TORONTO – The house was rocking, as fans filled nearly every seat, raising their voices throughout the game with the knowledge that their team was playing with championship glory on the line.
Down the street at Air Canada Centre, where Team Canada was playing Team Europe in Game 1 of their best-of-three series in the World Cup of Hockey final, the atmosphere was different. The crowd was subdued, and quiet for stretches, despite having the dominant home team two wins away from an international hockey championship. The fans finally came alive in the third period when Canada did, as they defeated Europe 3-1.
“It’s different,” said defenseman Alex Pietrangelo of Canada. “Once the game got going, the excitement was there. But you play against the Americans, you play against the Russians, and it’s obviously different.”
Most of the credit goes to Team Europe, whose puck-control game has syphoned the energy out of the Air Canada Centre more than once in the World Cup tournament – by design.
“They were able to take the crowd out of it a little bit. But when we got that third goal, they were a little more lively,” said Canada’s Brad Marchand.
But it’s not just the way Team Europe plays, but also who Team Europe is: a collection of players from nations that didn’t have national teams in the tournament. Unlike Team North America’s under-23 NHL stars, which received solid fan support, Team Europe doesn’t exactly have a supporter group at games, despite being the tournament’s Cinderella team.
Hence, they’re not Russia nor the United States when it comes to fan support, or in their ability to get the juices pumping for the Canadian players.
“It’s tough just because there’s not that natural rivalry here. In some of the other games, we had away fans that were creating some noise. This was probably the team that had the least amount of support, just because of the makeup of the team in the tournament to start with,” said Canada’s Steven Stamkos.
Then there were the empty seats:
The NHL and NHLPA have consistently insisted every seat sold for World Cup. Sold or not painfully large number of empty seats at puck drop.
— Scott Burnside (@ESPN_Burnside) September 28, 2016
Lot of empty seats/boxes at World Cup of Hockey final. Not a great look. pic.twitter.com/l8YuNRQdw2
— James Mirtle (@mirtle) September 28, 2016
— veep (@veep52) September 28, 2016
Don't wanna be that guy, but (I will) I can't help but notice the amount of empty seats in the lower bowl.
— David Pagnotta (@TheFourthPeriod) September 28, 2016
The NHL didn’t have problems with ticket sales at the World Cup of Hockey. Fans and businesses purchased strips of tickets to the event, and as of late August the tournament’s games were 90-percent sold. The empty seats seen at Game 1 of the final were all sold, but went unused for whatever reason, lingering on secondary sales sites like Seat Geek and StubHub and with ticket brokers.
This has plagued the tournament since the preliminary rounds. The 3 p.m. weekday games – featuring teams like Team Europe, the Czech Republic, Finland and Sweden – had crowds of less than two-thirds capacity. There were mitigating factors there, such as the start time and general apathy towards the non-North American participants. And the NHL said that the crowds were larger than for similar games held at other international tournaments.
“Most of those seats were sold. It’s just people weren’t able to attend due to midday conflicts. It’s understandable,” said deputy commissioner Bill Daly. “This market’s response to the tournament has been nothing short of outstanding. I’ve gone to a lot of international tournaments, and this tournament was better attended than any international tournament I ever attended.”
As for the empty seats at Game 1, one theory was that fans might have put their tickets for the first game up for sale, knowing that the World Cup wouldn’t be awarded until Games 2 or 3. Or, perhaps, the draw of the Jays game down the street, in the midst of a wild-card chase, was stronger than a prefabricated preseason hockey tournament. Or, perhaps, the World Cup of Hockey simply isn’t mandatory viewing for local fans.
Whether it was due to the empty seats or the atmosphere-deadening opponent, Canada had to find its own motivation in winning on Tuesday night.
“We, in the room, are going to have to find a way to generate that emotion. Just that attitude that we want to go out there and be the best. Some games you can go out there and get up for when you’re playing a big rival. But this is the finals of the World Cup. It should be on us as players to be ready,” said Stamkos.
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