Jumping on the Bandy Wagon: Kinder, Gentler Hockey It’s Not
ROSEVILLE, Minn. (AP) _ The Team USA player hobbled off the ice and was mobbed by a group of boys.
``Geez, I signed an autograph in my own country,″ said Chris Halden, still beaming from his team’s 4-1 victory over Canada. ``That’s a first.″
It wasn’t a hockey star that the kids came to see. Halden, 38, a real estate appraiser from Minnetonka, was playing midfield for the United States in the 1995 Bandy World Championships.
In the shadow of the baseball strike and Super Bowl, eight national teams competed on the frosty surface of the John Rose Minnesota Oval in this St. Paul suburb.
One of the sporting world’s more obscure events, the bandy championships have drawn sparse but slowly swelling crowds this week as word has spread of the talent and enthusiasm on display.
It is the first time the United States has hosted the 38-year-old event. While popular in northern Europe, bandy has barely caught on in the United States outside a small clique of ex-hockey players in Minnesota.
The sport, a combination of hockey and soccer, is played with skates and hooked sticks on a soccer field-sized sheet of ice with a small orange plastic ball instead of a puck. Eleven players to each team attempt to whack or kick the ball into goals that are between the size of those of hockey and soccer.
Goalies wear skates but don’t use a stick, catching the ball in padded work gloves.
It’s a game that rewards endurance and skating skill more than brute force. Substitutions are rare during the two 45-minute halves. And unlike hockey, intentional checking is prohibited. Aside from shin guards, players wear no pads.
``If you play bandy correctly, there isn’t the kind of roughness that you get in hockey,″ said Pat Quinlan, who plays on the second-string U.S. team. But a meek version of hockey it is not, he said.
``A bandy ball goes faster than a ball in almost any sport _ well over 100 mph in these championships,″ he said. ``And it hurts like hell when you get hit.″
Organized bandy was introduced to the United States in 1976 through a bandy-softball exchange between the International Bandy Federation and the Edina Parks and Recreation Department. The Minnesota-based American Bandy Association says about 900 men, women and children play in various leagues throughout the Twin Cities area.
Local players were aided in 1993 by the opening of the Roseville oval, a $4 million outdoor speed-skating rink that uses artificially cooled ice.
With their abundance of frozen lakes and man-made facilities, the nations of Scandinavia and Russia typically produce the bandy powerhouses.
University of Minnesota President Nils Hasselmo recalls many days spent playing the game near his boyhood home in Kola, Sweden.
``We got a real workout shoveling the snow to clear the ice some winters,″ Hasselmo said. ``We wanted to start playing early and played late and sometimes the ice wasn’t all that safe. You would get wet once in a while.″
The level of play in northern Europe so exceeds that of other countries that the championship is divided into pools _ the first including Russia, Norway, Finland and defending champion Sweden, and the second made up of the United States, Canada, Hungary and Kazakhstan. The bottom-two finishers of the first pool will play the top two of the second before the weeklong tournament ends Sunday.
Even with the divisions, competition has sometimes been lopsided.
In a game whose scores should resemble hockey’s, Russia trounced Norway 10-2 and Hungary suffered a 27-0 defeat to tournament newcomer Kazakhstan. On Wednesday, Kazakhstan handed the United States its only defeat thus far in the tournament, 5-1.
Team USA lost 6-1 to Finland in Friday’s quarterfinals.
Media interest among the top-pool countries is intense. Twenty-seven Swedish and 10 Russian journalists are covering the event, and live radio broadcasts of the championship game are planned back home. Russia has won 14 of the last 18 championships, held every other year since 1957; the rest have gone to Sweden.
Visiting teams, accustomed to crowds in the tens of thousands, have had to adjust to spectators in Roseville numbering 200 to 600. A bandy world championship final has never drawn fewer than 2,500 people, said Staffan Soderlund, president of the International Bandy Federation.
For the fans, however, the intimate setting is welcome. No barrier separates the crowd from the action, and when a ball flies out of bounds, a kid on the sidelines might get to toss it back into play.
``It’s right there,″ said Ian Meeker, who turned out to watch his friends on the U.S. team. ``You can’t go to prime-time sports and get a front-row seat for five bucks or something. It’s as close to the Olympics as you can get.″
Except for star midfielder Jasper Felder of Stockholm, the U.S. team is made up entirely of Minnesotans. Players range in age from 24 to 42 and include a lawyer, dentist, engineer, print shop owner and bank executive. The team formed in 1981 and joined the world championships in 1985.
For Halden, who has played before thousands in 16 international competitions, the enthusiasm of the U.S. crowd has made up for its small size. Among those cheering are bandy youth-league members clad in jerseys given to them by the U.S. team.
``Usually we’re the enemy overseas. This is the first time we’ve had fans,″ Halden said. ``It feels really weird but I like it a lot. I’ve waited a long, long time to play at home.″
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