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Attendance not an issue for World Juniors officials

Success of the World Junior Championship is not measured in ticket sales.

That was the unified message from officials from the IIHF, USA Hockey, and the Buffalo Sabres as they met with media Thursday afternoon in KeyBank Center.

The attendance in Buffalo has not been what organizers hoped for. The optics from KeyBank Center have been poor, with plenty of good seats available in all price ranges. The largest crowd, before Thursday's semifinals, was 9,552 for Canada vs. Finland on the opening day of the tournament.

But, thanks in large part to the 44,592 at the outdoor game between the U.S. and Canada, the 2018 World Juniors will go over 200,000 for total attendance and rank in the top 10.

"Just speaking about spectators, I know there was some concern," said Rene Fasel, president of the International Ice Hockey Federation. "I remember a World Championship, Junior World Championship, in Switzerland in 1989. Guess how many spectators we had in the total tournament? Thirty-six thousand. We are looking for 200,000 spectators here and for junior hockey that is still a good performance."

For comparison, the average attendance for the 2018 tournament (through Relegation Game No. 2 between Belarus and Denmark earlier Thursday) is 6,453. Without the outdoor game, average attendance is 4,928.

In 2011, the last time the event was in Buffalo, average attendance was 10,635. Both 2018 (HarborCenter) and 2011 (Dwyer Arena) utilized a smaller venue for some games.

There's no question, everyone wanted more fans in the stands, but organizers touted the quality of the games, the live TV coverage of the NHL Network, and the experience for the players when asked if attendance was disappointing.

"You know, we always want to put more fans in the seats," said Pat Kelleher, the executive director of USA Hockey. "I don't think that's anything we would ever debate or question, but we've had great hockey here. I think that's the big thing. The people who have been in the building have seen the best players in the world, players that will be in the NHL next year. So I think for us, we're very excited about the quality of play. I think the coverage that we've had with the NHL Network and everything else around the tournament has been really spectacular for us."

"Obviously ticket sales haven't been as robust as we would have hoped them to be," said Mike Gilbert, the chair of the host organizing committee. "But we don't judge the success or the failure of the tournament based on ticket sales. … The success of this tournament is going to be based on the event that we put on and the play on the ice. It's about the players."

There were several issues which impacted attendance and officials addressed a few of them.

Top on the list was the potential oversaturation of the Western New York and Southern Ontario market when it comes to international tournaments. The World Juniors was in Buffalo in 2011, in Toronto and Montreal in 2017, in addition to the 2016 World Cup of Hockey held in Toronto.

"Less is more," said Fasel, who added that he understood 50 percent of the tickets for the 2019 World Juniors in Vancouver have already been sold.

"This is a signal that I think going west and the interest of the people there is different than here," Fasel said. "We tried (multiple events in the Buffalo/Toronto region) but it showed us that in the future we should be more careful and go more west. You have such a big country. In Switzerland we travel two hours and we are already at one of the borders so here you have such a big country in the United States and in Canada so you can move it."

Officials also continuously referenced the weather when talking about low attendance figures. The snow and the cold, and the resulting traffic issues, surely played a role in keeping people away, they said.

Well, except for the outdoor game.

It was cold and snowy and there was a major traffic backup on the QEW and delays at the Peace Bridge, but still 44,592 stood outside for the dramatic 4-3 shootout win for the U.S. over Canada.

The event was magical. And while the IIHF is open to the possibility of other outdoor games, it doesn't sound as if it will now be a regular part of the World Juniors package.

"If you do that every year, then maybe you lose some interest," Fasel said. "Here was very special, I think. It was very special because of the size of the arena, because of the weather and all the snow and the two teams, Canada-U.S. In the beginning both teams, the U.S. coach said maybe not. Canadians were a little bit afraid. Afterwards, given this experience with the shootout, you can feel the game, how it was played many years ago."

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