VANCOUVER — A change of scenery seems like it might pay off for an annual holiday tradition.
Ticket demand for the 2019 world junior hockey championship — Dec. 26, 2018-Jan. 5, 2019 in Vancouver and Victoria — has "exceeded expectations," said Riley Wiwchar, director of the tournament.
The attendance will be watched closely at this year’s event after disappointing turnouts — and complaints about ticket prices — three of the past four years in Buffalo, N.Y., and Toronto/Montreal.
"The demand is definitely there and we’ve still got a few months to go. So we plan on the (arenas) being full," Wiwchar said.
Tickets have been purchased from around the globe, including France, Germany, Russia, Finland, Sweden, the U.S. and every Canadian province, he added.
Attendance at last year’s tournament in Buffalo — just across the Peace Bridge from Canada — was dismal, with thousands of empty seats for many games.
Fewer than 10,000 people came out for Canada’s games in the preliminary rounds and just 5,533 showed up for the team’s quarterfinal win over Switzerland.
The exception was the first-ever outdoor world junior game, which drew a record-setting crowd of 44,592 to see the U.S. best Canada 4-3 at New Era Field in Orchard Park, N.Y. — the home of the NFL’s Buffalo Bills.
In January, International Ice Hockey Federation president Rene Fasel admitted at a press conference that organizers had expected a different result.
Having either Toronto or nearby Buffalo host the event three out of four years may have been a mistake, he said.
"Sometimes you can also overdo the saturation and where it is being played. We have to learn," Fasel said.
The world juniors will be in the Czech Republic next year, before returning to Canada in 2021.
Hockey Canada said in a statement that it hasn’t yet identified a host community or communities for that tournament.
Organizers of this year’s event weren’t worried by last year’s numbers, in part because of the vast distance between B.C., and the Toronto-Buffalo corridor, Wiwchar said.
"Honestly, there wasn’t much of a fear at all, coming out west," he said.
The western-most province previously held the world juniors in 2006, when Vancouver, Kamloops and Kelowna co-hosted the event. Canada took home the championship.
"I think people have just been craving the hockey for the last decade or so," Wiwchar said. "Having watched it every single year somewhere else, I think people are just ready for it to be back in B.C."
With the Canucks in the midst of a rebuild, Vancouver’s also a market with a vested interest in seeing some of the players expected to skate this year.
Fans will likely come out to watch defenceman Quinn Hughes, who was drafted in the first round by the Canucks in June. The 18-year-old opted to play another season at the University of Michigan this fall, but will likely suit up for the U.S. at the world juniors.
His younger brother, Jack Hughes, also is expected to be part of the squad. The 17-year-old centre is currently with the U.S. national development team and is an early favourite to go No. 1 overall at the 2019 NHL draft.
Excitement about young talent like the Hughes brothers has helped sell tickets, Wiwchar said.
"It’s a pretty in-tune market when it comes to hockey, I find. I think people having a chance to see these guys at Christmas really helps us," he said.
Venues for this year’s tournament are slightly smaller than the main arenas in Toronto and Buffalo, which hold 19,800 and 19,200, respectively.
Vancouver’s Rogers Arena has a capacity of 18,910 and Victoria’s Save-on-Foods Memorial Centre has room for 7,400 people.