The world will be watching Brandon in 2021.
The Wheat City has been selected to host that year’s International Street and Ball Hockey Federation’s world ball hockey championships. They are slated to take place in June at the Keystone Centre and draw up to 40 teams, who will compete in men’s and women’s divisions.
"It’s fantastic for the community," Brandon First executive director Graham Harvey said. "We always love it when the international level of sport comes to town in any way. It’s the level of play and excitement and pageantry that we don’t normally see in the day-in and day-out meetings that we support. It’s great to see in a sport that’s so much in the culture of the region that we are."
Canada was chosen as the host country for the 2021 event and the national ball hockey association put out a call for bids. Manitoba’s organization chose Brandon over Winnipeg and built a bid with Brandon First, which beat out others from Calgary, St. John’s and Laval, Que., to host the tournament.
Brandon had a lot of things going for it. First, it has a long history of hosting great events. Most recently was the Legion National Youth Track and Field Championships in 2017 and 2018 as well as the Tim Hortons Brier in March. It also hosted world baseball and curling championships in the 1990s and Brandon University will put on the U Sports men’s volleyball championship in March 2021.
Another thing that stood out was the Keystone Centre. Part of the hosting requirement was to have a facility with at least two hockey arenas, one of which must have a minimum capacity of 5,000. Not only is that hard to find, but adding the hotel, lounges and space to host beer gardens and other activities made the Wheat City stand out.
"The Brandon bid demonstrated to us a great venue plan, solid business plan with committed support from various partners, and some unique concepts to allow for Team Canada to have the best chance for success at the world championship," Canadian Ball Hockey Association president Steve Power said in a press release. "All bids were impressive, but we know we chose a great partnership with Brandon and the Manitoba Ball Hockey Association."
Ball hockey is similar to ice hockey, except players run instead of skate and a hard ball is used instead of a puck, although it’s just as hard. The other major difference is teams need to cross the blue-line to gain the zone, but once the zone is gained the blue-line moves to the centre red-line to clear the puck, giving teams more space in the offensive end.
Everything else is pretty similar, including the size of the arena and equipment.
Some people play it during ice hockey’s off-season, including former Brandon Wheat King Micheal Ferland, who currently plays in the National Hockey League with the Vancouver Canucks. Ferland played in the national B championship tournament. Former NHLer Jozef Stumpel runs Slovakia’s ball hockey program.
Wheat Kings prospects Brett Hyland, Tyler Teasdale, Owen Weihs and Cole Plowman won a world junior title with Canada in June.
"We’re hoping the people of Brandon will love it," said Jeff Dzikowicz, the technical director for the Manitoba Ball Hockey Association and chair of the host committee. "If you’re a hockey fan, it takes you two seconds to fall in love with ball hockey. Especially from a spectator standpoint, you look at it and it’s watching ice hockey with a little more energy because they’re running, not skating. It’s got a real energy to it."
The world championship runs every two years. Canada and Slovakia have both won five men’s titles, although Slovakia has claimed the last four. Canada has won five women’s titles, including the 2019 crown.
Dzikowicz hopes that hosting the tournament will increase the sport’s popularity in southwest Manitoba. Organized leagues have come and gone over the years but the sport started growing again a few years ago in Brandon, especially after the community hosted the western Canadian championships in 2015.
"We’re hoping to leave a legacy, particularly of youth league, getting youth playing the game and getting people excited about it," he said. "That’s what we’re trying to leave behind, and it will strengthen our province.
"We probably have about 2,000 adults in Winnipeg and close to 1,100 in youth, and the youth league isn’t that old in Winnipeg. Now we have to look at how to grow it in the province starting with Brandon and filling it up. That’s how we’ll compete with that other provinces."
Dzikowicz has been to other world championships, including those in Pardubic, Czech Republic and Kosice, Slovakia. He has found that the smaller cities have done a great job of making the world championships a true spectacle and celebration of ball and street hockey, something he hopes Brandon can do.
Now that the Wheat City has been named the host community for the 2021 worlds, Dzikowicz is working to form a committee and business plan.
He is working with Harvey and other friends and family members in Brandon to reach out to community leaders to form the committee.
"We’re going to engage with as many people as we can and create a host committee with some positions and things like that and more organizing now that we’ve got the bid," said Dzikowicz, who created and ran the Wheat City Dragon Boat Festival years ago. "It’s a little tough in the summer to get ahold of anybody, but in early fall we’ll piece together more of a management type of host committee and layout of the business plan for how we expect to pull that together and fill that arena."
There will be a call for volunteers after the committee and business plan have been created. Anyone interested in joining the committee can email Dzikowicz at firstname.lastname@example.org.
A lot of work will be done during the 22 months to prepare to host the event, and Harvey can’t wait for the hockey world to focus on the Wheat City again.
"Based on what I’ve been able to see so far, when we get this level of sporting event, it’s not just something where the event itself happens in isolation, but rather there’s a bunch of community activation that happens around it," he said. "It’s going to be one heck of a good time."
» Twitter: @jasterch