A football fan’s hockey experience

This was unexpected.  But, if European Football Weekends can do Rugby League, then why shouldn’t Britski Belasi try Ice Hockey?!  Besides it’s an experience that certainly ticks most of the boxes if it’s fan culture, drinking, atmosphere, flags and stadiums that’s your thing.  Welcome to the World Championships and Bratislava is certainly fired up for hockey, as the catchy adverts all over town proudly declare. Slovak Republic? Hockey Republic.

Hockey fever grips BA - photo Dan Richardson

Arriving back in town on Friday night I obviously knew that the World Championships were starting, but hadn’t really researched the possibility of getting tickets.  I kind of subconsciously assumed that all the matches were sold out on the basis of a complicated online ticketing process where most of the advance sales were for expensive ‘follow-my-team’ packages.  I had an open mind about it and was certainly considering taking in some matches on big screens at some of the various fan zones around town.  Little did I know a day later I’d be inside the Orange Arena.

It doesn’t take long to pick up the buzz here.  Cars are flying those flags that the English go mad for come major championships, everyone is wearing ice hockey gear, and it’s being reported that Slovaks have never been so proud to wave their famous double cross in a similar way to the effect the 2006 World Cup had on German patriotism.  With ice hockey being the number 1 sport over here, the locals are certainly excited about the hosts’ prospects for this tournament, especially after the 3-1 opening victory over Slovenia on Friday night.

The Championships are on for the next couple of weeks and matches are being played in both the capital and Slovakia’s second city, Kosice, far out in the East.  On this blog we make a regular habit of complaining about the lack of a National football stadium in Slovakia, and make regular envious mention of the shiny new Zimny Stadion, or Orange Arena that has been built next door to Tehelne Pole.  The press had, of course, made a big thing about delays to the construction raising questions over the readiness of the stadium for the Championships.  Of course it was ready, and it looks mighty fine, I must say.

Once in the Old Town on Saturday it dawned on me that these Championships are basically one big party, one big drinking fest, especially for the Scandinavian fans who do enjoy their beer and must be in heaven given the prices over here.  By 10:30 on Saturday morning, the main square was already full of Danes and Finns downing copious amounts of Zlaty Bazant.  From here on, the atmosphere would just grow and grow.

Inside the tourist information centre we came across a Finnish fan who was trying to get rid of a ticket due to illness.  ”I’ll have that mate, how much do you want for it?”  Neither of us really knew what price was right, so we agreed on face value, I’m happy enough with that, although I learned later you can pick up tickets for less from the touts outside.  Feeling a bit guilty about going on my own, I also picked up two tickets for Slovenia v Germany on Tuesday so I can take my girlfriend along, living in Bratislava, this is something we have to experience.

A couple of hours later I was in the fan zone, adjacent to the Arena.  This was well set-up.  Free entry, Corgon beer priced at €1.80 a pint, I was expecting a lot worse than that.  I was however shocked at the €80 price-tag for an official jersey, I’ll settle for a pin badge, thanks.  There was plenty of outside drinking going on, but also a big indoor marquee, busy with Finns, Danes and especially Czechs.  They were really out in force.  If you could list Nations who love their beer, would you not mention Czechs, Danes, Finns?  Quite an atmosphere and totally friendly.  Plenty of people wearing colours of course, but also loads of fancy dress.  Seemed like groups of lads had got together and made quite a tour out of this.  Photo opportunities aplenty, people were loving this.

Sensibly, I headed off the the stadium about an hour before ‘kick-off’ or whatever they call it in ice hockey.  This was where I had to tweet on the hashtag #thingsidontlikeaboutslovakia.  Ridiculous rules mean that cameras are not allowed inside the stadium.  And the security were going through every bag with a fine tooth-comb and were really not allowing cameras inside, I know, I tried twice, the second time it was wrapped deeply inside my Britski Belasi flag [I was off the footy after] and both times they found it.  The solution?  Deposit it in a temporary cabin outside the gates.  Obviously, every single tourist here for this event had a camera, so this led to chaos, more people being turned away at the gate than being let through.  And the system in the portacabin, about as low-tech as it gets, good old fashioned raffle tickets.  For the next two hours, I was deeply concerned for my camera and flag, although I did get them back, in the end.

I don’t like illogical rules.  These days every single mobile phone has a camera on it, many with video and flash functions, so why on earth ban cameras?  Ridiculous.  An explanation would be welcome – comments section below is open!

Once inside, having taken the above photo just to prove my point, I realised this place is smart.  Brand new, excellent facilities, air conditioned concourses with views outside, really top quality.  I picked up a beer [€1.80, still] and tried to take my sear, of course I was turned away at the entrance, no beer allowed in the seats, fair enough on that one, I supped up and went on in.

First thing that struck me was the party atmopshere.  The intimate design of this stadium generates absolutely fantastic acoustics and the whole experienced is buoyed by the sound-system, big screen above the ice and cheerleaders, including Gooly the Slovak Wolf [?!]  Chants of “Suomi!” were matched by “Danmark!” and even “Czechi!” from the other end as their fans were in early for the Latvia game.

With Finland at 1.22 odds and the Danes out at 8.50 I knew who was the better team, and so it proved.  The first period finished 0-0, but after then the goals started coming and it ended up 5-1.  You might be reading this article wondering whether I’d witnessed one of those massive punch ups this sport is famous for, but that didn’t happen in this match.  I assumed the Worlds were more ‘friendly’ than the club level of the game, but as I write this watching Slovenia v Russia I realise that’s absolutely not the case!  I guess there was a bit more friendly respect between these two Scandinavian countries.

Ice Hockey is a fast physical sport, it is sometimes hard to see the puck, but when you see the movement, skill and physicality of the players, you can’t help but be impressed.  The overall experience from an entertainment point of view was fantastic, worth every penny of the entrance fee.  It really is no surprise whatsoever that Slovaks prefer to bring their kids to hockey rather than risk the football terraces.

By Dan Richardson, BritskiBelasi

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