The World Junior Championships are no longer a tournament featuring unknown players in some far-off European locale or rural Canadian city.
The event is now a mainstream item on the hockey calendar, must-see TV for fans and draftniks on both sides of the border as the old year morphs into the new.
As such, competition to serve as host has never been tougher. After a successful run in Buffalo in 2011, USA Hockey’s next chance to host was in 2018 and the bids were plentiful. Chicago and Tampa Bay were serious but were eliminated before the final round of selections, leaving St. Louis, Pittsburgh and Buffalo.
“Fifteen years ago we were soliciting people to please host this event,” Dave Ogrean, USA Hockey Executive Director, said Friday in Ralph Wilson Stadium. “But we’ve had a radical sea change in the popularity of the World Junior Championships and the popularity of our sport.”
A school of thought was it would not be fair to make Buffalo the first two-time American host but the city has a burgeoning relationship with USA Hockey. And the lure of HarborCenter, an outdoor game in Ralph Wilson Stadium and that close-by Canadian border were too good to pass up.
Mark your calendars now: The World Juniors return on Dec. 26, 2017 and run through Jan. 5, 2018.
“I am very grateful for USA Hockey for giving us the right to host the tournament,” Sabres owner Terry Pegula said during a news conference on the field at The Ralph. “I know you guys probably took a lot of grief over picking us two times in a row and we’re going to make you proud.”
“We will deliver a world-class event,” added Sabres/Bills president Russ Brandon. “…This event will be the definition of ‘One Buffalo.’ ”
That includes taking one game outdoors for the first time in the tournament’s history. The current plan is to have Team USA meet Team Canada on either Dec. 27 or 29 in The Ralph. Most of the 30 games will be in First Niagara Center, with a few secondary affairs in pool play and relegation rounds taking place in HarborCenter. Ticket information will be announced at a later date.
The USA-Canada outdoor match could not be officially announced Friday because the matchups in pool play won’t be determined until the results of the 2017 tournament in Toronto and Montreal are final.
The USA and Canada met in pool play last New Year’s Eve in Montreal, in a hotly anticipated matchup of Jack Eichel and Connor McDavid won by Team Canada, 5-3. They did not meet in pool action the last time the tournament was here but Ogrean said host nations can petition the International Ice Hockey Federation to essentially “trade” one team out of a pool and ensure a matchup.
“That’s the goal for sure,” Ogrean said. “Those early discussions on a what-if basis have happened. We think the U.S.-Canada is the best in the game and that’s obviously what we’re designing this for.”
Plans remain uncertain for what else Sabres and Bills officials will do with the rink. There’s plenty of chatter the Sabres would like to host the NHL Winter Classic on Jan. 1, 2018, which would be the 10th anniversary of their game in the snow at The Ralph against Pittsburgh.
Pegula, however, pointedly said it was “premature” to say the team has had any talks with the NHL about that. And there are serious logistical issues to deal with as well when you’re talking about the potential of hosting roughly 70,000 people twice for events in less than five days.
“It’s a total unknown,” Pegula said. “Why would you ask for something if you don’t know if you can do it? We’ve got another league involved in this decision too. It’s very complex.”
Without a Winter Classic, the rink could certainly be used for other events like high school or college games or perhaps a Rochester Amerks contest.
“We will look into everything that fits into the scope of the event without interfering with the event,” said Mike Bertsch, USA Hockey assistant executive director. “Once you put a sheet of ice in like that, what else can we do that adds to the pageantry of the event and supports the community?”
HarborCenter, the $200 million brainchild of Terry and Kim Pegula, was a parking lot the last time the tournament was here and having all the games pretty much in one spot was certainly an added factor in USA Hockey’s decision.
“I think it was pretty important,” Terry Pegula said. “I heard the word ‘campus’ tossed around. You’ve got 10 teams, facilities all in one spot. It’s pretty handy.”