MALMÖ – The organizers are getting it right. The fans are catching on. The broadcasters are all in.
It seems after 37 years of development, the World Junior Championship is catching on in Europe in a meaningful way.
Ufa 2013 might well have been the most successful U20 in Europe, and now Malmo is poised to take that title and run with it. It starts with the tournament organizers. They are realizing the U20 can’t be held in a city too small (Karlstad, Karlskoga) or too big (Stockholm) because in the case of the former there isn’t the population, infrastructure, and economy, and in the latter the event gets lost among other cultural interests.
Ufa was the perfect place for Russia, and even after one day it is clear Malmo is the Swedish equivalent. Last night’s Sweden-Switzerland game set an all-time record for an IIHF U20 game in this country. But more important, the 11,109 fans in Malmo arena were exuberant, noisy, excited. They gave the building a feeling that an important hockey game was being played. They were into it.
And the players responded. A wild few minutes in the first period produced four goals, and the outcome was unknown until Andreas Johnson scored with just 2:47 left to make it 5-3 for the home side.
There were plenty of scoring chances and great saves, many changes in momentum and fine individual efforts. Of course, there are always these elements in top-level junior hockey, but it isn’t very often they are so well appreciated by a European crowd as they more routinely are in North America.
Two other attendance records are in jeopardy here in Malmo. Well, one other record. The second will fall for sure, maybe as early as the weekend. Incredibly, the record for attendance at a U20 hosted by Sweden is a paltry 63,493, set in 2007 in Leksand and Mora. However, after one day and four games, Malmo has already attracted 18,551 visitors. Another couple of days here with crowds like last night and that record will be gone even before the amazing four games scheduled for New Year’s Eve.
And then there is the European record of 139,680 set by Helsinki and Hammenlinna in 1998. Ufa came close to that mark, attracting 110,175 in 2013. Malmo still has some work to do to get there, but it is not out of reach by any means, especially if the Swedes can get deep into the playoff round.
Junior hockey is here. It is fast. It is exciting. It is catching on.