The success of the annual Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic has spawned a wave of outdoor games each season throughout the professional ice hockey world. Many of the European games have been successful in their own right. Come next season, the Austrian-based Erste Bank Eishockey Liga (EBEL) will stage one of the most ambitious and unique events yet.
On Friday, Sept. 14, and Sunday, Sept. 16, the EBEL will hold "Arena Ice Fever -- Pula MMXII," a pair of games at the Pula Arena, a nearly 2,000 year-old Roman amphitheater located in what today is the nation of Croatia.
The site in the city of Pula is one of the world's six largest surviving arenas (and 200 surviving amphitheaters) built during the time of the Roman Empire, and the only arena to remain fully preserved to this day. Constructed between 27 BC and 68 AD, four side towers and three Roman architectural orders are all still preserved. Some sections were restored in the 1800s. In 1932, the amphitheater was adapted for public and military ceremonies and well as theatrical and musical productions.
Today, Pula Arena is best known as a site for major concert events -- artists spanning the gamut from Sting, Elton John and Alanis Morissette to Luciano Pavarotti, Andrea Bocelli and Jose Carreras have performed there -- as well as a popular venue for motion picture makers to film scenes set in the time of the Roman Empire. In its present state, the arena seats roughly 5,000 spectators.
The two Arena Ice Fever EBEL matches will be the first known team sports events held at the ancient venue as well as the first ice hockey games in history to be held in an amphitheater setting. The home team for both games is KHL Medvescak Zagreb (also known as the Zagreb Bears), a Croatian-based EBEL team. The visiting team for the first game will be the EC Vienna Capitals, while Slovenian-based Olimpija Ljubljana will provide the opposition in the second match.
Medvescak has featured a handful of former NHL players on the roster during its history, including the likes of recently-retired forward Joel Prpic and defenseman Andy Delmore (slated to play next season for the EBEL's Graz 99ers). The Bears' roster for next season is slated to include former AHL players Tom Zanoski (a dual Canadian-Croatian citizen), Curtis Fraser, Nathan Perkovich and Alex Leavitt. In addition, Team USA National Team Development Program and Harvard University product David Valek, who was born in Zagreb, is slated to take part in the game.
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The Medvescak team has been one of European hockey's most heartening success stories in recent years. The club has established a rabid following within Zagreb, and the club stands 13th in average attendance among all clubs in the various European elite leagues. But the outdoor games at Puma Arena are not just a showcase to demonstrate the club's domestic popularity and further solidify the EBEL's foothold in Croatia; it holds significance for the nation as a whole.
"Croatia will likely never host the Olympic Games or the Football World Cup," said event organizer Ozren Mueller. "However, there is a large amount of culture and heritage here. We should use the synergies of sports and culture to promote the sport and the country."
Apart from the two games at the Pula Arena, organizers have arranged for a series of related festivities to be held at the venue. A fan zone called Circus Maximus will feature hockey-related displays and competitions, as well as musical performances and a wide array of other entertainment, food vendors and souvenirs.
On the off-day between the two games, there will be an open public skating event as well as a meet-and-greet with the Medvescak players. The outdoor rink at the amphitheater will also be made available for public skating during the summer months leading up to the event.