When a friend invited me to an ice hockey game during a visit to Nottingham, I raised an eyebrow – is it something that we even play in this country?
But once I’d realised that yes we did, I decided to take him up on the offer and experience the sport firsthand.
“Right from the start, players were being tripped and barged aggressively”
The game I went to was Nottingham Panthers versus Braehead Clans, at Nottingham’s Motorpoint Arena. We were advised to arrive at the venue half an hour before the match began, and it was only when I got there that I realised why. The place was packed.
It was almost like the atmosphere before a concert – foam fingers, team colours, loads of noise and excitement… having not even previously been aware that this was a sport we played, this scene definitely put me right on that score.
The pre-match build-up was such that I expected a loud and exciting game – and that’s precisely what I got. But more of that later….
As I entered the arena, there was not an empty seat to be seen. In Nottingham at least, clearly, ice hockey is a very big deal. I may not have known the rules, but already I was impressed, and now even more keen to see the sport being played.
One thing that will shock first-timers is how violent ice hockey is – right from the start, players were being tripped and barged aggressively into the boards surrounding the rink.
I kept looking at the ref wondering if he was going to do anything about it, but I soon realised that this is in fact part of the sport; every challenge is a battle for possession of the puck.
The game, played in front of a sell-out crowd of 6,500, was a thriller with the Panthers coming back from two goals down to beat the Clan 5-3.
One of the things that struck me the most was what a great family atmosphere ice hockey has – despite all the violence on the ice.
Every time a goal was scored, the whole crowd got up to sing and clap in unison; it was as good as a football atmosphere, but without all the aggression and swearing.
“At only £16 a ticket, compared to nearer £50 for a Premier League match, everyone gets their money’s worth”
Unsurprisingly, most of the players were from north America, but it was quite surprising how many Britons are playing at top level in this country as well.
The never-ending breaks and time-outs did get a bit tiresome, but it was an extremely entertaining spectacle and at only £16 a ticket, compared to nearer £50 for a Premier League match, everyone gets their money’s worth.
Nottingham and Braehead play in the Elite Ice Hockey League, which has been the top-tier competition in the UK since the demise of the Ice Hockey Super League in 2003, and is made up of 10 teams from England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, split into Northern and Southern Conferences.
There is no relegation or promotion, with teams admitted to the competition by the approval of a board of directors. At the end of the regular season, the top-placed teams go into the play-offs for the British Championship.
Nottingham Panthers are the second oldest EIHL club, behind Sheffield Steelers, whilst Braehead are one of the newest teams, formed in 2010.
As with so many so-called minority-interest sports, media coverage is not particularly high-profile, but Elite Ice Hockey League matches can be seen on Premier Sports in the UK.
Anyone wanting to find out more about the competition should go to the Elite League website