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TERRY JONES

, Last Updated: 7:18 AM ET

HALIFAX -- Canadians have no concept of the fantastic festival of fans and sensational celebration of hockey the world has been experiencing in recent years.

Canadian hockey fans have no idea of how European fans have complimented Canada by taking a tournament featuring the game which makes our blood boil and turning it into what perhaps compares best to our own Grey Cup.

It has become the biggest party in the sport, with fans from all the hockey nations wearing their national sweaters in the street and turning it into a bit of a costume ball with wild and crazy get-ups somehow symbolic of their countries.

But the question is, with the IIHF world hockey championship in Canada for the first time, will the party here be similar to that of those tournaments held in recent years in Riga, Prague, Innsbruck, Helsinki or Goteborg?

To Europeans, Canada has had it all backward, making a big deal about a U20 event (we call it the world junior) while paying next to no notice to the big event -- the world championship -- while the Stanley Cup playoffs are in progress?

And when exactly did the event become a planetary party?

Ask any Finn. "The significance of the world championships was really important in Sweden and Finland back in the '70s and '80s when the Soviet Union was winning it every year and Czechoslovakia was winning it in the years they didn't," said Vesa Rantanen of the Finnish newspaper Ilta-Sanomat.

"But for the most part, during those years, there were only four countries following it. And it wasn't a big party.

"It was when Finland won in 1995 in Sweden with thousands of fans from Finland in Stockholm that it happened. Sweden has always been the big brother of Finland and it was the sweetest of things when Finland won that year.

"The economy of Finland was in a depression and that win was much more than about winning a hockey tournament. There was an unbelievable celebration with the fans who were there. After that, thousands of fans started going to the tournament from Finland every year. Then more and more fans started coming from other countries."

But when it really took off was when the fans from other countries started showing up in droves.

"It was when Lativa started playing in it," Hockey Canada president Bob Nicholson said.

"They really brought it up. It has always been there with the Swedes and Finns, but when the Latvians started coming and the other countries joined in, it really became a big party. Now the Russians have more money and we're seeing all sorts of fans from there every year, fans who weren't there when they were the Soviet Union."

The Latvians, who have flooded the streets of Halifax this weekend and will be in the stands today as their hockey heroes play Canada, may be the greatest hockey fans in the world.

It was in Karlstad, Sweden, where Canada and Latvia ended up in the same pool in 2002, that thousands of Latvian fans flooded in.

Fans have been known to sleep six to a room, in cars, in parks, in tents and just about anywhere they can find when the event is in continental Europe.

Latvians the greatest hockey fans in the world?

"The birthplace of hockey I don't think should be offended if I say that they could and should learn something from our fans," Arturs Irbe, the little Latvian goaltender told me in Prague in 2004.

"Latvian fans save all year to come to this tournament for one week or 10 days to support our team. They just keep coming back for more and more. You look at Latvian fans, you'll learn what loyalty is all about."

Irbe also explained the lovely world hockey championship tradition they have in Latvia.

"We win, you get free flowers. There's a tradition to place flowers in front of embassies when we win. It's like flowers on a grave."

Never has hockey inspired the placing of more flowers in front of an embassy than in 2000 when Irbe led Latvia to a 3-2 win over Russia in St. Petersburg, with all those Russians sitting in the stands forced to listen to the Latvian national anthem at the end of the game.

There were flowers galore outside the Russian Embassy again last year when Latvia beat the Russians 2-1.

"It's not just when we beat the Russians," Irbe said. "We do it with all countries."

Irbe said there can be no moment to compare with that one in Russia in 2000. But he's always wondered what it would be like to be part of the night when Latvia beats Canada. In that case, he said, the flowers would be from Latvia with love.

Much like the World Cup of soccer, one of the features of a world hockey championship is the different atmosphere in the building when different countries match up.

The Germans and Swiss, in particular, bring a soccer scene with much beating of drums.

To some, such as Finnish scribe Rantanen, it has gone too far with his constituents.

"I'm actually hoping that holding it in Canada will make it more about the hockey and less about the party," he said. "To me, too many of the fans, particularly fans from Finland and Latvia, come for only the purpose of drinking.

"The Finns behaviour some years has been just awful. They're drunk and noisy and pee all over the city. There are lots of ugly men loaded with money and drunk.

"The best way I can put it, is that the world championship for a lot of fans has become like spring break. That's what it is in North American terms. Spring break."

For a country which has taken some pride in calling the CFL championship the Grand National Drunk and another named the Brier in curling where a massive bar room called The Brier Patch is as big an attraction as the event itself, you'd think Canadians would be all over this.

Nicholson said when Canada signed up to play host to the first worlds ever held in the home of hockey -- going up against the Stanley Cup playoffs -- there was angst about whether the world would bring the party overseas.

"We were not sure whether that would happen.We worked hard with those countries who have traditionally had so many fans at this event to get the fans here. We did a lot of work with travel agents and tour group operators.

"There's a charter coming from France with 350 fans. We certainly didn't expect that," he said of the group coming to cheer Cristobal Huet and France in Quebec City.

"We have the president of Slovenia coming for a few days. It's big. It's not going to be as big in numbers of fans from European countries as it has been in recent years in some of the centres. But you aren't going to have any trouble picking them out in the crowd."

Halifax site organizer Leroy McKinnon said the biggest crowd for the first stage will be the burgundy-clad Latvians.

"We expect between 600 and 700 of them that we've been able to track. We sold 370 packages to one tour group alone. A group of 100 Latvian-Canadians are coming from Toronto as well. We've sold a lot of packages in groups of 20, 30 or 40. We think people will be shocked with the atmosphere when there are 600-700 Latvians yelling and screaming support for their team to such an extent you can't hear yourself think."

As a rule, because Latvia usually makes an early exit from the tournament, the Latvians usually depart after a week or so. They are generally replaced by the Finns, who don't think the tournament really begins until after the first three games of group play.

McKinnon said there will be a couple hundred fans coming from each of Germany and Slovakia and "thousands of Finns."

McKinnon said the Canadian games are "80% sold out with most of the other games 65-70% sold out" as Halifax becomes the first city in the world to play host to all three major IIHF events -- the world junior, the women's worlds and and the men's worlds.

It's the average Canadian fan who decides to come here and taste it that Nicholson hopes will produce a legacy.

"In the last few years, Canadian players have come to enjoy this. We're now getting our great young players who have discovered what this tournament has become. We're winning world championships now. Canadian fans don't want to go unless Canada has a very real chance to win. Now we're taking teams with a chance to win.

"Canadian fans are finally going to get to experience this event and when they do, I think we're going to see thousands of Canadians becoming part of the scene every year when the event is held in Europe."

For years, some of us have always wondered what a Grey Cup would be like if it were ever held in Halifax and Quebec City, two of Canada's best cities for playing host to a party.

We're about to find out. With our game.

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MEDIAEN MASSE

The world hockey championship is not just a festival for the fans.

I remember the first time I covered the championship I showed up at the media work room, there was massive construction going on to double the capacity of the room.

"The Swiss are coming," it was explained to me.

Who knew there were 30 travelling hockey writers in Switzerland?

The media work room in Halifax takes up an entire floor of the Convention Centre attached to the Metro Centre. It is at least three times the size of anything you'll find at a Stanley Cup final.

And Quebec City is the host of the medal round, not Halifax.

Following is the number of journalists and photographers accredited per nation (with number of TV people in brackets):

Austria 0 (1)

Belarus 10 (8)

Bulgaria 1 (0)

Czech Rep. 28 (19)

Denmark 9 (4)

Finland 33 (39)

France 16 (0)

Great Britain 3 (3)

Germany 16 (2)

Hungary 3 (2)

International 0 (17)

Italy 9 (0)

Kazakstan 1 (0)

Latvia 14 (15)

Norway 10 (2)

Poland 3 (1)

Russia 38 (12)

Slovenia 10 (12)

Switzerland 30 (19)

Slovakia 26 (12)

Sweden 24 (67)

U.S. 6 (3)

The high number of TV people from Sweden represents a large contingent producing the international TV feed with 77 from Canada. There are 435 accredited journalists and photographers from around the world as well as 302 television people.

"The world championship produced 10 times more TV viewers than the Stanley Cup playoffs," Nicholson said.


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