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From the NHL to Altrincham

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Ollie Williams | 14:54 UK time, Tuesday, 27 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.

"To these players," says Ed Courtenay, gesturing towards his team coach, "this is the NHL."

If Courtenay is disappointed that he is being interviewed by me and not Don Cherry, he's hiding it well.

On 21 October 1992, at the Montreal Forum, one of the most revered venues in ice hockey, Courtenay scored his first goal for the San Jose Sharks in their 8-4 defeat by the Montreal Canadiens.

He scored six more times and amassed 20 points in 39 games that season - his only full NHL campaign.

A season later he was back in the IHL, a feeder league for NHL teams, and by 1997 he had reached British shores with the Sheffield Steelers.

Travelling via Ayr, Belfast and Newcastle, Courtenay is now an assistant coach at the Premier League's Manchester Phoenix, playing home games in the 2,000-capacity Altrincham Ice Dome alongside up-and-coming locals and British old-timers.

Ed CourtenayCourtenay, above, began his professional career in 1989. Photo: Richard Murry

"This is the highest level they can get to," adds the imposing 41-year-old Canadian. "You can't compare the skill level here to the NHL - it's like football's Premier League against the... I don't know, the 10th division. There is no comparison.

"But just because you're in the NHL and not the EPL, it doesn't mean you're working any harder. You may be more talented but the work ethic is still the same."

Courtenay has been making hay in the Premier League. For financial reasons - and, as much as anything, a desire to win more games - the Phoenix switched from the Elite League to the Premier League in time for the new season.

The team's fans seem delighted with the move and Courtenay, a star at any level in the UK, is enjoying himself. He has 28 points from 12 games, the second-highest tally in the league.

Of the team-mates and opponents he faces at this level, only a handful ever threatened to join him in the NHL.

Phoenix player-coach Tony Hand came within a hair's breadth when he was drafted by the Edmonton Oilers in 1986. No Briton has had a more successful career than Hand, but he never took to the ice for real in an Oilers jersey.

Claude Dumas, Hand's opposite number at the team Manchester have just beaten 6-0, the Bracknell Bees, was drafted by the Washington Capitals in 1985. But, again, drafting is one thing and playing is another. Dumas never played for the Caps.

They didn't make it, but Courtenay did. How does he reconcile a blustery October night in Bracknell with those heady heights in California?

"It's funny you ask me that," he says. "Two months ago one of my friends, a goalkeeper back home who never got to the highest level, asked me how it felt to reach the top level in the world.

"I'm Canadian and, in the way British kids dream of playing in the Premier League, Canadian boys dream of the NHL. It was fantastic, it really was. I look back and although it didn't last long, I reached the pinnacle.

"I told him that because I was a 'bubble player' - up and down, never sure whether I was going to get sent down to the minors or stay with the big team - I never had the chance to sit back and realise what I had achieved.

"But now when I look back, all these years on, it was a fantastic time. The rinks were fantastic. When I scored my first goal at the Montreal Forum, being from Montreal, that was an amazing thrill. It's a long time ago but the memories will last forever."

Now, instead of the roar of thousands of NHL fans, Courtenay hears the individual voices of British supporters.

"No disrespect meant to the British fans, but the difference with hockey fans here is they really aren't that knowledgeable about the game. They've come a long way, mind you.

"And if the fans here aren't happy with you, they'll let you know. Back home as soon as the game's over, the game's over, but here there's a lot of heckling from the stands. And since the rinks are smaller, the players hear it more."

Top: San Jose Sharks' HP Pavilion. Bottom: Manchester Phoenix's Altrincham Ice Dome.San Jose's HP Pavilion, top, and the Altrincham Ice Dome. Photos: Getty Images/Nick Ogden

In recent weeks, the rumour mill has been at work suggesting Courtenay wants out - that either the money, or the level of hockey at which he's now playing, isn't enough. Given his NHL pedigree, I can see how he might get frustrated. But to the 6ft 4in forward, it's a perfect fit.

"I'm happy at Manchester. I just got back today from seeing my wife and kids in the States. The Phoenix have given me the freedom to travel away on a Monday and come back on a Saturday morning, like this, when I feel the need. That was one of the biggest reasons why I chose to continue playing, and to play at this level.

"My first year as a pro was 1989. This is my 20th year, and getting to 20 years was something I wanted to do. With the assistant coach title, it's my way to give something back to British ice hockey and help some of these younger kids out. I've played half my career over here and I've got a lot to be thankful for."

However, if you want to see a former NHL star on the ice in Altrincham, you may still have to hurry. The way he talks about it, 20 years sounds like the right time for Courtenay to end his playing career.

"It does." He nods. "As much as I wanted to get to 20 years, I was ready in year 17. But the job market out there is not the easiest, is it? Out there in the real world. And if you do have a job, you're not giving it up to get on the dole. So it worked out for both of us: the team and myself.

"It's nice to say I've played 20 years. Not too many people can say it, and what's gratifying is I'm still able to play. I'm not making a fool out of myself out there."

Comments

  • Comment number 1.

    Hi Ollie
    just wondering, what's the difference between the EPL and the Elite league in this country. When i used to watch the manchester storm, there was only one league. And why did it make business sense for the Phoenix to switch?

  • Comment number 2.

    Really interesting blog Ollie. As a Brit living in Toronto, I have the interesting position of having been to see both the Toronto Maple Leafs and Nottingham Panthers play. The difference in quality is astounding, and that's saying something considering the Leafs are currently 1-7-1! Ed Courtenay is right to say that the level of knowledge in the UK is poor. There just doesn't seem to be that much interest in hockey - undoubtedly because the quality of the English game is low and we don't get a lot of NHL on TV. Also, the lack of a real winter means that ice sports generally just aren't a part of our culture. What are your thoughts on the potential for growth/development of the UK ice hockey league?

  • Comment number 3.

    It's a shame really that Hockey in this country is so weak compared to the NHL. I am a huge hockey fan, I watch as many games a week as ESPN will show live. Being half-American it's almost in my blood and I genuinely love all the main US Sports.

    I have tried to watch the hockey games here, but I find nothing to get excited about. It's played at half the speed and with half the skill. The physical element does not exist, it's almost like checking is forbidden. Fighting is against the rules and referees stop it before it starts, yet in the NHL it plays a key role in some matches - not just because blokes like a bit of a scrap.

    I used to watch it on the BBC when Hands was playing and I think there were like 6 teams in all. That would have been mid to late 80's I suppose.

    It will never take off here because the product is poor. It's like trying to sell ZX81's today to a market expecting multi-threading processors.

  • Comment number 4.

    displacedscouse - Excellent question, it's not immediately obvious. In a nutshell, that one league you mention became other leagues, which became the two leagues we have now. There's no promotion or relegation but it costs you more money to be in the Elite in terms of travel and having to pay for more "import" (i.e. foreign) players.

    In the Premier you don't travel as far, and pay fewer costs. The standard of hockey is not as good as the Elite, but it's usually good fun to watch and I think most Phoenix fans would say the drop (although the club hate calling it that) is a good thing.

    There's a bit more about the two leagues in another blog post earlier this season.

    JohnnyD0803 - There's a whole new blog post in that question! I think there is real potential for hockey in the UK, and it could get back to the crowds of 17,000-plus it once (occasionally) got. First, hockey has to be realistic about the UK market. The NHL has enough trouble fighting off the NFL, NBA and Major League baseball, so British hockey can forget troubling football, rugby or cricket.

    It needs to make the most of its family-friendly credentials. I don't think there's a better evening out for a family than a hockey game. Music, lots of high-speed action, friendly fans and sportsmen who are normally very happy to engage with supporters. But to outsiders, hockey has nothing like that reputation.

    Sadly, teams and leagues haven't worked together as well as they should to market the sport in recent years. The money perhaps isn't there for a lot of what I'd like to see, but a sustained, organised marketing campaign on behalf of the sport rather than any one team would really help.

    There's a lot more I could write but I'll save it. Near the end of the season, I'll come back to that question properly.

  • Comment number 5.

    Great blog Ollie, I nearly wet myself with excitement when I saw an Ice Hockey article!

    I'm a 100% Brit who has been to USA a couple of times and been lucky enough to see Montreal Canadiens v Tampa Bay Lightning and on another occasion St.Louis Blues v San Jose Sharks, which lead me to become a Sharks fan. I rarely get to watch the Ice Hockey but when I do this is definately Sharks Territory! The sheer action over the is insane and probably the most intense sport there is, in my humble opinion. I have seen Belfast Giants v Edinburgh Capitals a few times and Fife Flyers v Dundee Stars a few times and it is nowhere near the standard.

    I played hockey on the street with my friend when I was younger until I snapped my stick hitting a slap shot, and subsequently played less and eventually lost interest till about 5 years ago. There is limited opportunity for us Brits. Will there ever be much of a system for us in the future? I'd love to see our boys vs USA or Canada at the Winter Olympics

  • Comment number 6.

    Good article Ollie. Always thought Ed was a quality import in the British game. I'm pretty new to Ice Hockey. I've been following the Coventry Blaze of the Elite League for the last five seasons. Considering the finanaces that we have compared to Nottingham, Sheffield and Belfast we have done really well to fill our trophy cabinet. I just wish more people would get into British Ice hockey. It needs people to spread the word a bit more I think and get families involved. We need to go into schools. I'm a passionate football fan but Ice hockey is my next favourite sport and I think in terms of value for money Hockey wins it!
    The quality of course is no way near the teams of the NHL but I also don't think it's as bad as some people believe.
    I also think the infrastructure of the British game needs more stability. The amount of times that the top league has had to change etc etc with the Old super league then to the now Elite league and even now we have seen to two teams in Basingstoke and Manchester drop out of it and into and into the EPL. And just recently rumours speculate that the Elite League (EIHL) could collapse.
    In it's heydey of when we had the Durham Wasps and then the Manchester Storm crowds wern't to bad either. I read that once that the Storm got 17,000 for a game whilst the fierce rivalry of Nottingham and Sheffield still attracts sell out crowds of 7 to 8 thousand. It's interesting to wonder what happened to all them Mancs as the new Manchester team, the Phoenix get no way those sort of attendances.
    May be the appeal of the game was lost. It's so sad to have seen so many teams go bust e.g the wasps, storm, London Knights.
    It obviously lacks big bucks unlike the other side of the pond.
    Talking of that side of the pond at least now if you subscribe to ESPN here you get ESPN America which shows bags full of NHL so hopefully people will see that and get involved. I know Sky have a weekly game that they show, but the coverage is no way as good as it used to be I believe from the old super league days, which used to have games live games on Sky and the BBC.
    So just a few of my thoughts on the British game. Thanks for covering the sport. I just hope that this sport can somehow grow over here somehow. Keep up the good work.

  • Comment number 7.

    I've just stumbled upon your blog, and found your response regarding the reasoning for belonging to different leagues useful. I went to my second ever ice hockey match a couple of weeks ago - the first was when I was nine, and Paul Adey was 'our' star player - and thoroughly enjoyed it, without knowing what on earth was going on for most of the time!

    There's an element of theatre - ok, not an element, the whole thing is a caricature of sport - but I couldn't believe how well subscribed it was. The Nottingham arena was 75% full, and the crowd were really good natured.

    It seems such a shame that the sport looks to be fragmented and poorly marketed; I'll definitely be going back (next weekend, actually) - but the 8-team league really puts me off going more regularly; there's just not the variety it needs.

  • Comment number 8.

    Could it be possible for the two leagues to combine, and maybe form conferences like in the NHL where you play teams closer to you more often, therefore minimising travel costs, and making local rivalries stronger.

    Part of the problem with the old manchester storm was that many fans came from all over the north west, not just manchester. competing with other sports in the area such as football and rugby league is difficult, and moving from manchester men to altrincham, combined with the collapse of the storm (and of the league at one point?) lost people.

  • Comment number 9.

    Ice hockey will never catch on in the UK simply because of the culture of the nation; which is football obsessed and doesn't have the sort of winter that we have in large sections of North America. Skating and hockey are part and parcel of growing up over here. The standard of ice hockey amongst what are essentially village teams is astonishing, and great entertainment to boot. I have no interest whatsoever in the NHL but really enjoy the local game. The game seems out of place in the UK, and seems to lack authenticity to me.

  • Comment number 10.

    I am a Brit living in Finland and been a few times to watch Oulu Karpat in the Finnish SM league. Never seen a match in the UK but when i worked at the MEN arena in Manchester a couple years back, I often passed a large photo of the ice hockey while working there. The photo shows a MEN arena full of fans when it was used as a bowl watching a ice hockey match. I always found it fasinating to see a capacity crowd, even though it only a photo.

    How easy is it to buy tickets in the NHL? Are the matches a sell out. Here in Oulu, Finland, I think the arena holds 15k which is small but it means that most matches are a sell out. Its easy to get a season ticket to watch a match as most Finns buy single match tickets. As you expect, playoffs are the most popular but if you buy a ticket for a single match in advance, you can get one.

    So back to my question. If someone was visiting the US, how easy would it be to watch a match

    thanks

  • Comment number 11.

    get us a job Ollie ? I love US sports as much as I love rugby and football, can't wait for the NFL to go to The Millenium Stadium. Are there any plans to bring the NHL back over here soon ?

  • Comment number 12.

    Hockey in the UK is failing to gain traction for much the same reason as football (soccer) is struggling to gain traction in the USA.

    I'd seen hockey in the UK before I moved to the USA, and thought it was awful. The skill just isn't high enough to make you want to go again and again. However, having moved to San Jose, I'm now a season ticket holder at the Shark Tank and am addicted. It is truly an amazing sport.

    Similarly, football when at it's best, like the Premiership, is an incredible game to watch, but when the standards are as they are in the MLS, it's hard for people to get interested.

    I'm not sure what the sports can do to improve matters. Showing the NHL on TV in the UK might help get things going though.

  • Comment number 13.

    Great to see ed still playing and doing well.

    back in the late 90's he was absolute class for the steelers, and just seemed to cruise around the ice, brushing defenders aside with ease and always bagging important goals, and this is coming from a panthers fan.

    It was great to watch Ken Priestlay, Courtenay, and players like Jamie leach play for the steelers but Tony Hand was always the best. I always think that if he'd managed to stay in North America a bit longer when he was young he would have been a superstar.

  • Comment number 14.

    bald-in-guelph - I disagree, Ice Hockey has become increasing popular over the years, and I’ve personally seen attendance numbers grow, more and more people are hearing about it, in Nottingham everyone knows who the Panthers are. I think we're well on track to changing the mentality of the British public, it was a bit of a "joke" sport in the UK, but now people are attending because they want to do something different on a night out, and a large number of those people then get hooked.

    We just need MORE funding, that's why it's not as popular as it could be… it’s not publicised well enough, and we need more good quality ice arenas some fans have to travel a long distance to check out a game.

    I agree with Courtenay's comments about the fans, though...
    sometimes the fans have not got a clue what they're talking about and often put down players without understanding how gruelling the sport of ice hockey is, I’ve previously found some (they are in the minority) of the Nottingham's fans attitudes off putting, but I kept going to the games because I love it. Some of fans have an elitist attitude which is annoying because they contradict themselves - on one hand they want the sport to become more popular on another they like it being their secret sport.

    So I think they are the things that need to change – more money, better knowledge of the sport, more publicity. We can make it a great sport, Jesus if something has boring has football can be big why the hell can’t Hockey!!

  • Comment number 15.

    Paul, the standards have greatly improved in the past few years! Still not as fast pace as the NHL, but it's a thrilling sport nontheless.

  • Comment number 16.

    I am a Brit who has been living in Minnesota, (Where Ice Hockey is just huge) for 15 years. I agree with some of the previous posts, Ice Hockey in the UK could get more and more popular, but for it to get to the level of the NHL would take a long time. As an example, I have a 6 year old son who started skating when he was 3, and was on his first hockey team at 5, playing small games on a full sized rink. The number of kids who play the sport here is amazing...... I live in a small town on the east side of the Twin Cities, and they have 6 teams with about 14 players on each team for boys aged 6 and 7. It is also a big sport for girls, they play at the same level as the boys right up to college. It is as ingrained in society here (Minnesota) as football is in the UK, and that doesn't take into consideration the fact that Basketball is also big here as a winter sport. If Ice Hockey is to get as big in the UK as it is here, you would need to be able to attract players from the NHL in their prime, and pay them the money they could get over here. (They are trying to do that in Russia at the moment) It is obviously at an early stage in the UK, but it would be good to see it keep progressing and eventually get to a point where british players could get to a level where they could play more often in the NHL. (Just as an aside, the Minnesota Wild have a player on their team who hails from Belfast..... Owen Nolan, he is close to the end of his career, but was a stud in his prime!) For MPJACKO, if you want to see an NHL game over here, you should be able to get tickets to many of the games, especially the teams in the south of the USA. Go to Ticketmaster.com, you can find the NHL teams when you go to their sports links.

  • Comment number 17.

    bald-in-guelph, what exactly is 'authenticity'? Ice skating has been around in the UK for as long as it has anywhere else. I'd totally agree that the skill levels aren't even in the same league as the NHL - so what?
    There's real passion and enjoyment at the grass roots for the sport in the UK, and it's played competitively and with real commitment from Under-10 upwards.

    Trust me, it's 'authentic' to the people out there doing it, in just the same way that people can play football outside of the Premiership and not feel any less 'authentic' when they are doing so.

    The biggest problem over here is the truly appalling coverage of basically any sport other than football, gymnastics/athletics, and cricket - oh and anything at all to do with women's teams in any sport - and no, I'm not a woman.

    My son thinks Sidney Crosby is brilliant, but when he charges out onto the ice as a defenceman for Chelmsford's Under-12 B team he isn't thinking about a lack of authenticity - he's thinking about the game ahead every bit as seriously as everyone else out there on the ice.

    C'mon Ollie - talk to the big people at the BBC - get Ice Hockey onto the screens (NHL and UK) and people will come and watch - and play. You can't move on Chelmsford's rink in public sessions sometimes, especially when the discos are going, so there's plenty of interest in ice rinks and what goes on there.

  • Comment number 18.

    I've been watching UK hockey now for 11 years and whilst the standard of the Elite League isnt as good as the old Superleague it is still a very enjoyable and exciting sport,much more so than football in my opinion. The standard during the Superleague with £1M wage bills was a lot better than today's but then it was always going to be. The Elite now has a £250K salary cap..for people to try and compare it to the NHL is ludicrous. In some cities there is a big interest in hockey,Nottingham for example,everyone knows who the Panthers are,our average attendance last season of 4,500 was the same as Notts County last year.

    It will always be a minority sport in the UK due the funding,lack of media coverage,lack of ice facilites and ice time and to be honest poor standard of junior coaching compares to Europe..which goes hand in hand with funding in my view.

    The fact that it is a minority sport will always put people off but it is nowhere near as bad as some on this blog make out.

  • Comment number 19.

    awesomeC - I will certainly take your comments into account and look to take in a game next time I'm in the UK.

    It'll give me a reason to justify to my fiancee why I need to take my Sharks jersey on holiday with me!

  • Comment number 20.

    Hockey can never be as big over here as it is in the US, Canada or Finland, simply because 80% of hockey is skating and kids over here have to pay to skate (oftentimes in a dungeon-like throw back to the 60's - Hillheads anyone). So less will bother and young hockey gems will be harder to find.

    However, hockey is at good standard in Germany and Italy, and France also has a better national team than us, so there is no reason why we can't improve.

    There are pockets of support in this country, in big cities like Cardiff, Nottingham and Sheffield, which could form a blueprint. But there's no real interest in London, which is possibly the reason behind the sport's failure to interest media and consequentially sponsors. Yes, the sport has never seemingly had great direction or management, but football can hardly be accused of that with much bigger wages.

    Trust me, the sport is fantastic to watch even over here, but in my experience the kids on the street like to emulate what they see. The lack of live matches, games to watch on the TV or ice rink infastructure allowing youngsters to recreate the sport for themselves will cause many potential players to lose interest, if it registers at all.

    An example can be found in Durham. 0nce a proud hockey town (city), producing a regular number of good and sometimes very good players. It had its rink turned into a bowling alley and lo and behold - they don't anymore.

  • Comment number 21.

    Spot on Spurs59er!!

  • Comment number 22.

    Is it also worth pointing out that none of the major ice hockey cities mentioned have a premier league football team?

  • Comment number 23.

    A Player who played for both the NHL and the EPL was Travis Brigley. http://www.nhl.com/ice/player.htm?id=8464993 He played for Cardiff, the Calgary Flames and in 2003-2004, my local team the Colorado Avalanche. He played 30+ games and was an extremely effective 4th line player.

  • Comment number 24.

    Hockey will never be successful in the UK because any kid with talent needs parents with the ability to back them financially. In the US, and other top Ice Hockey nations like Czech Rep and Russia, kids are given scholarships so that they are given significant ice-time.

    A couple of hours training a week plus a game is about the best kids can expect in this country. And their parents will pay through the nose for it.

    [For what its worth, I feel ice hockey took a step backwards by chasing the money of the Elite League and scrapping the BNL - Teams like Fife Flyers had a great history of success but couldn't possibly compete financially and have suffered dramatically for it.]

  • Comment number 25.

    MFMcD57 - While there are scholarships available at the most elite level, to get to that point takes a relentless financial commitment from parents. For example, my lad plays recreational ice hockey here in Denver. We pay $750 for a 14 game season with 1 practice per week, but if we wanted to go to travel team status, we would be expected to pay anywhere from $3000-$5000 per season plus hotels/airfares. Players who want to get to elite status would need to start travel hockey at about age 7, so you are talking about a parental commitment of $50-75000 by the time they are 17. I think parents here are much more willing to expend that kind of money on the off chance of their children making it to stardom (not that I necessarily think its a good thing).

  • Comment number 26.

    Great article Ollie and thanks to my friend for pointing me to it. I'm a HUGE New York Rangers fan and love the NHL. I wanted to go to Montreal since I was a kid to see the Rangers play the Canadiens and I finally did last March with my Wife. It took almost 30 years but I got there. What an amazing experience. There were other Rangers fans who made the trip and every time a Let's Go Rangers chant got going 20,000+ Canadien fans screamed GO HABS GO, it was deafening. The Rangers won 4-3 in a shootout, very exciting game. Hockey is tremendous live and Madison Square Garden is a special place to see it. I go to many games and I would love to see hockey catch on in England. Give it a try and keep an eye out for the Olympics this coming year in Canada. The fans will be going nuts for their national team.

  • Comment number 27.

    MPJACKO,

    Yes, you can get tickets from Ticketmaster.com as hdfrog has said. A lot of teams partner with Ticketmaster where seasons ticket holders put up tickets for sale on the team's TicketExchange site. After purchasing the tickets would be emailed to you. Stub Hub's another option.

  • Comment number 28.

    I like to keep up on former Sharks and learn about the history of my favorite team, seeing as how I'm from San Jose and follow hockey quite passionately. I'm glad to see that an old Shark has made something of a name for himself in Britain. I'm actually quite surprised to see the level of interest in hockey in Britain. Obviously the NHL doesn't get many players from Britain, but I didn't figure there would even be interest at the level there is for soccer in the uS. The turn out in the picture for the Altrinchan Ice Dome is easily comparable to AHL teams. (Minor league hockey in the US, basically a professional developmental league, comprised mostly of NHL prospects and a few veteran players It generally has a higher standard of play than the British leagues from my understanding). I was even more surprised to see in the comments that there are Sharks fans in Britain. I've talked to a few from Sweden online, but didn't imagine I'd ever come across a British one, considering that the Original 6 NHL teams are generally a good deal more famous and well known in regions where hockey isn't that well known. A nice read all around!

  • Comment number 29.

    Thanks for all the comments, everybody - they're really interesting to read, and it's useful to get insights from people now living in the US.

    RoverElliot - Again, good question about getting a system in place. That system does exist but how it's improved is worth a blog in itself. I'm lucky enough to be going to the Winters in Vancouver in a few months and believe me, I'd love nothing more than seeing a British team there (men's or women's), but I'll certainly settle for watching the US and Canadian teams.

    I've enjoyed reading so many different opinions about the skill level here. As angrymeerkat said, "fragmented and poorly-marketed" is a pretty accurate summary of British ice hockey at the moment, but I think the actual end product is still attractive once you get people down to a game. Most people here won't have seen an NHL game so they won't turn round and say, "I've seen better". Compared to most British sport, hockey here is still fast, exciting and entertaining, particularly if you get two evenly-matched teams.

    Plenty of people, in the comments here and elsewhere, have suggested one league with two conferences. I think that's definitely a good option, or one top league with 16 teams, but the obstacles to change are huge. Team owners are reluctant to tinker with things and I understand that, because running a hockey team here is a precarious business and I, too, would be permanently on edge if it was my money at stake. But the end product, an eight-team top league, just isn't attractive to British sports fans, who are used to leagues with at least 12 teams, and in football 20 or more. They expect variety and in the Elite League, you don't get it. If hockey looked more like football in terms of its structure, league tables and fixture list, I think that'd have a positive psychological effect on football fans looking for alternatives or priced out of going to a football game.

    thelovelyangrydragon - I don't think any plans to bring the NHL back to London have been announced yet - but I reckon it'll happen. It helps when sports like the NFL get good receptions over here. There has been talk of the NFL basing a team in London, or at least giving one team a regular "home" game in London. I actually think an NHL team would get more consistent support here. NFL fans love London as a one-off, but I think hockey fans would pack out a rink plenty of times over for NHL games. Not that I expect us to have our own NHL team any time soon! (London Coyotes anyone?)

    A few people mentioned getting the NHL on UK screens. As mentioned above, ESPN provide coverage either via subscription TV or via their website. But the problem with hockey is, to be frank, it looks rubbish on TV in my opinion. It gets an odd black-and-white feel to it and is hard to follow, and does no justice to the real deal. I am told, by wealthier and more technologically-advanced friends, that high definition TV does wonders for hockey broadcasts though. I'll ask the Beeb if we can have a few HD cameras in Bracknell...

    ducknumber1 - Very valid point. Lots of hockey teams seem to have appeared in towns where professional football teams either don't exist (Bracknell, Slough, Basingstoke et al) or aren't doing well. But in the 1990s, when hockey crowds were huge, many of those cities did have Premier League teams (Sheffield, Nottingham and Manchester to name three, and obviously Manchester still does). So I'm not sure if you can infer too much from that.

    mnewnham6182 - The figures you quote certainly underline the difficulties faced. I spoke to Angela Taylor, captain of the British women's team, not so long ago and she gave the impression her parents had made some huge sacrifices. In the US, there is an obvious goal in the NHL. In the UK, that dream is all the more distant, and I guess you could be forgiven for deciding against the investment (when your children can play football for almost nothing by comparison).

  • Comment number 30.

    Really good article, there isnt enough about ice hockey on here, NHL or EPL. I only really got into ice hockey a few years ago but cant get enough of it now, i watch all the red wings games i can on espn and espn america (although they are having a terrible season so far!). Went to my first english game on sunday, the Guildford flames vs the Bracknell Bee's and it exceeded my expectations, although the skill and speed was nowhere near the same as NHL, the overall experience and value certainly made up for it!
    A decent size crowd of 1,500 people, a pretty nice venue at the spectrum, im definately looking to go again, even got my girlfriend interested. To top it off we are going to see the Rangers vs the Penguins when we go to New York at end of November, cant wait! only thing better would be to see the red wings the week later!

  • Comment number 31.

    I am fortunate that my Sister lives in Vancouver and so ive seen the Cannucks play a few years back which was amazing. Ive also seen my native Sheffield Steelers play and although they are worlds apart, i loved the excitement equally!!! Go Cannucks!...erm and Steelers

  • Comment number 32.

    Hi Ollie,

    As an icehockey dad living in Switzerland, I read the blog and comments with interest.

    Switzerland has a very good league (the best supported European team in Bern)and has started to supply players to the NHL.

    A lot of this success is down to kids starting to play at 5-6 years old in local teams with a structure that allows them to progress to their natural level. A lot of the ice rinks in Switzerland are outdoors or have a roof only, something that could easily be provided in the UK. It is only when they kids get to their teens that the level of commitment increases, as with other sports. For example, my son plays Junior Elite level (year of birth, 90, 91, 92) and trains 4 days a week and plays 2 times a week, all on top of normal school work. All the kids on the team are the same. If you provide a structure and support for kids in any sport, their loyalty to the game is assured.

    Icehockey, as with all other sports, needs to be encouraged if it is to grow and survive. There should be a place for icehockey in the UK.

  • Comment number 33.

    Ollie, great article. Moved to Canada in 2005 and there's no escaping the game here. Don Cherry as you mention is a national institution, in much the same way as Motty - both sharing appalling dress sense! Ed's situation could be sorted with a swift call to Brian Burke in Toronto. Apparently anyone with skates and a decent left hook is guaranteed a spot on the team. Don't expect to win games this season though. One win in 8 and an overtime loss makes the richest team in the NHL look like fair competition for the boys in Altrincham. The arena's packed every game, but this year's Maple Leafs are pants.
    The two biggest issues over here right now are the costs and Gary Bettman "the Commish".
    Corporate boxes and tickets fill arenas like the Air Canada Centre in Toronto, making the game inaccessible to the regular fan. A night out watching the Leafs can easily run to $600 for 2 tickets and a meal. Decent seats at Goodison Park with a pie and a pint would be half that. The problem also runs deeper with the kids playing the game. My nephew plays AAA hockey in Toronto and Mum and Dad are looking at $8000 a year in registrations, equipment, travel and hotels. Chasing the dream costs a fortune.
    Bettman's another matter entirely. Jim Balsillie, CEO of RIM (Blackberry) offers to buy the Phoenix Coyotes out of bankruptcy on condition that he can move the team to one of the most vibrant untapped markets, Southern Ontario or Hamilton to be exact. The matter goes through the US courts, presided over by the judge with the best name in the business Redfield T Baum and Bettman, the NHL honcho, fights this all the way. Why? He's intent on keeping teams in markets that can't sustain them - the sunshine belt. What's better to do on a Friday night when its 90 degrees in the shade? Hit the baseball park and enjoy some rays and a beer, or freeze in a half empty arena watching mediocre hockey? He also can't stand Balsillie and the billions this guy has at his disposal. Thirdly, he's got a total downer on Canada. The result, the NHL, so I guess by process of elimination Bettman, now owns the Coyotes having paid a third of price Balsillie offered. They want a 'local' buyer, but would entertain moving the team if that's not viable, whilst losing $30 million over the season. You couldn't script this!
    My message to RIM Jim is give Bill Kenwright a call and splash the cash with the Blues! Forget hockey for the time being.
    All the best.

  • Comment number 34.

    Funny you should include the contrasting photos, including HP Pavilion, in this story. Courtenay never played in the HP Pavilion, as far as I know. He would've played for the Sharks while they were still (I can't make this stuff up) gracing that old barn called the Cow Palace in South San Francisco. The Shark Tank opened (for hockey) in October 1993. Trust me, the Cow Palace makes the Altrincham IceDome look like the O2 Arena. Poor Ed.

    If the NHL Governors ever get their way and expand by one division into Europe, London will be top of that list for a club. First they'd need to shut down the ridiculous southern attempts in Nashville, Miami, Phoenix, Raleigh, and Tampa (and probably Long Island). They could easily be replaced by London, Helsinki, Stockholm, Hamburg, and Prague--who many would like to see over Hamilton, Quebec, Seattle, and another club in the Toronto suburbs. I imagine it all depends on how the Russians feel. Maybe you would all prefer Roman Abramovich as chairman of "London Lions Hockey Club"? I'm sure the hidebound Canadians would like to see a Scottish club, as well, so count Glasgow in if Helsinki isn't considered a big enough *spit* "market." Perhaps all the weary Old Firm haters could just finally shut down Partick Thistle and change it into a hockey team?

    Go Sharks.

  • Comment number 35.

    Hockey can work in the UK.
    I'm from Washington, DC, which isn't a traditional hockey market. We don't get the same winters they get up in Canada or in hockey-heavy US states like Minnesota, so not nearly as many kids grow up playing hockey here. Take into consideration there are already NFL, MLB, and NBA teams in DC, and the city seems to be all sported out. Up until a couple years ago, our Washington Capitals would constantly play home games to a crowd of more people wearing the visiting team's jerseys than the Caps'. But that's all changed.
    We have the luck of having one of the smartest owners in all of professional sports, Ted Leonsis, and drafting a huge superstar, Alex Ovechkin. I don't often say I "love" a owner of a pro sports team, but Leonsis seems to do everything right. And Ovechkin is incredibly exciting to watch--fans feel they're witnessing something special when they see him on the ice. Along with this came vastly increased media coverage of the team.
    This season, the Caps are looking to sell out every single home game. I love it.
    You can make hockey work in a non-traditional hockey market. I believe it can work in the UK.

  • Comment number 36.

    #35
    You're absolutely right - hockey can work in the UK. The issue is who controls it? Progressive thinkers like Ted Leonsis should work on ousting Bettman and putting a guy in place that can fulfill two objectives.
    First off - Make franchises viable, and if that means moving them then so be it. The stubborn refusal to expand into viable and lucrative markets will kill the game.
    Secondly - Realise the global potential of this new young crop of talent and get out there selling it.
    It's been years since there's been anything like the skill level of Ovechkin, Crosby, the Staals, Nash, Malkin, Fleury and Luongo. The young guns have the potential to take hockey to new level, much like the Great One and Super Mario did. The NHL as a unit needs to work on developing this and if that means more regular season games played outside the US and Canada in European markets, then go for it. An exhibition in Moscow between the Penguins and the Capitals would sell out in minutes. Promoted the right way it would do the same at the NEC or Wembley Arena. Just watch the Olympic Gold Medal game next year between Canada and Russia if you need proof!

  • Comment number 37.

    fellainisbarnet - Crosby, the Staals, Nash and Luongo.. there's a band in there somewhere...

  • Comment number 38.

    Heh they're all good Canadian boys - let's face it they've got to sing better than that other warbling Canuck who shall remain nameless, but rhymes with Marine Neon!

  • Comment number 39.

    Well Ollie, you've certainly caused a bit of discussion here.

    Having lived in Peterborough, I'm well aware of the initial influx of Ice Hockey 20 or so years ago, especially after watching my local "Pirates" as they were in the early days. I'll never forget seeing the original Ironman of the NHL Garry Unger plying his trade in his final years. I guess it shows the level of standard in those days when you expected him to grab at least a hat-trick every game. I really miss the games in the early 90's with the likes of Durham, Cardiff, Murrayfield and Sheffield visiting every week.

    I've recenctly rekindled my love of the game thanks to ESPN's HD broadcasts a few times a week, and am still amazed at the speed and skill the current NHL crop play at.

    I was lucky enough years ago to go on a hockey tour (organised by a company based in Suffolk if I remember rightly) whereby we toured the US and Canada visiting 5 or 6 seperate venues during a week, and seeing at the time some of the best players in the world (namely Yzerman, Federov, Lemieux, Jagr) at work. The whole atmosphere, arenas and noise was something I'll never forget. I just wish we had the chance to see those matches here in the UK.

    Looking forward, I wish that maybe with the help of a couple of competitive rich oil sheikhs, we could rival the current football situation with them buying into all the successfull . Afterall, most if not all ice rinks can be converted into other sporting events or concert venues very easily.

    Fingers Crossed eh !

  • Comment number 40.

    i am a romford raiders fan and i have never seen a nhl game. you can tell its going to be a differnt class, thats why its the top league in the world. english hockey is not big as it is not promoted enough. games need to be shown on tv more often so people can try and get into it and start going to games

  • Comment number 41.

    angrymeerkat I'd suggest watching the Nottingham Lions ENL team aswell as the panthers. Nottingham have 1 of the best junior set-ups in the country (closely followed by if not equalled by Sheffield)

    I'm an avid follower of the Blackburn Hawks (who once beat Manchester Storm at the Nynex on the 1st ever live game on sky) and have seen a few Elite League games but they bored me. I watched Slough beat Manchetser in Manchester last week and for my 1st ever EPL game I found it really good to watch

  • Comment number 42.

    As a native-born, Canadian, hockey-playing son of British parents, I would like to give a fillip to the more down-in-the-mouth British fans of hockey...

    Hockey lore in Canada says one of the first recognisable games of hockey ever played was that of British soliders stationed in Kingston, Ontario, in the late 19th century.

    So keep your peckers up!

  • Comment number 43.

    Few interesting points here. Not sure what frozen winters have got to do with ice hockey in this country.After all we do very well in figure skating and curling and have done for years. We have winters that are comparable to most central and eastern european countrys that are big on hockey like germany, poland, chzck republic, hungary,latvia etc. As a participation sport, hockey is alive and kicking in the uk. I play for a recreational team and its difficult to get ice time because of all the other teams that are screaming for practise time.We have 40 odd rinks in this country which is more than poland, hungary and many other countrys. Its not a big spectator sport because its not promoted enough like football is which traditionally has a strong foothold.Imagine trying to get soccer as big as hockey in canada....impossible. For those who are not aware, the british invented the game of ice hockey, but the canadians nurtured, developed and adopted it. What a brilliant decision our canadian cousins made.

  • Comment number 44.

    Hey Ollie,

    Just to let you know, in your piece you state, "Phoenix player-coach Tony Hand came within a hair's breadth when he was drafted by the Edmonton Oilers in 1986. No Briton has had a more successful career than Hand, but he never took to the ice for real in an Oilers jersey."

    Mark Messier, who had great success with the Oilers (With Gretzky) and Rangers is a Brit. He hails from the lovely town of Southampton. I'd argue to say that Mess would beat Hand in the successful career race, hands down.

  • Comment number 45.

    Hi Ollie. Nice article.

    I went to my first Ice Hockey game last Wednesday - Florida Panthers vs Carolina Hurricanes. Mrs S used to go and watch Hockey in the UK years ago, and whilst on holiday fancied seeing an NHL game. Though I was a hockey virgin it was a good evening out and I was an instant fan of the game.

    For mpjacko (#10), we just went to the Arena the day before and bought our tickets. There was plenty of space but that may have been due to (what became) the deciding match of the World Series taking place the same evening.

    We got back on Friday and have just this evening been to see our local team, MK Lightning. The reference to Premier League and 10th Division is spot on! However, that did not detract from the experience at all. As a newcomer to the game, the slower pace made it much easier to follow what is going on, and the passion is no different in the EPL than the NHL.

    I watched football for 14 years here, and a lot of what I saw this evening reminded me of the way the game was before Sky came along with their open chequebook and football forgot its roots.

    I think hockey has got a great deal of potential in the UK. True we are way behind the US, Canada, and much of Europe. However, sport is a global commodity these days and I doubt I am the only disillusioned ex-football fan out here. The NFL is well on the way to correcting the missed opportunity of the early 1990s, and the NBA is keen to bring its product to our shores.

    Whether Ice Hockey builds on its current position is largely down to the folks at Ice Hockey UK, and the different leagues to market the game.

  • Comment number 46.

    Nice article Ollie.

    Having played ice hockey in Scotland for 20years (since i was 6) I've been able to watch the decline of the British game. When I first started I used to go and see a game most w/ends with my whole family, only missing them when I had my own games. However since the age of about 13 or 14 I just lost interest in watching and instead (to this day) prefer playing the game. The only time i'll watch a game live here is when my reccy team play in edinburgh after the Capitals.

    My biggest problem with hockey in the UK now though is the lack of interest from local councils. I played at Paisley ice rink all my life up until a few years ago when the council decided they didnt want to pay to maintain it anymore and instead turned it into an indoor 7-a-side park. Now my team and all paisley teams have to play at the braehead arena which is a great full-sized ice rink but because of all the shows and events that happen there we dont get any ice from June - September. And struggle with our regular spots throughout the rest of the year even though we're paying high fees to play. And as a result from what I've heard there are now NO junior teams from paisley at all, which I'm gutted about because without them I would never had played the sport!

    There was also a new rink built close by in Stirling which was designed as a curling rink until someone mentioned toward the end of the build that they better chuck in some round-corners and markings for hockey.

    This has been a bit of a ramble but what I'm trying to say is that I think Ice Hockey UK have to get out there and work with local councils and investors throughout the country and rebuild the sport from the ground up. If they don't I really do think the sport will just die out in most areas of the UK!

  • Comment number 47.

    It's a crying shame for ice hockey that the BBC never kept up its coverage after the late 90s. Yes, Sky had the TV rights, but there was a time when the B&H Cup Final would have live commentary on Five Live and the scores would be read out on the 1030 sports bulletin. Same goes for British basketball and other minority sports - coverage pushed out for more people to go on and on about football.

    If rugby league were played indoors, it would be the perfect family sport, until that day, ice hockey (and while not at the level of the NHL, obviously) is that. The grace, the toughness, the skill and excitement - there's not much that can match it.

  • Comment number 48.

    Hi, thanks for this really well written post. I grew up on hockey in Nottingham with the Panthers, then dropped a level to the Solihull Barons when I went to Birmingham for university. I've now gone the other way and have lived in the San Jose area so got to see the Sharks in the NHL, and I'm now resident in Washington DC where I can watch the Capitals.

    When I was watching it, the British game was always slower and less skilful than the NHL, but had some great rivalries: Nottingham v Sheffield, Nottingham v Cardiff, Murrayfield v Durham etc... also I think you captured the 'what might have been' of a lot of North Americans who chose to come over to ply their trade in the UK. You have to admire them for wanting to continue to play a sport they obviously loved, where injury could rule them out at any point, when they could have stayed home in the better weather and 'got a proper job' instead. They certainly made my Saturday nights interesting in the 90s, and gave me a love of the game that I'm now pleased to see my own son developing when I take him to see the NHL out here.

  • Comment number 49.

    I've enjoyed NHL games when and where I can see them, the game is amazing to watch. The NHL's steps in recent years to speed up the game and improved the flow have really improved the sport over there in my opinion. European Ice-Hockey just doesnt have the same zip (with the possible exception of the KHL) and the bigger rinks, two-line passes and no-touch icing don't help matters.

  • Comment number 50.

    Hockey in the UK suffers the same problems as football here in Canada. In the UK the best athletes will play football just as the best Canadian athletes will play hockey. Some people have noted that the lack of snow and natural ice in your winters also has an impact. As a hockey fan, I am just happy to see that there are people passionate about the game in the UK and hopefully the game can reach a higher standard in time.

    When talking about UK born players don't forget Steve Thomas (born in Stockport) although he moved to Canada at a young age.

  • Comment number 51.

    dont know where you got your info from csimountie but the moose (Messier) was born in Alberta Canada..........On another note I live in Ottawa Canada but hail from the sunny shores of Sunderland along time Sunderland AFC fan but after living in Canada for 18yrs now and have a family all boys who live breath dream hockey I got pulled into the hockey world kicking an screaming but once I got used to the game its now my sport of choice I wish we could have some better players from the UK or in the world cup or evan the olympics but till that happens I ll keep routing for Canada and the Ottawa Senators......

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  • Comment number 54.

    Although he moved to Canada at the age of 2 months therefore not really counting as a British player, Byron Dafoe (Netminder for Washington, Los Angeles, Boston and Atlanta - posting a final NHL regular season career GAA of 2.68 I believe?) was born in Worthing, Sussex.

    Owen Nolan, every knows about him...born in Belfast, making 5 NHL All-Star appearances and featuring as a player during Team Canada's Olympic Gold Medal winning team of 2002 (posting 3 assists and 2 PIM in 6 games)

    My final and IMO most successful British-born player to grace the NHL is James Smith (most will know him as Steve Smith)
    Born in Glasgow, raised in Canada, he iced for Edmonton (winning 3 Stanley Cups in the process), playing alongside some of the greats (Gretzky, Messier & Jari Kurri).
    Was traded to Chicago for the 91-92 season before retiring in 97.
    He then came out of retirement and iced for 3 seasons with Calgary.
    His totals? 72 goals, 303 assists and 2139 PIM in 804 regular season games and 11 41 288 in 134 play-off games.

    Now although none of these are true 'British' NHL players of the sense, I think they would all make fantastic ambassadors of the game over here in the UK.
    However, as mentioned, that still doesn't detract from the high cost of playing and the almost impossible task of getting ice-time, which I've stumbled across many times.

    However there is hope for the UK, what with us competing in the IIHF World Champs Division 1, Group B this April. Icing alongside hosts Slovenia, Poland, Hungary, South Korea and Croatia and we hold a IIHF ranking of 25th, which really isn't that bad.

    Will I be travelling to see us play? Most definately!
    Will I be returning after watching us get promoted out of Division 1? Not likely...but I'm always hopeful! ;]

 

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