Good hockey has been a stranger to Buffalo for many years. In the span of a decade, Sabres fans went from challenging Detroit’s claim to fame as “Hockeytown, USA” to a home environment inside KeyBank Center that’s about as riotous as a weekday afternoon at Albright Knox Art Gallery.
Ten years with just two playoff appearances, and not a single playoff series win is going to take its toll on more than just passion for the team. Buffalo’s passion for hockey has lapsed, as the recent iteration of the IIHF World Junior Ice Hockey Championships demonstrated.
Seven years ago, the tournament debuted here with a game between Germany and Switzerland, and an announced crowd of 13,629. Just a few weeks ago, the 2018 edition commenced downtown with a reported 9,552 to watch Canada take on Finland.
Buffalo’s first go around with the tournament went on to average well over 10,000 spectators per game. The sequel drew an average of 7,040–a statistic slightly inflated by the one-time grandeur of the outdoor game at New Era Field, which welcomed over 44,000.
The sharp decline from seven years ago, and especially the inauspicious start, were hard to ignore. Major media outlets on both sides of the border didn’t exempt the tournament from their scrutiny.
But while the World Juniors may have shined a light on where enthusiasm for the game of hockey stands in Buffalo, it also provided a gift for all of those in this city who truly, genuinely love the sport.
If your attention was strictly on the ice–and not the stands–the World Juniors brought the most entertaining hockey that this city has seen in many years.
You didn’t have to wait until the knockout rounds for drama. Two days in, USA fans had their jaws hit the floor when they ran into the sudden wall that was Team Slovakia. USA was 13-4-1 against Slovakia all-time in the tournament up until that December 28th, 2017 evening, and had won six straight preliminary round contests against them.
That streak was broken when Slovakia shocked the world by topping USA 3-2, and putting the Americans in a precarious position far earlier than ever expected.
“We never really thought we could beat the USA,” said Samuel Bucek of Team Slovakia. “But we’ve done that because we’ve been playing really with patience and we stick with the process and we did the right things on the ice.”
Following that upset, Team USA was staring down matchups with Finland, and a Canadian team that was determined to get revenge after losing the Gold Medal game the year before. That meeting with Team Canada took place less than 24 hours following their loss to Slovakia, all on the grandest stage ever for the World Juniors.
44,592 braved the cold and snow to witness Team USA and Team Canada play upon New Era Field, where Team USA fell behind on the scoreboard early. The Americans’ looked to be a period away from the precipice of a historically-disappointing preliminary round.
But there was too much passion in the boys wearing red, white, and blue. Rather than wilt in the biggest spectacle of them all, Team USA rallied to tie the game in the third, and eventually toppled Canada for the second straight meeting in a shootout.
The result was that much sweeter for Sabres fans, who got to witness yet another stellar performance from eventual tournament MVP Casey Mittelstadt. The Sabres prospect perhaps shined brightest during the outdoor game, assisting on all three of Team USA’s goals.
“The game, the crowd, everything was amazing,” Mittelstadt said. “The snow came down hard, especially in the second period. At the same time it made it that much more fun. It was a little different than a normal game. It felt like you’re back outside on the pond.”
This year’s World Juniors told us a lot about the passion for hockey in Buffalo, but even more, it told us about the passion from these young players.
Team USA had to overcome adversity one more time. After losing to a formidable Team Sweden in the semis, the Americans refused to end the tournament on a sour note. They came out flying for their Bronze medal matchup with the Czech Republic. With a 9-3 victory, Team USA emphatically defended their pride to medal for the third straight year.
“This win was huge,” said Kieffer Bellows following the bronze medal game. “It sets the stage for next year, for those guys who are returning. It shows how hard this tournament can be. There are so many elite players around the world, and elite teams. It’s a huge honor to get a bronze medal. It’s not the one we wanted, but it’s great for USA Hockey.”
Hockey fans from a little further north had their own pressure to deal with. For the second time in a calendar year, Team Canada had to endure the sting of a loss to their arch rival Team USA. But the roster representing the country where hockey is life from coast to coast proved their mettle. Team Canada never faltered for the rest of the tournament following their loss in the outdoor game to Team USA, playing their way to redemption, and a gold medal victory over Team Sweden.
“Everyone was just going nuts,” said Robert Thomas of Team Canada after the gold medal game. “There’s not really words to describe it. We were all just so happy for each other. We fought hard and we had a helluva game. It was something special that I’ll remember forever.”
Buffalo’s hockey fans will remember the tournament, as a whole, just as fondly.