At the 2014 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship, guests and hosts alike are determined to have a great time - and the party doesn't stop away from the arenas.
The swell of a traditional bayan-accordion, the whoops and yells of Belarusian folk music and colourful linen-clad dancers are proving irresistible to hockey fans in downtown Minsk at the World Championship.
Belarus is determined to ensure the party doesn’t stop outside the arena where fans play games and pose for photos in front of the of the ŠKODA fan wall. The large riverside fanzone, next to the city’s old ‘Palace of Sports’ rink, is the new hot spot for locals and visitors alike in addition to the students’ fan village in the south of the city where fans can also get hostel-like accomodation (see video).
Ever since last weekend’s opening fireworks the happy mix of good-value beer, live music and a glimpse of local culture has been keeping supporters entertained throughout their time here.
As Latvia faced off against Russia on Saturday afternoon, a group of Finnish supporters were busy learning the steps of a traditional Belarusian folk dance, guided through their moves by members of the Gamanina ensemble from the Belarusian University of Informatics and Radioelectronics.
“It’s our first time with this dancing, and it’s very, very difficult for us,” one of the group explained after he was reunited with his beer. “We will come back tomorrow to practise some more!”
The Finns were enjoying the atmosphere in Minsk, and the appreciation seems to be mutual: the local residents are clearly enjoying this international invasion during the tournament.
The first six days of the tournament saw food and drink stalls in the fanzone ring up sales of $1.6 million, according to the local edition of Komsomolskaya Pravda. A half-litre of beer sells for around $2. That comes despite – or perhaps because of – restrictions on the sale of imported beer, intended to boost Belarusian brews during the tournament.
An official statement from the government observed: “If foreign fans didn’t like Belarusian beer, they wouldn’t keep drinking it.”
Suddenly it’s a common sight to have groups of colourfully-shirted fans strolling the broad boulevards of the capital city, cheering for their teams and taking in the sights of one of Europe’s least-known major cities.
Souvenir stores are doing a lively trade, offering hockey memorabilia, Soviet nostalgia and recipes for draniki, the hugely popular Belarusian potato pancake to eager buyers.
And that’s spreading the culture of hockey still further, as Anna, one of the members of Gamanina, explained.
“I’ve started following hockey in this tournament and I’m really enjoying it, even though I’ve not had time to go and see a game live at the arena,” she said.
“Of course I’m cheering for Belarus and they are playing really well. They’re trying to give us a good game every time, and even when it doesn’t quite work out they never give up.”
Anna’s ensemble can often be found touring the fanzone encouraging people to pick up a few new moves, and she’s enjoying sharing some of her own culture with visitors.
“Everyone has been really friendly and I think they enjoy coming to dance with us,” she added. “People have been really supportive of us here.”
It’s not just for hockey fans, either. Another Belarusian folk group, Irdorath, which plays bagpipe heavy ‘fantasy-medieval’ music, admits to not being big followers of the sport. But, as Nadezhda and Vladimir explained: “We like to see people enjoying themselves. There’s a great atmosphere here, with lots of people from different countries roaring on their teams and having a good time.”
And the downtown park, attractively sited next to the Svislach River, is attracting crowds of all ages to enjoy the atmosphere, the music, the food and the tournament. Whatever happens on the ice, it seems that Minsk 2014 will be warmly remembered by visitors and hosts alike.