Record attendance, thrilling finish make for exciting event

 The much heralded Outdoor Game.


Today’s spectacle at New Era Field played before 44,592 full-throated fans from both the USA and Canadian sides, may have been just the tonic these World Juniors needed to reinvigorate the tournament from sparsely attended and energy lacking games downtown the first three days.

Team USA overcame a 3-1 deficit to tie the score in regulation, and after a scoreless five minute overtime netted two goals in the shootout to win the game 4-3.

It was not the prettiest of games, with chippy ice and frequent stops in play to do repairs or resurface the ice, pretty typical for these sort of outdoor events.

Nonetheless, the players were reveling in the event. “I saw the fans, the flags, the enthusiasm. Everyone and everyone from both sides savored this game and will remember this forever,” said USA forward Kiefer Bellows.

All eyes were on Sabres draftee and future star Casey Mittelstadt, who had three assists, and again named game most valuable player. “Many of us have never even been involved with something like this. It is something to savor.” Mittelstadt emphatically stated that the shocking loss to Slovakia the night before had no residual effect on the team. “We just said today is a new day, let’s go out there and get them, and we did.”

Brady Tkachuk said there was no despair even as the team fell behind 3-1 to Canada, further complicated that the bad ice was hindering the team’s speed and up tempo style of play. “In that locker room during the second intermission, we were all encouraging each other and pumping each other up. There was no quit in this team.”

From the opening face off it wasn’t even clear how many fans would actually be in the stands. There were huge swaths of empty seats scattered throughout all three levels. But by the first intermission the seating bowl was pretty much full, save for the uppermost reaches of the upper decks in the corners.

There were a few hiccups. With large numbers of fans making the day trip from Canada, all four border crossings (counting the NEXUS only bridge at Whirlpool) were overwhelmed. Then a persistent snow band meandered into the southtowns just before the game, and the weather just got worse throughout the contest. Lastly, the backups and security checks at the gates caused longer than usual lines, even by Bills game standards. All this meant that some unlucky fans who neglected to plan their time properly didn’t make it to their seats until the end of the first period.

But fan spirit, passion and excitement was on full display, right from the tailgate scene before the game staged in sunny but shivering temperatures, to the mix of scarlet colored Canada fans and American flag waving locals making for a good time throughout the stadium, reminiscent of some of the “Derby” style events played in European soccer venues.

What does this all mean for the 2018 World Juniors in Buffalo as pool play continues throughout the weekend and medal round action starting Tuesday?

A lot actually.

Organizers at USA Hockey and Sabres management officials have been stating all along that they were confident and hopeful that interest and ticket sales would improve as the tournament went on. Judging from the appallingly small crowds at some of the games downtown (there were probably about 500 fans in stands at the Switzerland v Belarus game on Wednesday), this all seemed more like wishful thinking.

Yet the buzz and chatter among fans leaving New Era Field after this exciting finish was that they wanted to see more. With both USA and Canada expected to be an important factor in the medal round, organizers can hope for an expect a ticket bump at Key Bank Center in coming days.

Games to watch:

The games at HarborCenter have been magnificent, a small venue suited for in the action viewing and tournament energy. Come Saturday at 2pm, Switzerland takes on Belarus and Sunday at 6pm it’s Denmark vs Slovakia. Sunday at 4pm the USA takes on Finland at Key Bank Center, in a game that will have implications on seedings going into the medal round.

The medal round begins Tuesday with four games set at KeyBank Center and HarborCenter. The USA will play in the 8pm contest that night.

For sure there was a lot of anxiety and trepidation among the International Ice Hockey Federation, USA Hockey and the Buffalo Sabres whether this game would even come off, given the iffy weather and other logistical challenges. But pull it off they did and the record setting event will be one that will be talked about for years.

Most importantly, the World Juniors in Buffalo has new momentum going into this weekend, then next week’s medal round, with the Bronze Medal and Gold Medal games set for 4pm and 8pm next Friday at KeyBank Center. For sure organizers are hoping that Canada and/or the United States are in the mix.

After viewing the epic game at the stadium, a rematch for the gold medal would be a fitting outcome.