Dancing Bear cubs take to the ice

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The Independent Online
Blood splattered across the ice. Simon Smith, his tongue split wide open, was hauled off to hospital. It was the sort of injury every parent dreads. His father, Brian, passed a sleepless night at his son's bedside, wondering how badly his seven-year-old would be scarred.

A simple indictment, you may feel, of a parent's foolishness at allowing children still at infant school to play one of the world's most violent games - and you would be hopelessly wrong. Simon's injury was the result of a fall while learning to ice-skate. Far from instilling a paranoia about frozen water, the incident led, in a convoluted way, to him becoming one of Britain's best young ice hockey players.

To the uninitiated, ice hockey is 12 Michelin men playing GBH, bushido on ice. But if that's so, how come thousands of parents are happy to let their offspring (some as young as three) play the game?

Ice hockey for teenies is flourishing. The sport is growing at 15 per cent a year, and most of those newcomers are youngsters. David Pickles, general secretary of the British Ice Hockey Association, says, "About three-quarters of the players are now under 16. This is a massive growth area."

The Medway Bears typify this growth. They are not particularly famous or successful, nor do they have a lucrative sponsorship deal. The Gillingham ice-rink owes its design to the Russian brutalist school, and it is inconveniently positioned on a business park outside town. But youngsters are flocking to join in. At Monday's practice session for the Under-12s, more than 40 turned up, with the youngest aged just four.

Brian Smith is the Bears' manager and owner. "This is an excellent game for youngsters," he said. "I think it is the speed that attracts them, plus the fact that they can get aggressive and it is allowed to a degree. But they soon learn there is always someone bigger and better than yourself."

Ice hockey may look like legalised mayhem, but discipline is a word that Smith uses constantly. "I have boys on the team who would be thugs and in constant trouble with the police if it wasn't for ice hockey. But it isn't an excuse for them to have a fight. That would be letting down the team." Any youngsters caught smoking are dropped from his sides, and when asked what benefits he thinks his sons have gained from ice hockey, he replies: "Self-discipline, character and being part of a team."

Simon, his tongue fully mended, is now 16 and has been net-minder for the Great Britain Under-16 squad for the past two years. Andrew, 11, learnt to skate when he was three and played in an under-12 competition aged just four. He has played for England Under-12s and is a regular member of the Bears Under-16 side. Despite his slight stature - he is only a few inches above 4ft - he fearlessly harries rivals who look twice his size. "He is a superb skater and has such vision," Smith says proudly. "You don't have to be a giant to play this game, but you need to skate well."

To this end, the Bears' cubs get help from Tim Chilcott, a pro skating coach whose seven-year-old son Luke plays ice hockey, too. Figure skating carries unfortunate images of Come Dancing costumes and scented rose-water aftershave. But it proves invaluable for injecting basic skills like stopping and turning. Chilcott says: "I teach the youngsters techniques. Once they have these right, they can concentrate on the game rather than thinking about how to stop. It's the same meat, with a different gravy."

Just watch ice hockey live, and it's easy to see why even under-16 teams attract a following of admiring girls. You quickly ignore the fact that at junior level, everything is done on a budget, and basic things like players' names on their backs have been made by mums rather than a pro outfitter (one lad's name, spelt out in capitals, looked more like NODDY than MOODY). That heavy padding makes the players look powerful enough to fell Rocky with a one-finger shove. When they take off helmets and carapaces, it's a shock to see normal, unremarkable teenagers emerge from the chrysalis. On the ice, it's a different story.

Even at kiddie level, the game is very, very fast. With the puck whizzing at up to 100mph like a fiercely flipped ball on an ice pin-table, and the players travelling at 20mph or more. It makes even the most frantic kick-and-run football team look like geriatrics. It's better value, too.

But what about that violent reputation? Well, at under-12 level, body- checking is not allowed at all, and is instantly penalised. "People think it is all rough and tough. It's a physical game, but it's more a game of skill and speed," Smith says. "I've been involved for six years, and none of my kids has had a serious injury."

Big rewards could be just round the corner for today's best young players. Sky now screens the sport twice a week, the much-vaunted Superleague looks like being up and running next year, and ice rinks love the sport for the income it generates.

With some games attracting 3,000 spectators at pounds 5 or more a time, plus spin-offs, you don't even have to be an imported star to earn money as a player - though it may be some while before British players achieve contracts like Wayne Gretsky's $25.5m (pounds 16.75m).