Every year during the World Juniors, I always seem to get asked if this tournament could be held in the Minneapolis/St. Paul-area. For obvious reasons, I would love it if it was. But it’s a complicated issue, and one that is probably worth further examination.
We’ll start with a bit of history. The tournament has technically been held in Minnesota once before. It was 1982, the sixth ever IIHF U20 tournament held, and the first ever hosted by the United States. It’s also notable for being the first gold medal won by Canada in the event, after the Soviet Union won the first four, and Sweden won the fifth tournament.
The World Juniors back then wasn’t the World Juniors we think of today though. The event didn’t even really take off in Canada until 1987’s infamous Punch-Up in Piestany, and Don Cherry’s nationalistic response to it. And the US was far from a hockey power back then. The tournament didn’t really gain much traction in the US until the NHL Network started picking up the event in the last decade and the US started to have more success.
So the event was much more of a curiosity back then, and that was reflected by the fact that Minnesota rotated the games around various sites in the state. It’s impossible to imagine places like Virginia, Minnesota or New Ulm hosting World Juniors games today.
But that was a long time ago, and today, the event is a major date on the hockey calendar. With Canada choosing to host the event in NHL cities like Toronto and Montreal—albeit with mostly disappointing turnout—it seems like a natural time to bring the event to Minnesota again. The area certainly has rinks, and they’re willing to support amateur hockey. It could be a tremendous fit.
We’ll start with the interest level. Traditionally, USA Hockey has not ventured far from the Canadian border for their international events. But could the Twin Cities—which really, is only an extra four-and-a-half hour drive from 2005 hosts Grand Forks for a Winnipegger— draw enough interest to sustain the event on its’ own? It’s tough to tell what the demand would be like since there aren’t many points of comparison.
I will say that I think interest in international hockey is growing locally. In 2009 when Fargo hosted the World U18 Championships, some pre-tournament exhibitions were played at Ridder Arena on the University of Minnesota campus, and nobody besides myself and about 30 scouts showed up. They were supposed to charge like $5/game but didn’t even bother because so few people showed up.
Compare that to this past fall when the World U18s were held in Grand Forks and the US played a pair of exhibition games at the Schwan’s Super Rink. They played on Rink #5, which isn’t big by any stretch, but it probably seats a couple hundred people, and both games were filled to capacity with people paying $5/ticket. It helped that there was a strong local angle with high school star Casey Mittelstadt on the team, along with some other Minnesota natives, but overall, there was a much greater awareness for the event.
I also think what I said above about the Twin Cities willingness to support amateur hockey is a key point. While no one would question Toronto and Montreal as great hockey cities, their passion for it beyond the pro level is tepid at best. Attendance is/was terrible for Greater Toronto Area OHL teams in Mississauga and Brampton, and the only Montreal-area team, Blainville-Boisbriand also draws less than 2500 a game. A lot of the complaints about ticket prices at this year’s World Juniors—which were ridiculous no doubt—were that they were charging too much for junior hockey. There’s a lot more passion for hockey at the junior/college age level in the Twin Cities, and for better or worse, people are used to paying big bucks to watch it. I don’t think games could be priced as high as Toronto/Montreal were, but they wouldn’t have to give tickets away to draw numbers either.
So where would they play? As popular as this event has become, I still think smaller is better. The two or three very best games of this tournament could fill an NHL arena, but there are 29 other games in the tournament that aren’t going to draw much.
Starting with the smaller of the two venues needed, Ridder Arena is a perfect fit. It’s tough to find a nicer arena anywhere in the sub-5000-seat range(Ridder holds 3400). Aldrich Arena in Maplewood and Braemar Arena in Edina have similar capacities, but are older buildings that aren’t really set up to meet the television/media demands of the event.
As for the main venue, the XCel Energy Center is the natural choice. 18,000 seats is still a lot of seats to fill though, and it would probably take the right set of circumstances to do so. Mariucci Arena is a more manageable size, and a scarcity of tickets might to more to spark demand. The two different-sized ice surfaces might pose an issue, but the 2016 tournament was played on two different-sized surfaces, so it’s not an impossibility. The Target Center is also technically capable of becoming an ice rink, and they’re always looking for more hockey events. I can’t see bumping the Timberwolves out of their building for that long for hockey though, and Target Center is far from an ideal hockey building.
Regardless of which you choose, there are options out there. But the logistics of making it happen are much more difficult than just pointing to spots on a map. It would take some entity to organize the bid and that becomes exponentially more complicated when you’re trying to make something work with buildings owned by different entities.
Furthermore, the way USA Hockey’s bidding process works is that it requires the bidder to assume all the attendance risks by offering a set amount of money upfront to USA Hockey and then hoping they recoup it in ticket sales. Sidenote: This was never more obvious than last year’s World U18s wrap-up press conference when the USA Hockey rep smiled and said he thought attendance was great, while the rep from Ralph Englestad Arena looked like his dog had just been shot.
And ultimately, that might be why we don’t see a World Juniors in the Twin Cities for quite some time. It’s a lot of work, and a lot of risk, for something that could potentially turn a small profit under the right circumstances, but is far from a guarantee.
I would still love to see it, and I think the atmosphere in Minnesota could be spectacular. But I also wouldn’t be surprised if it was a long way from happening.