I first posted this as a FanShot, but it deserves it's own piece.
The IIHF has taken the game into the elements before, playing in the open air of Veltins Arena in Gelsenkirchen, Germany, to open the 2010 IIHF World Championships. But their latest venture outdoors is a bit more challenging, putting the game in the heart of Mexico City, the Zócalo, or the central plaza. This outdoor adventure is more akin to the KHL's inaugural All-Star Game, which was played at Red Square in Moscow. The biggest difference? The temperature in January in those two locations.
The KHL game failed to attract much of a crowd (Wikipedia has it at a mere 4000 spectators), but Mexican officials are expecting there to be upwards of 50,000 spectators, all on free admission, for the opening game of the IIHF U20 Division 3 World Junior Hockey Championships between Mexico and Bulgaria. Officials have also apparently secured broadcast of the event "live on TV in Mexico, but also... in Argentina, Brazil, Chile and Colombia."
In comparison to those markets, Mexico is a hockey mad nation. Mexico participates regularly at every level of the men's competitions in the IIHF, having achieved a ranking of 32nd overall in 2010, and even participated in an Olympic qualification tournament for the games in Vancouver. Argentina, Brazil, and Chile all have IIHF memberships, but they have mainly been formed for Inline Hockey. There are ice hockey leagues in some parts of Brazil, as well as in Buenos Aires and Ushiuaia in Argentina, but for most citizens, ice hockey is a completely foreign concept.
It's hard to know how the public at large will take to this curious game, played at a level far below the pinnacle of the sport. IIHF Division 3 U20 tournaments are not exactly featuring elite athletes. They are kids who are pretty much the only kids in their entire country their age playing the sport at all. For those familiar with the top level, where teams like Latvia, Norway and Kazakhstan have turned up in recent years only to be absolutely blown out, it should be pointed out that those teams could blow out teams like Hungary. In 2009, Hungary was at the Division 1 level against Denmark, Austria, Italy, Norway and Ukraine and went 0-0-1-4 with a -17 goal differential. Last year, Hungary beat Mexico 28-0 at the U20 Division 2A WJHCs.
This isn't meant to dump on Mexican hockey. They're amongst the favourites for promotion to Division 2B next year, and have recently started up their first semi-professional hockey league, the Liga Mexicana Élite. They have about 2200 registered hockey players and eighteen rinks, which aren't terrible numbers when put in perspective. Denmark, for example, has twenty-five rinks with about 4500 registered players, and they're ranked 13th in the world and have a modest women's program (ranked 22nd overall). Mexican national teams have done tours of American and Canadian minor leagues, holding exhibition games against teams in attempts to challenge their players against better competition.
We're a long ways from seeing Canada vs. Mexico in the Zócalo to open the U20s on Boxing Day, but it's an interesting way to expose the sport to a large audience, that's for sure. One has to wonder if holding outdoor games will become standard in bids for IIHF events in the future.
Gametime is 8:00 PM CST on Sunday Jan. 9.