Nicholas Garcia isn’t your typical hockey fan.
For him the National Hockey League is really just where players bide their time between national team appearances.
“I’m a big IIHF [International Ice Hockey Federation] fan,” he says. “For me, it’s just Team Canada: World Juniors, men’s and women’s under-18 championships, the world championships.”
When the World Juniors came to Toronto in 2015 – as a co-host with Montreal – the then-university student was all in. He got the full-event package. It didn’t matter that Canada wouldn’t play at the Air Canada Centre until the medal round. Come Dec. 26 he settled into his seat in the 300s. “I just wanted to see some really great hockey game,” he says, “and I was definitely satisfied with the entire round robin.”
As they awaited their team’s arrival for the medal round, fans proudly waved Canadian flags along the concourse. Fans of the teams in Toronto – Czech Republic, Denmark, Russia, Sweden and Switzerland – vocally supported their players alongside the Canadians, everyone just happy to be there. “I just thought it was the greatest thing,” says Garcia.
Garcia expected fantastic hockey all along; he didn’t anticipate the atmosphere that would accompany it.
“I thought it was going to be subdued,” he says. “I watch the tournament on TV when it’s in other countries and I find that when the host team isn’t playing the crowd isn’t as loud. But here at the ACC the crowd brought it every game.”
The highlight for him came in the preliminary round match-up between Denmark and Switzerland on Dec. 30. On Boxing Day the underdog Danes put a scare into the Russians, forcing them into a shootout; Denmark lost the game but picked up its first-ever point at the top-level World Juniors. Four days later, in another shootout, the Danes made a little more history.
“The entire crowd got behind Denmark to get their first-ever World Juniors win,” says Garcia. “I remember the crowd exploded when [Georg] Sorensen made that save that got them the win. Not only that, that win eventually got them into the quarter-finals.”
Garcia saw 10 preliminary games – usually two a day – in person. After the early game, fans were asked to leave the Air Canada Centre so staff could clean and do a security sweep. Bars, restaurants, really any establishment with a television near the ACC showed the games from Montreal for fans like Garcia waiting to retake their seats inside. The community feel of the concourse followed fans everywhere in and around the event.
And that unity of celebration and support would eventually envelop the ice. Canada got by Denmark and Slovakia to advance to the gold medal game against Russia. The Canadians built a four-goal lead in the second period, only to see it diminish to one before the second intermission.
“As much as a Team Canada fan as I am,” says Garcia, “I have to admit if Canada had just held on for the 5-1 win it wouldn’t have been as entertaining. I mean, you’d still get the thrill from the win but it would’ve seemed a little too easy.
“Being part of that crowd – especially in the third period with it 5-4 – if the Canadians in the stands were nervous we didn’t show it because it was loud the entire time. I think that helped Team Canada. Watching on TV in 2011 when the Russians came back in the gold medal game, I noticed that the Canadian crowd became nervous very quickly and I think that translated on the ice. Whereas here they didn’t stop cheering and I think that made a difference.”
All told Garcia saw nine of the 10 teams that competed at the World Juniors (only the U.S. didn’t make it to Toronto), seeing the likes of William Nylander (Sweden), David Pastrnak (Czech Republic), Jesse Puljujarvi and Sebastian Aho (Finland), and Connor McDavid (Canada).
Garcia has reserved his seat at the ACC again for 2017. With Toronto hosting Canada in the preliminary round – and Montreal getting the medal games – he’ll be able to wear his Team Canada jersey earlier and more often this time around. Canada’s games against Russia, Slovakia, Latvia and the United States are obviously must-watch for him, but there are two match-ups that don’t involve the home side that equally intrigue him.
“I’m really looking forward to seeing Russia play the U.S., just to see who the crowd cheers for,” he says. “And Slovakia-Latvia – that game could determine who makes the quarter-finals and who doesn’t. It may be a chance to see if Latvia can pull off a win much like Denmark did.”
Garcia runs a Twitter account devoted to international hockey happenings and is counting down not just the days until the 2017 World Juniors begin but also the days until the Division 1A tournament starts, where one team will earn the right to rejoin the top division in 2018.
You can bet he’ll be glued to his TV for those games in Buffalo, N.Y. Until then he’ll be doing his cheering in person in Toronto.
“You feel the atmosphere going through you while you’re there as opposed to watching on TV,” he says. “Watching on TV you get excited but it doesn’t compare to the excitement you have when you’re there. And especially the World Juniors, let alone the gold medal game, are not going to be in Toronto every year. It’s a once, maybe twice, in a lifetime kind of thing.”