X-treme: The cutting edge of sport

If you're looking for a sport which combines speed, skill, power and aggression, you'll find that ice hockey is hard to beat. The season started last week, so recently I went to check out the capital's newest team, the London Knights, who were completing their pre-season training.

As I reached the ice rink, a full-scale practice game was underway. In their protective padding and helmets, the players looked like they were carrying a considerable amount of weight, but their speed and agility on the ice had to be seen to be believed.

When head coach Jim Fuyarchuk called the training session to an end, the players stayed on the ice. Some decided that the goaltender hasn't had a sufficient workout, so they peppered him with "slapshots".

A goaltender's body is completely covered in protective padding, but it is not a position for the faint-hearted. And as I stumbled out onto the ice (weighed down by enough padding to deflect a nuclear blast), I wondered if this was really the best way to sample ice hockey for the first time.

A goaltender has to have incredibly quick reactions, and when coach Fuyarchuk gently flicked a few pucks in my direction, I hadn't a clue how to stop them. Holding a giant stick in my right hand and a glove (catching is simply impossible) in the other, I tried to close the open spaces around me, but, weighed down by equipment and a clear lack of talent, my movements were far too slow and disjointed.

I asked Fuyarchuk how fast the puck can travel during a game - he smiled and called a player over. Standing at more than 6ft and looking like an extra from Gladiators, he crouched low over the puck before smashing it into the glass barriers to my right.

I didn't see it move ... one moment the puck was on the ice, the next there was a deafening bang.

"Okay," I replied, nodding my head. I decided then and there that my short and ignominious career as a goal-tender was coming to an end.

"A lot of people know about the game, but there hasn't been a team in the capital for 20 years," said Fuyarchuk. "We hope people will like what we have to offer. Ice hockey is one of the most exciting sports in the world. We're confident that when people see us they will want to come back for more."

I asked the assistant coach, Scott Rex, what skills are needed to be good player. "The most obvious skill is the ability to skate well." He called over Jonas Andersson, the Knight's Swedish forward, who had been speeding around the rink at an awesome lick.

Rex tossed him a puck and asked him to demonstrate how to control it. Andersson turned and skated away, flicking the puck back and forth with his stick before deftly controlling it with the blades of his skates.

"Most players have been skating since they were five years old," he said. "They skate at speeds of up to 30mph and can shoot the puck up to 120mph. Everyone plays for keeps; there's no acting in ice hockey, the scars are real."

The eight teams that make up the Sekonda Ice Hockey Superleague boast some of the best players and coaches to play in the UK. The standard of hockey will be higher than ever and that still means one thing - imported players.

Fifteen players on the Knights roster hail from Canada, with other Super- league teams having similar numbers of North American and Scandinavian players. How will this improve the standard of British ice hockey?

"I think the improved quality of play gives home-based players something to aspire to," says Fuyarchuk. "Kids watch a higher standard of ice hockey and learn from watching the best. In other sports, anybody can walk and run - but few can skate. In order to master hockey, you have to master the skill of ice-skating.

"It's just two thin blades on a sheet of ice; when you consider the speed and ruggedness of the game, there's a lot of appeal. There are so many elements in hockey - I may be a little biased, but I think that it's the best sport in the world."

If you'd like to try ice hockey for yourself, call the British Ice Hockey Association (01202 303946) for information on your nearest club

FIVE PLACES TO WATCH ICE HOCKEY

London Knights

London Arena, Limeharbour, London E14 (0171-536 2626)

Bracknell Bees

The John Nike Leisuresport Complex, John Nike Way, Bracknell, Berks (01344 860033)

BT Cardiff Devils

Wales National Ice Rink, Hayes Bridge Road, Cardiff (01222 397198)

Nottingham Panthers

The Ice Stadium, Lower Parliament Street, Nottingham (0115-948 4526)

Manchester Storm

The Manchester Evening News Arena, Victoria Station, Manchester (0161-950 5000)

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