When Edgars Buncis got involved in the group that was putting together a bid to host the 2021 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship, he had no idea what he was signing up for.
“I was involved from the very beginning,” said Buncis, the Head of the Local Organizing Committee. “I was part of the team which, together with the Belarusians, was applying to host this championship at the end of 2016, and I was also at the Congress in 2017 when the voting took place.”
Buncis was the manager of Arena Riga back in 2006, the first time Latvia hosted the World Championship, so he saw what went into the event from that perspective. However, what he and the Latvian Hockey Federation applied to host a few years back and what they are hosting now are two slightly different things.
“Totally, totally different, of course,” he said. “So much has happened since March last year – with COVID, with the situation in Belarus, with becoming the lone host city of the championship – and we’re not done with the challenges yet.”
Originally, Riga was to co-host the tournament with Minsk, Belarus from 7 to 23 May. The dates were moved two weeks later to allow European leagues more time to play their seasons during the COVID-19 pandemic, but that’s far the only change.
For a long time, it wasn’t known if Riga would be the lone host, a co-host, or not a host at all. When the decision finally came that Riga would be the only host, there were 106 days until the first games and a lot of work to do.
“It meant that we were forced to make and create the second venue for the games,” said Buncis.
“Since it’s government money, we had to go through procurement processes and so on, so it took some time and legal wrangling. But in the end, I must say that the whole team worked quite well, the installation of the rink in the Olympic Sports Centre went smoothly, and we were ready with ice on 6th May. That meant we had plenty of time to make adjustments.
“The other challenge was the practice arena, and that was finished almost on the last day. The ice was ready on Sunday and on Tuesday, the teams began to practice.”
AdjustmentsSome of the things that make this World Championship different from the others are obvious to people watching on television, and others not so much.
Other than no fans in the stands until now, the game looks pretty much the same as normal, but after the game, there is no handshake and the Tissot player-of-the-game watches are given out but without presenters.
All participants (players, team officials, game officials, technical staff and media) are divided into separate tiers, or bubbles, which have access to different areas, and they all must download a COVID tracking app and get tested at regular intervals.
Also with regards to on-ice officials, instead of being mixed and matched during the tournament as usual, they are kept in groups of six while officiating and practising in Riga.
“There are challenges on top of challenges,” said Buncis. “I woke up this morning saying, ‘Today is going to be a good day,’ and I did the same thing yesterday.”
But despite all the challenges, the 2021 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship has proceeded quite smoothly, with no serious complications.
“I think we have everything in place except for fans.”
Looking aheadThat will change tomorrow, of course. The flipping of the calendar to June means the relaxing of regulations in Latvia, and a certain number of fans will be allowed in the arenas – 2,660 at Arena Riga and 1,058 at the Olympic Sports Centre.
“We all have been waiting for this moment,” Buncis said during the announcement on Saturday. “We are very satisfied and grateful to the Latvian government, which despite the complicated situation has given our passionate fans the opportunity to attend the remaining championship games. I am convinced that fans will bring even more glory and joy to this big hockey party. May all of fans experience beautiful and emotional hockey.”
Having fans in the building, even on a limited basis, will make a difference to the players.
“The players know there is a big audience watching on television, but the presence of fans inside the building is different,” said Buncis. “But I must say, I just cannot imagine what would have happened on that first day when Latvia beat Canada. Among colleagues we were joking that maybe it was a good thing no fans were there because they would have blown the roof off the building.”
Fans will be welcomed into the arenas on the last day of the group stage, with several big games on the schedule, including host Latvia against Germany. So far, there have been a lot of interesting results and there are some unexpected teams still in contention.
“These results are really crazy and I think, quite interesting for fans. I’ve been impressed with Switzerland, Slovakia, Kazakhstan, Great Britain... This has been an interesting championship,” said Buncis. “We’ll see how the preliminary round finishes and I think the quarter-finals are going to be some interesting match-ups, and maybe some surprises.”
When this tournament finishes, Buncis already has his next job lined up. He will become the general manager of the KHL’s Dinamo Riga.
“That is going to be my next challenge,” said Buncis.
And what about a future World Championship in Riga? One where fans can participate to the fullest extent? Buncis doesn’t know if he would be part of it, but he feels it should happen.
“I think we should apply and we owe our fans those feelings,” said Buncis. “But we need to do our homework before we apply. We are ready to go in as a co-host with some other country at the moment, but to organize it as a solo host, we really need another suitable arena.”