At a glance, Magnitogorsk and Umea, Sweden have little in common, apart from serving as the secondary venues for the 2018 and 2019 IIHF Ice Hockey U18 World Championships respectively. Having covered our tournament in each of these great host cities, I was inspired to reflect on the threads that both connect and differentiate them.
You may recall that U18 fans were treated to thrilling matches, such as Canada’s first-day 6-4 win over the archrival U.S. and Belarus’s come-from-behind 5-4 victory over the Swiss on a goal with just 12 seconds left.
Umea, a university town of 123,000 on the Ume River, expresses its love of hockey in a more low-key, typically Swedish manner. In the sunshine, IIHF and national flags flap on the Kyrkbron bridge as visitors cross en route to U18 games at the A3 Arena.
In the subterranean Akademibokshandeln, Stefam Holm’s book Svenska Sportbitar, including 21 recreations of classic Swedish sports moments with 33,457 Lego pieces, caught my eye with its cartoonish cover. It depicts Peter Forsberg scoring his one-handed shootout goal on Canada’s Corey Hirsch in the 1994 Olympic gold medal game.
Now that’s cool, but that ain’t a giant penguin. Magnitogorsk was definitely its own animal. Let’s turn the clock back.
I’ve covered every Winter Olympics and IIHF World Championship since 2000, but my U18 experience in Russia’s “Steel City” last year set the bar high with its colour and passion.
After landing in Magnitogorsk in an Aeroflot Sukhoi SuperJet RRJ-95 at 5 am, I was driven to the Laguna Hotel, where I’d stay two nights before transferring to the Hotel Forum. (Both were welcoming and comfortable properties, but Hotel Forum had the advantage of sitting right across from the 7,500-capacity Arena Metallurg.) Whizzing along grand, smooth boulevards, I soaked up the red sunrise and a flat landscape reminiscent of Saskatchewan.
On the Laguna Hotel steps, I bumped into Canadian head coach Don Hay, and we shook hands. I was more used to encountering Hay, who led his country to World Junior gold in 1995, at the Pacific Coliseum in my native Vancouver circa the 2007 Memorial Cup-winning heyday of the WHL’s Vancouver Giants.
Heading to my fourth-floor room, I could see the Vodopad Chudes Aquapark, a Magnitogorsk attraction connected to the hotel, through corridor windows. Boasting a huge Olympic-style pool, it was illuminated entirely by natural light. It also had a waterslide, replica palm trees and Easter Island statues – and a giant penguin standing sentinel-like by the kiddie pool.
Now, Magnitogorsk’s own Yevgeni Malkin is a giant Penguin. I’ve covered the three-time Stanley Cup champion sparking Russia to World Championship gold in 2012 and 2014. But this sight was surreal, surprising me in my jet-lagged and disoriented state.
Naturally, I went for a swim to check it out up close. And in retrospect, perhaps the penguin primed me for an even bigger sculpture.
I’ve toured Peru’s Machu Picchu and Cambodia’s Angkor Wat, but this memorial reminded me, in its own overwhelming way, of how small we are in the grand scheme of things.
Later, when I wasn’t covering the somewhat surprising race between Canada and Sweden to top Group A (they finished the preliminary round in that order, ahead of the pre-tournament favourite U.S.), I’d duck out of the Hotel Forum to visit the capacious Gostiny Dvor shopping mall, located on Prospekt Karla Marksa.
From a Sherlock Holmes-themed tobacco stand to a Quentin Tarantino-themed pizza parlor, the mall contained plenty of eclectic nods to Western culture. However, I passed up bubble hockey and air hockey at the arcade one morning and hit the multiplex to catch a matinee of Coach, a new blockbuster Russian sports movie.
Even with no English subtitles or dubbing, director Danila Kozlovsky’s redemption story about a disgraced soccer star who coaches an underdog provincial team to glory was easy to follow, hitting familiar beats from Rocky and The Mighty Ducks. It was clearly positioned to generate excitement for the upcoming FIFA World Cup in Russia.
Yet for a hockey lifer like myself, a U18 tournament trumps the hype of a World Cup, NBA final, or Super Bowl any day of the week. In Magnitogorsk, the friendliness of the volunteers was only exceeded by the enthusiasm of the fans.
Total tournament attendance was a whopping 159,176. Even though the host Russians played all their games in Chelyabinsk, the Arena Metallurg regularly drew crowds of more than 7,000. That was as striking as the golden-domed Church of the Ascension of the Lord, the 2004-built Orthodox cathedral that looms within eyeshot of the arena.
It was another world. It was spectacular, and the medal games, where Finland edged the U.S. for gold and Sweden downed the Czechs for bronze, provided a worthy conclusion.
Yet now we’re in 2019, and the spirit of last year’s U18 is rekindling in northern Sweden. For engaged Umea fans and organizers, as well as visiting media and scouts, the best is yet to come.
Here, spectators are enjoying the skills of returning players from 2018, like Belarus’s Yevgeni Oxentyuk and Finland’s Anton Lundell, a 2019 World Junior gold medalist. Meanwhile, in Ornskoldsvik, they’re admiring U18 veterans like Slovakia’s Maxim Cajkovic and the U.S.’s Jack Hughes, the 2018 MVP who’s poised to eclipse his previous tournament-leading total of 12 points.
These kids are building up their national hockey programs and forging memories that will last a lifetime, as they shoot for stardom in the NHL, KHL, SHL, or other international pro leagues.
One of them may even become the next giant Penguin. It probably won’t be Jack Hughes, but hey, it’s hockey, and crazier things have happened.