Whatever criticisms can be laid at the door of British ice hockey, it would be hard to find fault with the fans. Despite the UK game’s modest standing in the hockey world, and regardless of the overwhelming national media obsession with Premier League football, followers of Team GB have earned a worldwide reputation for the numbers in which they turn up to support their country all over Europe. Indeed, while you might struggle to find out about it from much of the British media, the Elite League is the eighth best-supported hockey competition in Europe, a ranking that probably outstrips its playing strength.
Back in the British Elite League, meanwhile, attendance figures often raise eyebrows at bigger clubs across Europe. During the last NHL lock-out season, Nottingham Panthers’ title-winning team had almost the same average crowd as Dynamo Moscow. Dynamo, playing in a city of 10 million in a hockey mad country, won its second successive Gagarin Cup with a roster that included Alexander Ovechkin and Niklas Backstrom during the big freeze across the pond; Nottingham’s rather more modest charms attracted as many people from a smaller population in a city where football remains the best-known game.
The Panthers are also part of probably the biggest rivalry in modern British hockey – the clash with Sheffield Steelers. Two of the country’s most successful teams, playing in two of our biggest arenas, attract some of the biggest crowds in the game. And when they go head-to-head? Well, that’s showtime. Which is why driving to Sheffield’s Motorpoint Arena less than an hour before the puck drops is a frustrating experience. Delays due to roadworks and poor navigation make it a rush to get to the game on time as a crowd of almost 7,500 descends on the venue.
Inside, the atmosphere is tense but fervent. Team GB doesn’t have the resources to host international competitions at senior level, but Andy French of Ice Hockey UK likes to point to the cauldron of noise generated here (and in the Elite League’s other grudge match-ups) to explain why much of the national roster has little to fear from skating into a barn rammed full of noisy Ukrainians, Italians or Croatians demanding a convincing win. Experiencing this clash for the first time underlines his point. There’s a big traveling contingent from Nottingham and neither set of fans is slow to make itself heard.
The game turns into a cracker: the Steelers send the bulk of the crowd home happy with a 5-4 win after the lead changed hands twice. Both teams have echoes of my hockey-watching past. Panthers’ right wing David Ling was part of the first Dynamo team I saw after moving to Moscow; Steelers’ Ben O’Connor is the son of Mike, Durham Wasps’ rugged defenseman of the 1980s, a boyhood hero. But the UK game has moved on from the days of Durham domination. Back then it was routine to expect teams to hit double figures. Defending was often crude, penalty counts were high and a handful of Canadian imports – plus the legendary local talent of Tony Hand – owned the scoring. Today, defence is well-drilled, imports are more easily hired from EU countries and the overall quality of the game is noticeably higher than what we grew up with.
The quality of the spectator experience is a bit different as well. Durham played in a rundown barn of a building, hugely atmospheric with a unique blend of aromas ranging from chip fat to spilled beer to that ‘wet dog’ scent of a well-loved rink. Fewer and fewer of these exist now; more teams are able to call on modern, multi-purpose venues like Sheffield’s. Big, comfortable, blessed with proper food-and-drink outlets, big screens and clear sightlines, these too have moved the game forward.
The changes perhaps echo what we’ve seen in top-level football in England, where lavish TV money has funded state-of-the-art stadia while clubs from being part of their communities to becoming faceless corporate brands. But happily hockey has not – so far – lost its ethos as a community game. When the Steelers won the Elite League last season, every player spoke in tribute to Amy Usher, a young fan who died of cancer just days before the team lifted the trophy. There’s a sense of connection between fans and their clubs that endures, a feeling of a greater community. Perhaps that’s why both teams in this game have trades unions among their sponsors – the GMB is Nottingham’s shirt sponsor, while Unison was the matchday sponsor for Sheffield. It may also help to explain why, despite a high-stakes local rivalry, the atmosphere in this Steelers – Panthers clash never crosses into the kind of venomous tribalism that so often pours out in a football derby. The atmosphere, even allowing for Steelers’ deeply annoying goal horn, is an infectious blend of enthusiastic support and pantomime booing for the opposition. It’s fun, exciting and safe … just how sport should be.
Perhaps that, most of all, is why support for GB hockey often attracts more favourable attention around Europe than the country’s performances on the ice.
Sheffield, England. Motorpoint Arena
Jan. 16, 2016. Elite League
Sheffield Steelers 5 (Mosienko, Ferrera, Roy, Hayes, Eddy) Nottingham Panthers 4 (MacMillan, Schultz, Swindlehurst, Kolnik