Waiting two full years for the World Juniors to arrive at our door once again will certainly test the patience of Western New York’s hockey fans.
The build up to the tournament will certainly bring plenty of cries about #OneBuffalo, #Buffalove and the like. What I hope to see more of is chatter and planning over activities surrounding the tournament.
Downtown Buffalo is a much different place today than it was in 2011 and I hope to see it change even more before the start of the 2018 tournament. But outside of big development projects, I’m hoping the city adopts an Olympic-type vibe for the 2018 tourney. I’m thinking of various activities and attractions around town. Pulling inspiration from All Star weekend or the non-event attractions many Olympic cities utilize.
The key Buffalo holds over nearly every other US market to bid on the tournament is the proximity to the Canadian market. Canadian fans treat the WJC as one of the most important tournaments in all of hockey and that reflects in their attendance at each year’s tournament. They flocked to the tournament in 2011, consistently outnumbering opposing fans and even pledging their allegiance to any team not named the United States in many games. I’m sure the atmosphere will be the same in 2018.
It’s that influx of Canadian fans that really brings me around to adopting the Olympic vibe when appropriate. One of the coolest things in my experience at the 2010 games were the “houses” devoted to each country. These were in spots all around the city and each country had their own take on their respective house. USA house was low key and understated and only the retail store was open to the public. Many of the European houses placed the focus on the bar and partying on any given night. Obviously Canada’s was not only enormous but it was a party atmosphere as well.
This is something that came up on Twitter that I’ve put a little spin on, but it would be awesome if there was an effort made to designate specific bars or venues for specific countries. This would be more bar and entertainment specific as opposed to adding the retail element in. But using Riverworks, Iron Works, Pearl Street, etc. as country-specific bars could add to the overall atmosphere downtown whether it’s a game day or an off day.
It may not be realistic to devote a ton of energy to some of the European countries simply because it’s unlikely that they’ll only have so many fans in town to really make it worthwhile. That doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be a Sweden or Finland Hockey House, simply that the need for finding a big venue – as you’ll have to do for the Canadians – won’t be necessary. For example, Cobblestone would make for a perfect spot for the Swedish Hockey House but it wouldn’t be ideal for the US Hockey House.
I’m specifically petitioning Riverworks to serve as the official Team USA Hockey House for the tournament. While its size may best accommodate the Canadian fan base, I think one of the city’s newest and coolest spots should be the official home for US fans. Watch parties using the big screens, bands on stage for pre and post-game, promotions at the bar and tie-ins using the rinks all with a gigantic US flag adorning the roof over the rinks. Tie a sponsor or two to it if you must, but make Riverworks party central for US fans during the tournament. The giant flag is nonnegotiable, by the way.
Other nods to how cities embrace the Olympics (not the crippling debt part) would be great additions as well. Straight up copying the Olympic Cauldron idea might be lame, but some sort of WJC inspired public art display downtown would be really cool. A mural in a strategic location would certainly do the trick. Ultimately I think a big key will be working to centralize activities for visitors to engage in over the course of the tournament. So whether that’s building temporary outdoor rinks, a sledding hill like what was done in Columbus at All Star weekend last year or other crowd-pleasing activities, building energy away from the arena will be just as important is putting butts in the seats.
Canalside will obviously be a central player in any World Junior celebration and assuming the Aud Block parcels are complete by the time the tournament begins, Canalside could serve as ground zero for the entire celebration. This wouldn’t interfere with the idea for various host bars around the city as the skating rinks on the canals will be a natural attraction and the ability for fans no matter what. Hopefully there’s the added opportunity to shop and eat at spots along the tow paths or in other areas of Canalside (see: Hofbrauhaus) as that will add a lot of energy to the arena district.
Canalside, especially with built-out parcels, would also make for an awesome backdrop for a live shot for the studio crew of the networks covering the event. This has been something I expected out of Canalside pretty much from day one (the ability for an outdoors studio crew during Sabres playoff games) and while the weather will be rough, it would be an awesome visual for TV.
One other thought I had was pairing some sort of hockey tournament or festival alongside the World Juniors. The Labatt Blue Pond Hockey Tournament is a big draw and could certainly pull in a few more American fans from nearby cities. While the tournament itself is a massive weekend event that stands well on its own, either this tournament or something similar paired with the arrival of the World Juniors could be a really cool feature. Scheduling could become a challenge, as you don’t want to create conflicts for ticket holders, but I’d certainly like to see something like that considered.
At the end of the day this even will be terrific. I have a lot of faith that this will eclipse the 2011 version in every way. The outdoor game is an obvious advantage, but even without a full house at the Ralph helping attendance numbers, it’s going to be a fun couple of weeks for Buffalo.