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Grand Forks hosts World Junior Championship hockey tournament
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The Czech Republic hockey team practices before a game at the Ralph Engelstad Arena in Grand Forks. (MPR photo/Bob Reha)
Hockey players from around the globe are in Grand Forks and Thief River Falls this week for the World Junior Championship tournament. Ten teams are playing hoping to win the gold medal.

Grand Forks, N.D. — Grand Forks is a hockey town. The University of North Dakota hockey program has skated to several national championships.

But this week teams from Russia, Switzerland, Belarus, the Czech Republic and the USA are getting all the attention. The five squads are playing in the World Junior Championships. Their games are played at the Ralph Engelstad Arena, in Grand Forks.

Teams from Canada, Finland, Sweden, Slovakia and Germany are playing their games in Thief River Falls.

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Image Al Pearson coordinates 1,500 volunteers

It cost $4-million to bring the tournament here. The entire cost, entry fees, food and lodging is being picked up by the Ralph Engelstad Arena company.

The tournament is a big deal in the hockey world. Media from around the globe are here. Games are being telecast on ESPN2 and across Canada. The players are barely old enough to shave. They are the best teenage hockey players in the world. It's a chance for them to show their talents to fans and National Hockey League scouts.

It takes a lot of work to bring something this big together. 1500 volunteers are needed to make the tournament run smoothly. Al Pearson is in charge of finding people to play host to individual teams.

"I had to find 20 people who had a lot of spare time and that knew hockey," says Pearson. "(People) who are friendly and personable and get along with each other and get along with the teams as they arrive and be able to adapt to any problem areas."

Pearson says defining problem areas takes in a lot of territory. Including putting together a menu that's acceptable to players.

"I know one of the teams, I think it's Slovakia, don't want mashed potatos," says Pearson. "Some teams don't want meat. Finland doesn't want any fish. The poor chef over there is out of his tree trying to make everyone happy."

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Image Czech team practices

Teams stay in local hotels. Each team has two hosts. Tim Nelson is one of the hosts for the team representing the Czech Republic.

Nelson sits in the stands at the Engelstad arena and watches the team practice. He says it's a lot of work to be a team host. He says the job isn't very glamorous.

"From the time they get here to the time they leave we do whatever they need for us to do," says Nelson. "We picked them up at the airport in Minneapolis and stay at the hotel with them and get them to and from games and wherever they want to go."

Nelson says he's being a team host because he likes hockey. He says getting to know the team has been a great experience. Nelson says just a few of the players on the team speak english. But he says the language barrier has been bridged with the help of team captain Peter Vrana.

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Image Peter Vrana is captain of the Czech team

Vrana started playing hockey when he was six. The 19-year-old took english classes in school. He says learning english and understanding english are two different things. He says it's led to some interesting learning experiences.

"The first time I got over here, I got in Canada I had a problem when I went to the grocery store and they asked me if I wanted a bag," says Vrana. "And I never knew what they were asking me and I said no, so I carried all of my things in my hands. That was really funny, you know things like that."

There are subtle hints that Grand Forks is hosting the tournament. Many businesses around town display signs or banners welcoming fans and encouraging them to stop in and spend money.

Anna Strandell works at a shirt store in the Columbia mall. Strandell says the mall is unusually crowded. She's gone to a couple of games.

"I think it's really exciting to have something this big in Grand Forks," says Strandell. "It's bringing a lot of people to the town and the area, most of the time people don't even know where North Dakota is."

Strandell says fans from Canada are the easiest to spot. They proudly wear shirts with a Maple Leaf. The Canadian fans have flooded into Grand Forks. They created a traffic jam at the Pembina border crossing, delaying south bound traffic for a half hour. So far they've had lots to cheer about. They defeated Germany 9 to 0. The World Junior Championship Tournament runs through January 4th.

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