SAINT JOHN – The players and fans have brought great energy and excitement to the early rounds of the World Under 17 Hockey Challenge this week, a preview of what’s to come at the semi-finals and final that will take place Friday and Saturday at Harbour Station.
The groups of kids that have come out to games “have made themselves heard,” said event chair Aaron Kennedy. “We told them, ‘it’s not a library, it’s a hockey rink.’ ”
The same is true of the international fans, most notably the Swedish contingent says Kennedy. “They’ve been wearing their bright yellow jerseys and flying Swedish flags behind the team bench during games,” he said. “They’ve come prepared.”
And there are the players themselves who played some exciting nail-biters even before the playoff round began Thursday.
Kennedy says Canada Red, one of three Canadians teams in the tournament, capitalized on the “loud, noisy” environment that characterized the games in the 1,200-seat qplex arena.
“They really thrived in that atmosphere, winning two games in overtime,” he said. “We’re just really pleased with the fan support.”
Jeff Beck, manager of marketing services with Hockey Canada, says the fans have been great and the “teams well taken care of.”
“Saint John has two great facilities in Harbour Station and qplex,” he said. “They’re new and modern and both have a great atmosphere.
“The qplex has been nearly full for most games and the crowds have been really into it.”
The Saint John tournament features four players from the Saint John Sea Dogs: Josh Lawrence with Canada Black; William Villeneuve with Canada Red; and Charlie DesRoches and Jérémie Poirier with Canada White.
Beck says it’s rare to have so many home team players in the tournament, which brings an added energy to the games.
“The fans have really gotten into the games they played,” he said. “They relate to these players they see all the time.”
Beck has been equally impressed with the staff of both rinks and the volunteers that have helped make it a successful event.
“They’re all very friendly and go above and beyond what’s expected of them,” he said. “It shows how much pride they take in making this a success.”
Both Beck and Kennedy say the games at the qplex had a special energy because it’s a small rink and therefore more intimate than Harbour Station. “1,000 fans in the qplex feels like 2,500 in Harbour Station.”
Team Canada Red carries the hopes of the hockey nation now. They were the only Canadian team to advance past Thursday’s quarter-finals, winning 2-1 in overtime over the USA.
Canada Red felt quite at home at the qplex, having now won three straight games in extra time.
“It was awesome,” said head coach Louis Robitaille. “We were the only (Canadian) team in Quispamsis. The facilities were awesome. The (dressing) room was really good.
“The crowd was really loud and got us going. We were nervous to start the game, but that crowd, they stuck with us. Every time we had a chance, they were loud and we got the win for them.”
Canada Red meets Finland on Friday at 7 pm at Harbour Station. The winner advances to Saturday’s gold-medal match.
Russia plays Sweden in the other semi-final game Friday at 3 pm.
The semi-final games, bronze-medal game and the final will all be broadcast on TSN, and Kennedy says it never looks good when you watch those games on TV and see empty seats.
Beck expects “great crowds” for the weekend games at Harbour Station and so does Kennedy, who issues a challenge to the area’s hockey fans.
“We want fans around the country to watch the games on TV and say, ‘Hey, look at what Saint John and Quispamsis can do,” said Kennedy. “We want Saint John to put on a good show and fill that arena.”
The semi-final games will take place Friday at 3 pm and 7 pm. On Saturday, the bronze medal game is being played at 2:30 pm with the gold medal game taking place at 7:30 pm. There are still tickets online and at the Harbour Station box office.