Good, clean family violence

The Haringey Hounds are out for blood. Louise Bishop looks on
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Ice Hockey's premier film, Slapshot, had it all: it was fast, aggressive, American and it starred Paul Newman. Up on the top of Muswell Hill the Alexandra Palace ice rink tries hard to go into glamour overdrive, as north London's hardest (and only) ice hockey team, the Haringey Greyhounds, screech on to the ice. To some extent they succeed - thumping rock music excites the 300-strong crowd as the game is about to start.

The exciting thing about ice hockey is its noise, speed and, of course, its aggression. Those involved in the game try hard to play down its violent image, fostered by movies and TV screenings of the American game which usually include fist fights on the ice. But is ice hockey London-style any different? Every smash of the puck, swish of skates and thump of colliding bodies echoes magnified around the indoor rink. So do the comments of the crowd, which include on this occasion an abusive clutch of female Solihull Knights supporters shouting: "Fuck off into the dressing room, wanker," to one Hounds player who is sent off for hitting another in the face. (He was provoked, though.) And a group of fathers and sons who howl like dogs whenever the Hounds score.

Arriving with their kit bags before the game, the Hounds look as varied a bunch of men as you could find, albeit none on the undernourished side or likely to be presenting Blue Peter in the near future. The team of 26 includes a funeral director, a fireman, a roofer, six unemployed, a Swedish student and a double-glazing manufacturer. But underneath the regulation kit of protective knee pads, shirt and helmet with visor, there is a rather more threatening uniformity to them.

"It is a particular type of person that plays hockey. It is a rough, tough game and the majority of players are rough diamonds," David Loudfoot, the manager, says smiling proudly. "Two and a half ounces of vulcanised rubber can do a lot of damage at 100mph." Not for him the gentle thud of leather on willow; give him, instead, the thwack of speeding hockey puck on skull.

Everyone, including ice hockey's governing body, is at pains to stress what a family sport it is but the family it might bring to mind is more Munster than Partridge.

Matches start with "God Save the Queen" but the language of the game, players and supporters gives it all away. The Hounds' shirt logo says "Skate Attack" and their war cry is "Gun licks" (which politely translated means "go and grab the nearest body and beat it to a pulp"). How gentle can the sport be when its terms for fouls include "roughing", "interfering" and "slashing"? The start of the game is called a "face off" and in the Solihull game, sure enough, opposing players are soon hitting each other in the face with their sticks. But this is all OK and non-violent because it is a "contact sport".

David says: "In ice hockey it is not softly, softly - if you are going for a puck and a player steps in front of you, you kill him against the boards."

As the game builds, to "oohs" and "ahhhs" and sharp intakes of breath worthy of a pantomime, certain players stand out. These include Hounds' number nine Martin Garwood who carries five fetching stitches to his right eye. He says he doesn't think of anything when he plays.

Six players are allowed on the ice at any one time and a long shift for one of them would be one-and-a-half minutes. On a good day (like today) they might be going at a speed of up to 20-30 miles an hour.

The team's former goalkeeper, Paul Clark, has decided to retire at the old man's age of 30 to become bench coach. Nevertheless he still makes a formidable figure shouting from the sidelines. A fireman, originally from Bethnal Green, he has been playing for 10 years and holds some other games in scorn. "It's not like football where every time the ball goes out, they have a free kick and stop for a minute. This is a totally hard game," he says. When he was in goal all he thought about was how "to stop the puck any way I can". "It didn't matter what I put behind it as long as I put something behind it, head, foot, anything." Paul is a charmer but certainly no angel. "I think I hold the record for penalty minutes in a game without ever even playing in it," he says with some satisfaction. "I jumped on at the end and got involved in a fight. I was playing for Lee Valley Lions against Streatham Redskins and a fight broke out involving my little brother Kevin. It escalated so I decided to help him out."

Cutting a more svelte but no less impressive figure on the ice is 23- year-old Swedish student Frederick Sixvennson (already transformed in north Londonese to Freddie) who is the nearest the team gets to Paul Newman. He thinks the standard of ice hockey here is "not so good compared to Sweden". His team mates might forgive him for this. But maybe not for saying: "I have played since I was five years old. In Sweden it is aggressive but in England... no."

Freddie gets some hassle in his first game: tall, blond players with Sixvennson splashed across their back are bound to be marked men. Nevertheless he scores five goals against the Solihull Knights and is easily the best player on the rink. The final score of 8-2 to the Hounds leaves Haringey triumphant.

Ice hockey was popular in north London from the 1930s onwards - when Haringey had two teams, the Racers and the Greyhounds - until the 1950s when the allure of TV took away its charms as a spectator sport. Popularity is increasing again now and, despite the fact that it costs around £1,000 to equip yourself and £10 a week to play, it has become the second most popular indoor sport after basketball. At Ally Pally there is a waiting list of prospective players.

One of the reasons why it is popular is that its excitement can flare up into violence. Finally David admits it - almost. "It must be said that, yes, people come to see the fact that it is a very physical game. Yes, there are fights. Tempers boil over and people do, occasionally decide to take a pop at each other. But it is a family sport."

Why all the fuss? As Paul rightly says, grannies watch wrestling. Why shouldn't families watch an exciting, fast and aggressive game? North London kids currently engaged in kicking each other in the stomach after watching Power Rangers are not going to be put off.

The Hounds' next match is Sun 19 Mar, 5.30pm, v Wightlink: Alexandra Palace (081-365 2121); £3, £2 kids