Cracks in the ice show

Stephen Brenkley highlights a shadow over the ice hockey cup final this week
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It was a scintillating match. When it was all over, the crowd, a cauldron of noise throughout, roared deliriously for 20 minutes. Had it been a concert performance instead of a sporting contest they would still be demanding encores.

As the winning players paraded themselves once more before the fans, waving and blowing kisses, their coach was less excitable. "Not bad," said Mike Blaisdell, "for a two-bob team. That's all we've spent, you know." Blaisdell's cautious words in the immediate aftermath of Nottingham Panthers' unexpected victory in the Benson and Hedges Cup semi-finals were also a salutary indicator of the potential divisions in the swish new era of Super League ice hockey.

Panthers had beaten Sheffield Steelers, arch rivals from up the road and the rich new kids on the rink. While the Steelers and a few others have immediately embraced Super League by the simple and expensive (and perhaps familiar from a certain super league in another sport) expedient of importing crack foreigners, Panthers have spent little and still use local talent.

The final, to be played on Saturday - the first trophy to be decided since the sport became "Super" - is therefore all the more astonishing because the other side in it are the Ayr Scottish Steelers. If it was possible to infer a little from what Blaisdell said, the Ayr coach Jim Lynch was much more direct.

Nobody doubts that the quality of ice hockey in Britain has been transformed this season. The game is suddenly awash with Canadians - only some 25 per cent of Super League players are British - who are fitter, faster, stronger and move on an ice rink with a swaggering assurance beyond most people on dry land. It is some spectacle.

But Lynch said: "I worry that too many teams are overpaying their players and the game can't really support it. I hope Super League succeeds but I don't think a lot of teams have done their homework. It might all have happened too quickly. Next season it's also got to be a possibility that the Department of Employment will clamp down on work permits, and the effect could be dramatic on the Canadian influence. Most of the British players aren't up to it and I've been disappointed that so many don't appear to have wanted to rise to the challenge."

Lynch, self-confessed pessimist that he is, has still been heartened by the games he has witnessed. Having assembled his team of imports at virtually cut price (most of the Canadians agreed to join when he managed to persuade the German Jiri Lala to enlist), he was expecting minimal success. "I've been over here 16 years and the difference in standards between this year and last is 100 per cent. You never like losing but I've come off the rink sometimes even when that's happened and thought, `Wow, what a game'. But I thought it would be very hard in Ayr with a new team. We hadn't spent the money like some of the others such as Cardiff, Sheffield and Manchester, and we used the Benson and Hedges as a way of getting the right blend, of letting the players get to know each other, and we just kept winning."

Whether Ayr can keep winning all the way must be open to considerable doubt. This is Nottingham's third successive final - won one, lost one - and although their recent league form has been uneven, the semi-final victory over Steelers will have proved to them that they can beat any team in the league.

Their combination of local and imported talent is duplicated nowhere else. The policy is embodied in players like Simon Hunt, aged 23, a Great Britain international who was born in Nottingham and, at 5ft 7in the little big man of ice hockey. Blaisdell said there were lots of things missing in the left-wing's game, but added tellingly: "He is one of the few British kids who can put the puck in the net, and you can't teach someone to do that." Hunt is one of four Panthers to have come through the club's junior ranks. "The groundwork is here," Blaisdell said. "We have nurtured our youth and this will be the next big club in Britain. A bigger arena will make all the difference." Plans have been drawn.

Television coverage has provided a fillip. Sky have taken on the sport in their diligent way, although some maintain that they are preaching only to the converted. It has been suggested that a terrestrial television deal, at least initially, would have helped to capture new fans. But two of Panthers' British players predict prosperity.

"We're the second sports team in Nottingham," said the defender Graham Waghorn. "There's Forest ahead of us but we're bigger than Notts County and the cricket." His team-mate Ashley Tait, who, if the sport ever took off, looks to have the credentials to be its Ryan Giggs, was equally breezy: "Super League is tough but it's got to have been the best thing to happen to ice hockey. In Nottingham we're part of the community."

That alone should give them an edge over a less well- ensconced Ayr side, for whom the 37-year-old forward Lala is perhaps the best hope of taking the cup further north. Whatever, with Nottingham and their fans involved, the match has the potential to be a classic.