By John Chidley-Hill, The Canadian Press
BUFFALO, N.Y. — International Ice Hockey Federation president Rene Fasel admitted that the Toronto-Buffalo corridor has probably had its fill of junior hockey.
It’s the third time in four years the world juniors have been held in Toronto or Buffalo, and attendance has flagged at this year’s tournament.
“We really expected a different result,” Fasel said at a news conference Thursday ahead of the semifinals of the world junior hockey championship. “Sometimes you can also overdo the saturation and where it is being played. We have to learn.
“You get experience only when you make mistakes. So this is one experience.”
Going into Thursday’s semifinals in Buffalo, N.Y., about a 90-minute drive from Toronto, Canada led the tournament with an average attendance of 15,236 and the Americans drew an average of 14,822. But those numbers were buoyed by the record-setting crowd of 44,592 that came to see the U.S. and Canada play on Dec. 29 in the first-ever outdoor game at a world junior championship.
All of Canada’s other games drew less than 10,000. In the preliminary round the Canadians drew 9,552 against Finland, 7,834 versus Slovakia, 8,671 against Denamrk. Canada’s 8-2 quarterfinal win over Switzerland on Tuesday actually had the smallest house, with 5,533.
Toronto and Montreal co-hosted the world juniors in 2015 and 2017, with Helsinki, Finland, in the middle. On top of that, Toronto hosted the NHL’s World Cup of Hockey in 2016. All of Toronto’s professional sports teams made playoff runs of various lengths between 2015-17, stretching the budgets of sports fans in southern Ontario.
As a result, each successive world juniors around Lake Ontario saw a steady drop in attendance.
“I think the experience we’ve had now with the almost back-to-back tournaments in Montreal and Toronto tells us we have to think differently the city who hosts the world juniors,” said organizing committee chairman Luc Tardiff.
By contrast, Canada’s two pre-tournament exhibitions were better attended. A 9-0 rout of the Czech Republic was at capacity with 9,100 fans in London, Ont., and an 8-1 victory over Switzerland in Hamilton had a crowd of 12,562.
In 2017, when Toronto and Montreal co-hosted the tournament, Canada averaged 15,288 per game and the Americans 12,524. In 2015, Canadian games averaged 16,621 and the U.S. fell to eighth with 10,158.
Although the IIHF and other officials admitted that overexposure was an issue in Buffalo, they also said the weather may have played a factor. Snowstorms lashed southern Ontario and western New York throughout the tournament with a particularly heavy snowfall slowing down play at the outdoor game, with another blizzard expected to hit late Thursday night.
“It’s really winter in North America when it starts to be winter,” said Fasel. “Coming here it was chilly. Hearing about the outdoor game, everyone told me it was a unique experience.”
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