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Archives for October 2009
It is the jewel in ice hockey's crown: the fastest league in the world, watched by hundreds of thousands of fans, three times a week for half a year.
North America's National Hockey League - the NHL - is as good as the sport gets.
Televised, analysed and monetised to within an inch of its life, it is the sport's beating heart. It is a world away from ice hockey in the UK.
To my knowledge, only one man in England's Premier League (EPL) has stepped onto the ice as an NHL star. Now, he's talking to me in a dimly-lit Bracknell car park.
If I gave you £200 and told you to treat the family to a day out, how would you spend it?
Let's say we're talking about two children and two adults. That would get you four very good seats at a West End show, and it more than covers a family day out at a theme park, including travel costs. You could probably tack on a slap-up meal.
If you chipped in with some of your own small change, you could even take your posse to two home games at a top Premier League football club.
But that cash would not have stretched to good seats at the World Gymnastics at London's O2 Arena on either Saturday or Sunday of last week.
Can that be right? Can Olympic sports in the UK afford ticket prices that their supporters can't?
It didn't take long.
At the press conference staged to hail the best floor gymnast in the world, Beth Tweddle showed that when it comes to the age-old question about London 2012, her forward defensive is pretty handy too.
"Three years is a long time away, we'll have to take one step at a time and see if I'm there," she told the assembled reporters.
I don't buy a word of that. The only thought going through her head right now must be how it felt, lifting that gold medal in front of thousands of her own fans, in her own capital city.
Tweddle may be 24 - all but pensionable in gymnastics terms - but she can win at the London Olympics, and one little chink in the armour emerged after Sunday's drama which shows she wants it badly enough to push on.
Daniel Keatings couldn't sleep on Wednesday night. He and his room-mate, fellow British gymnast Kristian Thomas, tried to get to bed at 10pm.
An hour later, they were both wide awake. Thoughts of rest and preparation went out of the window. They put the TV on and talked into the small hours.
Sleep is unlikely to come easy in the wake of Thursday's historic achievements either. Keatings has a World Championship silver medal around his neck, unprecedented in British history, while Thomas was a hugely creditable sixth in the all-around final at the O2 Arena.
The young duo have revolutionised the country's expectations in one evening, and Keatings, barely known outside the sport, has already declared he is ready to battle for Olympic gold.
The action has been unrelenting over the first two days of the World Gymnastics Championships.
In that time, we've seen more than 24 solid hours of gymnastics action. It's been a feast for the eyes, with plenty to grab the attention on and off the apparatus.
"Gymnastics in this country needs a face," says Louis Smith. "It's not the most popular sport, everyone's focused on football, but everyone loves us when we're on TV."
Much has been written about Smith, the 20-year-old from Peterborough who, if you believe the hype, holds British gymnastics in the palm of his hand.
He is everything a sport like gymnastics needs in the run-up to London 2012 - handsome, lively, unafraid of the spotlight and, more than anything else, successful.
Since winning Olympic bronze in Beijing last year, Smith's name has been a byword for optimism about Britain's potential at its home Olympics.
This week's World Championships, at London's O2 Arena, will help us answer the question: is Louis Smith Team GB's 2012 poster boy?
It's the people that make British ice hockey great. I don't think many people would claim it's the skill level nor the venues.
But the people huddled inside those dilapidated rinks more often than not imbue the sport with a friendly face and a spirit of triumph over adversity that I can't remember finding elsewhere.
Now, they're being asked to go one step further and become the sport, because increasingly, fans are coming to the rescue of our ailing teams.
If you go down to the woods today, you may be in for a big surprise.
Namely, Great Britain's most likely Winter Olympic medal hopes.
Creeping like Sir David Attenborough through mounds of unruly undergrowth, stalking the length of a barbed-wire fence, and all the while serenaded by the howls of a hundred slavering hounds, you will reach a raggedy old wooden hut.
Stretching down the slope from the hut is a track, at the top of which sits a small sled on tiny wheels.
This is where the GB skeleton team train. And it's not the Forbidden Forest, it's Bath.
Seven years ago, cricket took a punt and introduced a new format where each team had just 20 overs for its innings.
The transformation was instant - big-hitting matches, plenty of excitement, and sideshows to keep the crowd dazzled - but it riled purists who preferred their games to be four or five days long.
By contrast, if you were going to pick a sport which doesn't sound like it needs new formats to up the tempo and thrill factor, ice hockey would be in there.
Yet Sunday brought us the 20/20 Hockeyfest in Sheffield, uniting the UK's top eight teams in a one-day knock-out competition with new rules.