully preserved.
The dimensions of the rink are at the lower end of the rulebook at 57 x 26 metres. Constructing the rink and the temporary stands was a huge challenge. The bigger material didn’t fit through the small gates and had to be lifted over the nearly 2,000 year-old walls with two 30-metre high cranes. The cooling system for the ice is located just behind the walls, and will be put to the test in Pula’s Mediterranean climate.
The arena will accommodate 7,022 spectators for each of the two games. The fan zone Circus Maximus at the parking nearby the arena was already well visited on Thursday night when players joined the fans’ party before taking a tour through the arena, equipped with cameras, smartphones and tablets.
Team members of Medvescak Zagreb pose for a team photo before the amphitheatre they will play in.
“I have never attended an ice hockey game before,” said Ivan, one of the sports students from Split who help as volunteers. Coming from the coastal part of Croatia, there’s little opportunity for them to play or watch ice hockey. Football is the big sport, and then other sports the country is successful at such as basketball or handball.
But since Medvescak Zagreb joined EBEL, things have changed. Thousands of fans fill the arena for every home game.
And although Zagreb is far from this part of the country, Medvescak doesn’t just have fans in the capital city. “People across Croatia can now follow the home games on TV,” he said. “Medvescak has become like a national team.”
“The arena is a good fit for us. We belong there. We are like gladiators,” said forward Dario Kostovic, one of several players from the Croatian diaspora in Europe and North America who returned the country to play for Medvescak. “Sometimes I feel like a gladiator when I come out from the locker room, walk along the long corridor and we are received by our great fans with applause. It’ll be a goose bumps feeling when we enter the arena.”
For Kostovic it will be even more special as he spent the whole summer near Pula where he and his wife have a house.
View from the upper-level stands where most fans will attend the game.
However, hosting the games in Pula in September also involves some risk. In this time the event labelled “Arena Ice Fever MMXII” could have become a “Summer Classic” with temperatures of up to 30°C in daytime challenging the ice makers. Or the weather can be more autumn-like in this time of the year with heavy rain disturbing the players rather than the ice itself.
“It’s a challenge from the idea to the game. The most difficult thing with warm temperatures is not the temperature itself, but the wind,” said Daniel Zimmermann. “We had problems with warm wind from the south especially on Wednesday. We hope that it won’t become stronger.”
CM Sports, the marketing agency the Swiss runs with his partner, former Slovenian ski star Jure Kosir, has been working closely together with Medvescak Zagreb since the team joined the EBEL league. The “Ice Fever” events started with games in the brand-new multifunctional arena Arena Zagreb rather than at the traditional ice rink Dom Sportova where the games are played normally. Last season 106,000 fans came to the seven games at the big venue.
“During these games we had the idea. We thought how we can top that and thought about historic sites in Croatia,” he said. He remembered a tennis match in Dubrovnik, but there was no area big and flat enough for an ice rink. “Then we thought about this monument in Pula where I was with my parents as a small kid. We got in contact with the city of Pula and checked whether an ice rink would fit in.”
“We wanted to have the monument in the centre of the attention,” Zimmermann said about the layout. Most spectators and cameramen will sit on the east side and have a view not only to the ice, but also to the sea and the sunset through the arches. Only tribunes, small but close to the ice, will be on the other side.
The organizers have had mixed luck with the weather so far. The hot period left Istria some days before the event, but the change brought strong and warm winds from the south with it. It was a setback for the ice mostly because it caused a power outage that stopped the cooling.
The practice on Thursday had to be cancelled because of that and rain, and the team stayed a bit longer than planned in Zagreb to hit the ice there before coming over on Thursday evening.
“It’s risk, but managed risk. It’s always like this when you have an event outdoors, especially in sports like ski or tennis,” Zimmermann said. “We studied the weather and were confident that it’s possible. In the worst case we would have to postpone games by one or two hours, or one or two days. Right now it’s unusually windy for Pula standards, but we’re confident that we can play.”
The winds were still there on Friday morning, but the temperatures won’t be much warmer than 20°C. Fans better wear more than just a t-shirt. During the day 1,800 square metres of foil are ready to cover the ice sheet and protect it from warm temperatures and sunshine that came back in the afternoon.
Fans can hope not only for an exciting game, but also for great scenery.
Since the ancient Romans chose not to install dressing rooms at the Pula arena, players the Medvescak and Olimpija players on Friday will have to walk on rubber plates upstairs from a parking lot to the street level before crossing a street and walk up the stairs of the arena to enter the ice. But who would mind these extra steps for such an experience?
“This will be an amazing weekend for the players. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, at best,” said Medvescak captain Alan Letang.
“The games in the Pula Arena are even more important if we take into consideration that all this is happening in a country where the club and hockey itself went through a tremendous transformation in the last four seasons. It is not easy to come up with an idea like this and at the same time have the courage to put ice into a Roman arena, and in mid-September on top of everything.”
Matjaz Zargi, who previously worked for the Slovenian Ice Hockey Federation and was assigned as a supervisor by the league, hopes that he can tell positive things about the ice before the game. “While it is a great idea from the marketing perspective, it’s a big challenge in the sports area,” he said on Thursday. But on Friday some hours before the game he was more positive about the ice quality since the winds were gone.
With the winds gone and sunshine back with mild temperatures, it sounds like it will be a perfect evening for the fans.
The opening face-off for the Adriatic clash between Medvescak Zagreb and Olimpija Ljubljana is on Friday, 21:00 CET. Read more about the event and the development of the Zagreb club on IIHF.com during the weekend.