Nanaimo boys crowded the glass of Nanaimo’s Frank Crane arena Wednesday, getting as close as they could to world junior players practicing on the ice.

“These players used to be kids,” said Noah Burkowski.

“And now they’re so close to being in the NHL,” said the young Nanaimo hockey player.

The training camps of the world junior hockey teams from Slovakia and Czech Republic are both being hosted in Nanaimo, and the rivals were also scheduled to play an exhibition game Wednesday night before a sold-out crowd.

“When I see those little kids, I always see myself when I was young,” said Team Czech Republic player Daniel Bukac.

“I think every one of us wants to play in the NHL for sure,” said Team Czech Republic player Yuri Patera.

Nanaimo organizers have been working for two years to get ready to host, and now with the world-class players in the city and crowds and volunteers taking part, they say its coming together like an early Christmas.

“It is a big hockey town,” said Nanaimo Organizing Chair Trish Smith.

“And we sold out in one hour and Hockey Canada told us that is the fastest any local game has sold out. So we’re super excited we’ve got so many big fans,” said Smith.

“The economic impact – we won’t probably know until next week,” said Dan Brady of the Nanaimo Hospitality Association.

“When we figure out [the] number of nights stayed in hotels and food and beverage and bus rentals, but it’s just a great feeling in Nanaimo right before Christmas,” said Brady.

And the players are also thrilled at the welcome they are getting.

“It’s super exciting,” said Team Slovakia player Milos Roman.

“It’s such a big experience and yeah I’m very excited because this is the best tournament for juniors.”

“It’s high prestige,” said Team Slovakia player Adam Ruzick.

“And to play against all the countries in the world it’s a really, really good feeling.”

Skye Ryan