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Mike Harrington: Empty seats, replay review make for ugly opening at World Juniors

It's the day after Christmas, a holiday they call "Boxing Day" on the other side of the Peace Bridge. We've got the greatest under-20 hockey players in the world in our midst for the next 10 days. I should be in a good mood. The World Junior Championship was the bomb when it made its debut here seven years ago.

So why am I thinking this event's boom is going to go bust here this time around?

Tuesday was not an auspicious start.

There might have been 2,000 folks in the KeyBank Center stands to see the Czech Republic's upset of Russia in the opener. Canada got better as its 4-2 victory over Finland went along in a game played in front of maybe 8,000 fans. Team USA battered Denmark in front of a pathetic house of maybe 5,000 – and officials closed the 300 level and offered fans comp seats down below. Which had to make folks who paid for that level super-duper happy about the extra money they shelled out.

Organizers have to be choking on their hot chocolate after the intimate gatherings that entered the building. The Canada-Russia game played here on Dec. 26, 2010, drew a sellout crowd of 18,690. The US-Finland game that day drew 14,093. So what the heck happened Tuesday?

I hate to be I-told-you-so guy.  But I told you so.

It was 11 months ago I wrote that USA Hockey and the Sabres better heed the warnings of all the empty seats last year in Toronto and especially Montreal. But they didn't listen to me, trying to force overpriced ticket packages down the throats of Canadian and Buffalo fans, seemingly as a way to fill seats for Friday's USA-Canada outdoor game in Orchard Park  that now looks to be an utter Freezefest.

It looks like they're going to reap what they sow.

Seven years later, the Sabres are a scourge rather than a playoff  team, the Bills are fighting for the postseason, the Canadian dollar isn't doing as well, the Leafs are soaring and Canadian junior fans have been hit with high prices in both 2015 and 2017. It's a bad combination for Buffalo and if USA Hockey and Sabres officials didn't see this all coming, shame on them.

The potential for embarrassment here is high. Nobody should buy a ticket from the box office, where you could pay up to $75, with all the tickets floating around StubHub and offers now showing up, of all places, on Groupon. Parking lots near the arena were shamefully pushing prices to $20 and $25 Tuesday when they're often in the $10-$15 range for Sabres games.

Inside the NHL: Empties at World Juniors a caution sign for 2018 event here

Organizers don't deserve any luck for their foolishness but they're not getting any either. The weather is brutal, and it's going to render moot the neat idea of Championship Village over at Canalside. Who's walking over there in all this wind and cold? Even the ice skating rink at the Aud site is going to be underutilized.

You wonder if it will be too cold to even go outdoors Friday at New Era Field. What kind of shape is the stadium in if they're calling out the seat shovelers again? And how about Sunday's USA-Finland game? An interesting attraction on a weekend afternoon at 4 p.m. with a key Sabres prospect on each side. But whoops! The Bills-Dolphins game just got flexed to 4:25. There's a friends-and-family crowd for sure now.

The hockey itself was fine. It's easy to see what the fuss is all about around Team USA and Sabres No. 1 pick Casey Mittelstadt. But we couldn't even get through the first  six minutes of Canada-Finland before that scourge of sports – video replay – intruded on the proceedings.

Canada's Boris Katchouk was awarded a goal on a breakaway even though he clearly crashed into Finland  goalie/Sabres prospect Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen and knocked the net off its moorings before the puck slid in. It was obvious what happened.

World Juniors Notebook: Luukkonen unhappy with start to tourney

The play was foolishly called a goal on the ice. And before you could say "Kelvin Benjamin," this replay review refused to change the call and awarded the goal.  It was equally bizarre as the egregious reversal we saw Sunday and it came on the very day Sabres owner Terry Pegula spoke on his team-produced radio show and brilliantly dressed down NFL replay in the wake of the Fiasco in Foxborough.

You had to wonder if Robert Kraft and Al Riveron were running replay for the International Ice Hockey Federation, too.

When I asked Canada coach Dominique Ducharme if he was concerned about the video review, he literally smirked at me and said, "Oh, I thought it was a goal." Canadian reporters around the scrum chuckled uncomfortably. Everyone knew the deal.

"He called it goal on the ice so it's hard to overturn that," said Katchouk, a Tampa Bay draftee (as if the Lightning need more speedsters  in their system). "The puck was in motion and it's hard to overturn that."

The tournament had a silly controversy around one of its marquee games. We know what Finland coach Jussi Ahokas thought. He didn't stick around to talk to reporters. Who could blame him?

Canada doesn't have the star power it normally does in this tournament but it looks to have a ton of balance. Its three-goal first period wasn't even its best, as Ducharme pointed out. But the Canadians have lots of speed – Katchouk joked it was "magic speed" that carried him to his goal.

That Canada-USA game should be great fun. Maybe they'll meet again in the medal round. But  how many people are going to pay to be there?

What a gross miscalculation by everyone involved. Hockey fans and Sabres season-ticket holders in particular have griped they've been taken for granted in these parts for too long. It would be nice if people started paying attention to them. Unfortunately, the World Juniors might become the collateral damage.

Mittelstadt helps U.S. to a strong start at World Juniors

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