Jean-Guy Trudel of Zurich celebrates with the trophy after the IIHF Champions Hockey League final second leg between ZSC Lions Zurich and Metallurg Magnitog on January 28, 2009 in Rapperswil, Switzerland. (Photo by Stuart Franklin/Bongarts/Getty Images)
Was channel-surfing Sunday afternoon and came across The Score’s tape-delayed broadcast of the Zurich Lions’ Champions League final victory over Metallurg Magnitogorsk. The game’s result is old news now, but what caught my eye immediately was the absolutely electric atmosphere in the arena.
First off, I was taken aback by what I can only describe as a Euro-chic playing surface. The Tron-blue hue of the Champions League logo at center ice set the color-scheme tone. Oblong Reebok and Gazprom logos in the neutral zone, the painted goal creases and an advertisement runner on the boards were also Tron-colored. The effect was completed by intriguing blue-hued faceoff circles in the offensive zones, reminiscent of spotlights highlighting each dot.
I took in the arena scene setters in much less time than it took me to describe them here. Before long I moved on and began grinning like the Cheshire Cat for another reason: The fans.
The soccer culture that consumes European hockey is unmistakeable and great fun. Many of the fans stood for the entire outing. Team cheers and songs were chanted and flags and banners waved constantly.
Most amazing was the coordinated actions of the vast majority of fans, as they rhythmically jumped and danced their way through the contest. Not to mention the flares they saved and lit after the game to celebrate Zurich’s upset, 5-0 shellacking of Magnitogorsk.
Announcers Paul Romaniuk and Doug Honegger were just as entranced by the fans as I was. Romaniuk quickly pointed out the arena reminded him of a Canadian major junior “barn,” with seating for 6,200 fans and a steel roof amplifying the cheers. Honegger later opined that he had never seen anything like the Zurich fans in hockey and could only compare the atmosphere to that of a Liverpool soccer game.
With a few minutes to play, Romaniuk even announced he was going to back off on his commentary, to let the viewers drink in the show that was the Zurich fans.
Even the arena announcer got in on the fun. Obviously a homer and more obviously quite a character, he led the fans in salutary cheers after Zurich goals and during the awards ceremony.
To top it off, the Lions were playing at a somewhat neutral site due to scheduling conflicts. Rather than playing at their home rink, the game was held 21 miles away at the Diners Club Arena, home of Zurich’s rival, the Rapperswil-Jona Lakers.
It all made me think of what an NHL game could be like. I know many arenas have better atmospheres than the usually staid, shirt-and-tie-dominated games at Toronto’s Air Canada Centre, where I’ve watched most of my NHL games. But no sporting event in North America, televised or not, compares to what I saw on Sunday. I’m not advocating flare-lighting at NHL games, but to know that such a thing can happen at a hockey game warmed the cockles of my heart.
Not since my days as a high school student had I seen anything like what happened in Switzerland. Blazer-wearing schoolboys used to pack our school barn for varsity games. Short marches to an archrival school were made for playoff games and we returned to the school arena at night in civvies to cheer on our classmates and friends playing for the beloved Jr. A squad.
That’s not to say we were as crazed as the Zurich fans. We limited ourselves to the school-classic ‘Hoikety Choik’ fight song and some newer – and, admittedly, sometimes pretentious – jeers for the opposing players. But the spirit was there. And that’s something I notice severely lacking in the disparate crowds at NHL games.
The game in Zurich was an event. If games in Nashville, Phoenix, Atlanta or on the Isle could be something more akin to the Champions League final, the gate troubles of those and other NHL cities wouldn’t be nearly as troublesome.
And the games would be a helluva lot more fun, too.
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