Wednesday, 2 April 2008

Ice hockey in Luxembourg
― sparkling wine and potential diplomatic crisis

My first ice hockey match:
Luxembourg vs North Korea 1:2 (0:0, 0:0, 1:2)

I have sometimes thought it could be fun to go to an ice hockey match. They play three, er, halves and it's about scoring as many goals as possible — that's mainly what I knew on beforehand. I'm still not convinced it's a very organised game but I certainly learned that the World Championship Division III has some organising to learn.

I booked tickets for a friend and me on the Internet. As he is studying, I figured he might get a price reduction, and indeed there are three price categories on the site: normal (15 €), reduced (10 €) and VIP (100 €!! I wonder what for! Their seats were black, the others yellow, and they had a champagne stand just next to it. Very VIP and certainly worth a tenfold ticket price…).

There is also a phone number but when I tried to call it to ask who is entitled to the reduced price, I got this tone as if the number does not exist. So I booked online, two at 10 €.

As we got there, I went to the counter for 'Internet tickets', was sent to another counter, back again from there, and then accompanied by a woman from there back up again to a third counter. No questions asked about the reduced-price tickets. I would have gladly paid an extra 2x5 € but if their information is not clear, well…

We were handed a programme. A study in how not to lay out a brochure. Six teams participate in Division III ― Greece, Luxembourg, Mongolia, North Korea, South Africa and Turkey ― and the information on each team was clearly done by copy-paste and no further text treatment. Surprisingly, the team on which there is the least information, no birth dates, no clubs, is the host nation's heroes.

And heroes they were. Sitting in the middle of the local 'Schlachtenbummler', most of them dressed in the team shirt, many even with names of players sewn on ― impressive ― we got a taste of Luxembourgish folklore at its best. The cheers of 'Lëtzebuerg, Lëtzebuerg, Lëtzebuerg / Lëtzebuerg, Lëtzebuerg, Lëtzebu-uerg…', 'A-llez Lëtzebuerg!' and 'Rode Lew ― Huel se!', accompanied by four or five drums, became louder and more frequent the longer the host team kept a 0:0 score against the dominating North Korean favourites.

Philippe Lepage, apparently only the substitute goalie, played a brilliant match and was later elected man of his team. It was way into the third, er, third when the Asians managed to get the puck past him, and shortly after, Lëtzebuerg equalised. Drums and cheers and champagne and national pride ― the North Korean version of the latter had been embarrassingly humiliated by the organisers the day before, as they had played South Korea's national anthem instead of that of the so-called 'Democratic People's Republic', leaving the proud representatives of this closed country literally crying.

Well, so a colleague I met there said. He knows so many stories, and tells them with this serious smile, leaving you wondering whether he's pulling your leg or not. But he's working at Eurostat, so she should be right (right?).

And as I said, I'm not an expert. I just concluded that ice hockey was an extremely fast game, so fast that a newcomer never knew which offense all the players serving time in the punishment box (so I call it) one by one, sometimes two at a time, had committed. My mathematician friend with whom I watched the game philosophised over it during the breaks between the, er, periods, comparing it to robot soccer, and finding it very organised.

I didn't. Neither the game itself, nor this tournament. Like the buses. The green wave has certainly hit rich Luxembourg, and the tournament's main sponsor is a local bus company. But were there any shuttles? Forget it. Fehlanzeige. You had to wait 25 minutes for the normal scheduled city bus.

They could have arranged a shuttle, just stopping at the train station and the bus station. Free on a match entrance ticket. Encourage people to leave the car at home. Think green.

You never know how long an ice hockey match lasts, as the 20-minute, er, phases are 'effective playing time', meaning that the clock stops quite a lot. Plus if it's a draw after 3x20 minutes, the match goes into overtime, or 'sudden death' (what in soccer used to be referred to more glamorously as 'golden goal').

Despite the lack of green and gold, the partipating countries are a colourful lot. I mean, ice hockey is not the first sport that comes to mind when you mention South Africa or Greece or Turkey. The biggest chapeau goes to the Mongolian team and their wonderful hats. And sportsmanship. You need it, the sportsmanship and the cheerfulness, if you travel to the other end of the world, with no money, only to lose 0:17 to North Korea and 4:10 to Greece. So far. At least the organisers did put the results on the website.

But despite the fact that there is too much water on the ice, delaying the start of each of the three, er, stanzas ― and too much 'schampes' as at any event in Luxembourg, VIP or not ―
it is good fun to watch Division III World Championship ice hockey. Rode Lew, huel se!!

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