Face off: It’s time for the Ice Hockey World Championships

It turns out pushing a puck over the ice is really quite exciting

In Central Europe, people are slowly getting excited. A sporting event is creeping up on us that, in places without much ice, goes pretty much unnoticed. But for countries that enjoy skidding about in the cold it is a pretty big deal. For just over two weeks in the middle of May, hockey comes to Paris and Cologne. It’s the 2017 Ice Hockey World Championship.

Paris will host the 2017 Hockey Championship with Cologne – Shutterstock
Paris will host the 2017 Championship with Cologne – Shutterstock

Now, I confess to being a bit of a dunce when it comes to hockey. Quiz me on football or Formula 1 and I could bore you to tears, but hockey never really grabbed me. The thing is – I understand why people love it. I really, truly do. It’s fast. It’s aggressive. The fans are passionate. The players don’t seem to be more bothered about their hair than they are about winning games. All these are widely acknowledged to be Good Things. So, in an effort to understand more about the sport – what with the championships coming up and all – I thought the best way to do it would be to write about it.

The International Ice Hockey Federation considers the 1920 Olympics to be the first official World Championship, before the creation of the World Championship in 1930. After the Soviet Union entered in 1954, the modern era of hockey began. The IIHF got its act together and established the competition outright in 1972 as a response to the International Olympic Committee’s reticence to allow amateur and professional players to appear together at the Olympics. Up to then the competition had taken place every year, with the Winter Olympics acting as its substitute every fourth year. But from 1980, there would be a break every Winter Olympic year, and the Olympic Champions would not be known as World Champions.

Keeping up? Good.

With 27 gold medals (including 22 as the Soviet Union), Russia is the most successful country in the history of the tournament; however Canada are only one gold behind, followed by the Czech Republic / Czechoslovakia on 12. In fact, since the early ’90s, international hockey has been dominated by the “Big Six” – namely Russia, Canada, the Czech Republic, Sweden, Finland and the USA.

Thousands of people pack a fan zone to watch the Ice Hockey World Championships – Senohrabek / Shutterstock
Thousands of people pack a fan zone to watch the World Championships – Senohrabek / Shutterstock

The interesting thing about all this, to me, is that there are more ways than one in which these countries are rivals. They could be geographical (Sweden and Finland; USA and Canada), competitive (Russia and Canada compete for highest number of golds), political (Czech Republic and Russia; USA and Russia) or a combination of all three. In fact, some of the greatest games in the history of international hockey have been given added spice for these very reasons.

The other thing is that, unlike the football World Cup, it’s an annual tournament and, with generally the same teams taking part every year, you always know the chance to avenge a defeat is never far away. It’s this regularity (coupled with the fact that you seem to get fewer arseholes watching hockey) that means that even though countries can be great rivals (again, Sweden and Finland is a prime example), a defeat for either is met with good-natured fist-shaking and a Scooby-Doo-like sense of “we’d have won it too, if it wasn’t for you pesky…”

Because of this, there are a great many legendary hockey matches that have taken place across the years, all adding to the “narrative” (because that’s what all sports need nowadays, right?). In researching this article, I stumbled upon the IIHF’s 100 Top Stories. Published in 2008 to commemorate the first century of competitive international hockey, it contains stories such as the Miracle on Ice, Soviets Hammer Canada and Sweden’s Unique Double. I read many of these with great interest, as it was a real insight into the continuing saga of the roles – competitive, political, personal – that hockey plays in the lives of millions. I’d urge you to do the same.

Cologne is the oldest city in Germany and the Ice Hockey is there – Shutterstock
Cologne is the oldest city in Germany – Shutterstock

So let’s say you fancy attending the Championship. Even if you don’t have tickets, there will be hundreds of thousands of fans going just for the experience and the atmosphere. In Paris, there will be a large fan zone close to the AccorHotels Arena, the venue for the city’s games, as well as one at the Eiffel Tower. Cologne’s Lanxess Arena is the largest indoor sporting venue in Europe and, for hockey, has a capacity of 18,500 seats. Plus, if you’d like to bounce between the two cities, they’re around three-and-a-half hours apart by high-speed train.

At the time of writing, there are still tickets available (Germany games are generally sold out, unsurprisingly), but there are still packages available if you’re not fussed about a particular country, and there are individual tickets still on sale for decent prices. USA – Sweden in Cologne has seats starting at 33 euros, Russia – Denmark has standing room starting at 16 euros, while in Paris there are still Team Tickets (ie, all group games for a specific nation) for countries such as Norway and Slovenia on sale for around the 175 euro mark. Some fairly tasty match-ups in Paris (Czech Republic – Finland, Canada – Norway, for example) still have tickets for as little as 16 euros.

If that wasn’t enough, you also get to visit one, or two, of Europe’s most historic cities. Paris is obvious. Galleries, monuments, parks and gardens; history, great food and fabulous nightlife. Cologne, however, is equally worth your time. Germany’s oldest city, it was the Roman capital of the province of Germania Inferior, and the remains of buildings that can be found in the city range from every time period from the Romans onwards. Also a major cultural capital, it is home to hundreds of galleries and museums, as well as the University of Cologne – the largest in Germany. The number of students may very well be one of the reasons that Cologne also has the most pubs per capita of any city in Germany. It’s a necessity, after all!

So even though I won’t be going to the tournament myself, I’ve discovered a new-found depth to the sport of hockey. When the Czechs face off against Canada on May 5th, I might just find myself a pub with a big TV.