Parisian architecture always aims to be a bit special. From the gothic exuberance of Notre-Dame to the giant Meccano kit of the Eiffel Tower; from the inside-out Pompidou Centre to the avant-garde skyscrapers of la Defense. So maybe it’s not such a big surprise to encounter a sports stadium apparently modelled on a grassy knoll.
The Palais Omnisports de Paris-Bercy, to give its full, somewhat awkward title, squats between the Seine and the metro station. What would ordinarily be an undistinguished concrete block has been transformed, architecturally, at least, by the decision to cover its pyramidal form in grass. At a stroke, functional-ugly becomes quirky-intriguing. And very French.
Design issues aside, it’s a big day for the French Ice Hockey Federation. After some extended refurbishment the arena is reopening for hockey. The event is the French Cup final, Rouen Dragons against Grenoble’s Bruleurs de Loups. More than that, though, it’s a warm-up for the 2017 IIHF World Championships, which will be co-hosted here and in Cologne. The organisers have this game, an international friendly in April and, presumably, the 2017 cup final to get everything right before the world descends on Paris to see how it can handle the challenge of the biggest annual winter sport tournament.
Issue number one, as everywhere in Paris, is security. After the Nov. 2015 terrorist attacks the city is on high alert. Armed guards patrol the airport, queues snake away from the arena as security checks are carried out briskly on entrance. Inside, the organisers are keen to reassure: a recent u20 tournament in France saw the Japanese team cry off due to security fears. That cannot be allowed to happen in 2017, so the message is ‘heightened security’, ‘highest level of security’. A large crowd, not quite a sell-out but certainly into five figures, is confident enough to travel to the capital to cheer for their heroes.
In the arena, security fears are soon forgotten. Two giant team uniforms float on a sea of hands, one behind each goal where the opposing fans congregate. Rouen, helped by their traditional yellow colours, are the brighter of the two: sparkly golden wigs top off the display. Grenoble have more banners and – for much of the game – make more noise.
The arena gets the thumbs-up from the Grenoble coach, Edo Terglav. He’s a veteran of two previous cup finals as a player, and says the new-look venue ‘sends shivers down his spine’. The players are also impressed. Rouen’s Jason Krog, a former Stanley Cup finalist with Anaheim, describes it as ‘beautiful’, talks up the need for Paris to enter a team in the French championship, and shrugs off concerns that the ice was a bit soft. At the French Hockey Federation, officials point out that the ice was installed in a hurry and the process will be completely different ahead of 2017.
The cup goes to the Dragons; Krog bags the game-winner in a 4-2 triumph. Rouen celebrates another Norman conquest, fans partying as the media scuttles across the ice to bag its interviews. Arena staff pose for photos with the cheerleaders while the tribunes flicker with the flashes of a thousand selfies. For an afternoon, despite the game’s modest status in France, Paris is a hockey city in sympathy with its Francophone sisters in Montreal and Quebec. Now the Ligue Magus is looking to nurture those grass shoots with a top-flight Parisian team as French hockey seeks to consolidate on the excitement surrounding the World Championship.
Palais Omnisports de Paris-Bercy, Paris, France
Coupe de France, final, Jan. 3, 2016
Rouen Dragons 4 (Y. Treille, Thinel, Krog, S. Treille) Bruleurs de Loup Grenoble 2 (Kalus, Perret)