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British ice hockey ends season on a high

April 12, 2010

Belfast Giants celebrate their playoff success in Nottingham -

British ice hockey has always struggled for success, having the misfortune to exist in a nation in which there are plenty of high-quality sporting alternatives to a low-rent version of the fastest team game on the planet. The British version of the sport is nowhere near the standard of the world’s top leagues – mostly situated in eastern Europe and, of course, the US and Canada – and this no doubt contributes to its lack of success. Yet at a time when British ice hockey is facing yet another crisis, the 2009/10 season has ended strongly.

The halcyon days of the mid-90s, most obviously demonstrated when Manchester Storm attracted 17,245 to a match against Sheffield Steelers, are long gone, and this is reflected in falling attendances across the leagues. At the end of last season Manchester Phoenix and Basingstoke Bison opted to drop down from the Elite League to the Premier League due to lack of funds, and Britain’s top league began in September 2009 with just 8 teams – two more than was looking likely at one stage. Below that, the Premier League had 10, the same as last year with two sides dropping out as Phoenix and Bison joined. 

Yet the influx of fans from Manchester in particular meant a near sell-out crowd at the Premier League playoffs weekend in Coventry, and the Elite League equivalent had the final televised live on Sky Sports last Sunday. The fantastic advert for hockey between Cardiff Devils and Belfast Giants ended 2-2 after overtime, and was won by Giants on penalties. It is unlikely that many non-hockey fans watched it – it wasn’t well advertised and there was Premiership football on the other side –  but it is a good start. Sky have been televising one game a week throughout the season and suffered from two main problems – the commentary is interminable, and the camera angles often similarly so. One rink where that is not the case in Nottingham, so though the commentary remains clichéd albeit animated, at least the viewers could see what was going on. 

 Belfast’s triumph marked the third different team to win one of the three trophies in the Elite League this year – not bad in a league of 10 and better than most seasons recently, where there have been four honours up for grabs. One of the two domestic cups was wisely scrapped at the start of the season. 

In the Premier League it has been a similar story – Milton Keynes Lightning comfortably secured the league title, but got knocked out to the lowest-ranked team in the playoffs, Swindon Wildcats, in a surprising 10-8 defeat over two legs. MK had earlier been pummelled by Guildford Flames in the final of the cup. And the league has been competitive, with the exception of Romford, whose financial problems look like taking them out of the EPL. Slough Jets ended the season yesterday as the third team to win a competition when they beat Guildford 2-1 in overtime of the playoff final – so in contrast to previous years, no team has won more than one trophy in British ice hockey this term. 

But the best news of the season was February’s announcement that Glasgow-based Braehead Clan are to be set up and move into the Elite League next season. Coventry Blaze’s veteran forward Adam Calder has been snapped up to coach the team, which will make the Elite a 9-team tussle and double the number of Scottish hockey clubs at that level. Also rumoured to be joining are Dundee, which would restore the league to its usual 10. Whether they will generate much support in a football-mad city is yet to be seen, but any new investment in the sport is a positive thing. 

Although crowds are still low and clubs are still struggling financially, 2009/10 was the best British hockey season in a while. With the customary restructuring and new teams arriving over the coming months, things are looking up – for now.

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