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Behind the scenes in an ice hockey locker room

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Ollie Williams | 09:44 UK time, Wednesday, 9 December 2009

What do you expect the atmosphere to be like inside the locker room of an ice hockey team?

I can't remember what I expected before the game.

The plan was to film with the English Premier League's Manchester Phoenix as they hosted fellow pre-season favourites the Basingstoke Bison. I had visions of practical jokes, which became visions of hockey sticks going through camera lenses, which became visions of filling out one of the more ridiculous insurance claims in BBC history.

Mercifully, none of that came to pass, but it goes down as one of the more lively and tense evenings, even in the locker room of a team never once trailing during the match - as you can see from the video.

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Looking back, what strikes me most is the quiet. You don't see it in the video, because filming a silent room at length makes for less than gripping viewing, but vast stretches of time spent with the team inside the locker room were almost uncomfortably quiet.

Now this may be because the presence of a camera during a big game had something of a chilling effect on the room, but I doubt that. I didn't get the sense that the party hats, Twister mat and card games had all been stowed for the duration of the my. Nobody seemed to be acting like this was in any way different.

But having spoken to friends afterwards, I wonder why I should be so surprised. They rightly pointed out that these are sportsmen paid to do a job. Breaking out the banjo and singing team-building campfire songs before the game may be the idyllic image of what it means to be in a sports team, but the reality is you turn up, play your game and go home.

That said, I don't feel that quite explains it. A better question I later asked myself is: well, what do you say? Obviously the coach - in this case Tony Hand - has to have his two penn'orth, which you see in the video when he's discussing things like lines (essentially, which players are out on the ice at any one time), but after that, topics of conversation in a room full of psyched-up hockey players start to seem thin on the ground. If you had anything pressing to say to your favourite team-mates, you would have done it by now, and 10 minutes before face-off is no time to debate the lawnmower you're going to buy next week.

Instead, as I observed on the night, what you get is a slightly forced "Come on!" bleated by alternating players on some invisible rota system. The peerless Montreal Canadiens goalie Ken Dryden, in one of the greatest sports books ever written (and with no ghostwriter in sight), summed up his own locker room experience as follows:

It's quieter than before. Ready or not, we have 15 minutes. Nothing can be put off any longer. Skates, some sweaters, shoulder pads, and elbow pads come off, sticks are re-examined and taped, helmets adjusted, bodies slouch back against cool concrete block walls.

Everything is slow, almost peaceful, each of us unconnected one from another, preparing in our own separate ways; as the game approaches, we reconnect. Against the Islanders or the Bruins, the room can be quiet or loud, it makes no difference. We know we are ready. Tonight, we aren't so sure, about each other, about ourselves. So sometimes we're quiet, and sometimes we make ourselves loud.

"C'mon, big gang," Houle exhorts, breaking the silence, "an early goal and they'll pack it in."

"Yessir, guys, they don't want any part of it." But again nothing.

"Where's the life?" Robinson yells. "We're dead in here. C'mon, c'mon..."

That was back in the 1970s and in the NHL, which, as Manchester's own Ed Courtenay has told us, is a slightly different kettle of fish. But I suspect locker rooms are fairly similar no matter your sport, or the level at which you play it. Why waste all your energy getting hyped up in there when you can sit calm and collected, contemplating the game, then let it all out on the ice?

Hand, whose name causes my fingers to lock if I don't automatically add the phrase "legend of British ice hockey" after typing it, is the Phoenix player-coach these days. There is a bit more about Hand here but a one-line summary would read: best British-trained player ever produced, nearly made it in the NHL, has dominated the British game for decades.

Being in a locker room in his presence is an experience, especially if you are in there with a camera, and certainly if you are in there with a camera when the communication lines between the BBC, the team and Hand have been less than reliable.

Filming before the game was fine, but when yours truly showed up in the locker room during the first period break, the player-coach was quick to express his understanding that I wasn't supposed to be there.

No, I explained - a little gingerly, given the presence of an entire ice hockey team in full regalia, with sticks - the team manager (a different gentleman) and I had agreed I'd be back in during period breaks. Hand, to his credit given he was in the middle of a game, relented.

However, towards the end of the second period Manchester had a few dodgy minutes, conceding a couple of goals. As I headed back into the locker room once more, I knew what was coming. Hand had already unleashed a few choice words on his team before he noticed me filming in the corner, and my marching orders were polite, yet swift. I wonder what it's like when they're losing.

It is strange how these things change once a game is won. Back in with the team after their 6-4 victory, as I rubbed the lens clean of the sweaty mist that enveloped the room, Hand happily gave an interview and told me to ignore anything he might have said to me during the game. Even now, bubbles of laughter in the locker room failed to give way to a full-on torrent of celebration after what was a hard-fought, tiring win - although, as immortalised on camera, former NHL man Courtenay knows how to introduce a hot topic.

Finally, a word for Adam Summerfield, the 19-year-old goalie making his Premier League debut. It was a film-maker's gift to have a storyline like his presented on a plate, and I should probably apologise for taking full advantage of the situation, training the camera on his pale, nerve-wracked face in the build-up to the game.

I felt enough adrenaline just filming him, so I can only imagine how he felt (although his social network page lists his only fears as rats, breaking his nose, and ladybirds, at least two of which were unlikely to feature). It's a credit to him that he ended up on the winning team and claimed the man of the match award to boot, and the relief shines through as he speaks to me at the end. While the likes of Courtenay are the ones who normally take the headlines, nothing is better to watch than a young British player getting a chance and taking it.

Comments

  • Comment number 1.

    Hi Ollie

    Great Blog. Just wondered what Ken Drydens book was called? It's going straight on my xmas list!

  • Comment number 2.

    Hi Matthew - silly oversight not to have mentioned the title, apologies. It's called "The Game". There was a 20th Anniversary edition published a few years ago which is the one I've got, shouldn't be too hard to get hold of and it is an excellent read.

  • Comment number 3.

    Great to see British ice hockey getting some exposure, but i can't help thinking its about 10 years too late. I started watching the Sheffield Steelers in their first season back in 1991/92 (i think!) and saw the game grow in stature in just a few years to the extent that the Steelers would average 7-8000 people a game and for the big games of the era (Cardiff, Nottingham, etc) the Sheffield arena would sell out all 9,900 seats. This was not as 'occasional' an occurence as you make out and for a few years in the mid to late 90's, Ice Hockey was the biggest indoor spectator sport in the UK and 4th or 5th most watched overall. But despite this popularity it did not get the credit or exposure in the press (not just the BBC, but all media outlets) that it deserved. Despite many of the clubs doing everything right commercially and creating these fan bases, i feel they were betrayed by the media who refused to budge from their traditional coverage of cricket and Rugby Union, despite the fact that attendance at ice hockey matches were comparable, if not greater, than both these most 'British' of sports.

    I really think that if organisations like the BBC had got behind hockey in this country during those golden years, the current scene might be a lot different to today. Manchester might still be playing infront of crowds of 6000+ in the MEN for a start and Ice hockey might have fared as well as Rugby and Cricket as they moved into the professional era. I guess notions of tradition still dominate the British psyche when it comes to sport

    I went to a game towards the end of last season and Sheffield Arena seemed empty compared to how it had been in my memories, but the game was just as exciting. The quality was maybe not as good as a few years ago, but the number of British-born players in the league was heartening to say the least.

    PS- i remember Ed Courtenay first arriving to play for the Steelers, but the greatest forward i saw would have to be Ken Priestley. In your article on Ed (which i've only just seen) you imply that he's the closest thing to an NHL 'star' the British Leagues have seen, but Ken won 2 Stanley Cups with Pittsburgh and played over 40 games in a season for both Buffalo and Pittsburgh. I'm pretty sure there are several other imports who'd played more matches than Ed, without taking anything away from is career or how good a player he is

  • Comment number 4.

    Excellent. Many thanks!

  • Comment number 5.

    Hi Ollie,

    Great piece.
    Typical hockey player eyeing up the talent in the stands.
    Pete

  • Comment number 6.

    Chipdawg - Not sure where I made out that healthy attendances were an "occasional" event in the past, but you're right that the game had a very strong fanbase then.

    As for the blog on Ed Courtenay, I make no claim in it that he's the only, or most experienced, former NHL player ever to reach Britain. I simply point out he's the only one, to my knowledge, currently playing in England's Premier League.

  • Comment number 7.

    It's a pity the UK Ice Hockey scene is not the same as it was in the period from '96 to '02, I used to have many hours of fun watching the then-named Manchester Storm at the Nynex Arena, and it brought a little feeling of the NHL to England, I'd love to see the game get to a really big level again but that would need quite a massive shift in the way the leagues are structured...sometimes I think that Barry Hearn is the go-to person for promoting fringe sports!

    I last went to an ice hockey game at the Nottingham Ice Arena, and I was disappointed at the number of things that had been sponsored during the game...even the "keep your eye on the puck" announcement when the puck leaves the rink is sponsored by something, as well as the home and away powerplays...it grates on me a little that the sport needs to find this many ways of making money to keep going.

  • Comment number 8.

    Ollie,

    I read it many years ago, definitely worth the read. It's available on amazon for less than a tenner.

  • Comment number 9.

    Interesting article Ollie, I am a new this season into the world of British ice hockey having attended a few of the Basingstoke Bison matches. Shame for them to lose against Manchester. Found their match highlights and even full matches on DVD from their website to re-live the action. Look forward to a full feature on the Bison Ollie and their struggles this season to keep up with the chasing pack.

  • Comment number 10.

    Diego - we approached Basingstoke as well in the hope of filming in both locker rooms during the game, but the Bison politely declined, as they were well within their rights to do.

    I get to a few Bison home games each season so hopefully I'll see you there, glad you're enjoying the sport. We're also covering the Bees v Bison game live on air in late January.

    Steve - I know what you mean about sponsors. My favourite example is one of the penalty boxes at Bracknell, which is sponsored by a beauty salon, so that announcements read: "Heading into the Bracknell hair and beauty salon (or some such) penalty box is player number 24...". Very odd. But needs must and credit to those companies for supporting the sport.

  • Comment number 11.

    Hey Steve, Item 7,

    Supporting the Storm was good fun, supporting the Phoenix is just as much fun if not more but in a different league. Yes, the hockey isn't at the same standard as the ISL (as was) or the Elite league but the enjoyment level of two teams that are reasonably evenly matched gives an excellent product with the outcome of the game being uncertain. Last year when we (Phoenix fan) played in the Elite league it was a case of the result is fairly certain, we were going to loose, but on occasion we might win, this year it doesn't matter to me if we win or loose at least we are competitive.
    Steve, make the effort and go and watch an ELP game, you will be supprised and entertained.
    Pete

  • Comment number 12.

    I'm a Canadian and out of curiosity tried to find Hockey on the BBC site. It's kind of sad that field hockey and archery are easier to find than one of the most entertaining sports ever played. However, I'm not here to preach or talk anyone down, I just wanted to make a comment regarding the sport itself. I personally find European hockey to be much more boring for one basic reason - the bigger ice surface used in international play. The smaller NHL/North American surface size results in a much faster paced, more physical game that to me epitomizes the sport. Good to see there's at least SOME hockey coverage over there though, keep up the good work!!

 

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