Ice-hockey: A game reborn on the rink of good fortune

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American fat cats sniffing British ice hockey yesterday may have caught the scent of a killing. Big bucks can ride on the puck.

Ice hockey has always been on the cusp of better fortune, but there are compelling reasons, many of them expressed in dollars, to believe it is about to become a big spectator sport.

Three consortia in the United States think so. Each is considering forming a London team to compete in the Superleague, and their representatives hereyesterday would have noted a sport in rude good health on and off the rink. Two cup finals yesterday marked an improvement in playing standards which objective North American observers claim has been remarkable.

Only two years ago, the game in Britain was constantly slipping over. The impetus for improvement came 18 months ago when the sport was in effect privatised. Eight franchises in the new Superleague were sold. Owners spent heavily on better players and have been rewarded with loyal attendances.

None of the teams is yet in profit, but facilities at the Sheffield Arena reveal why a consumerist society may turn increasingly for entertainment toward its rinks.

Sheffield has become ice hockey's Wembley - though it cannot compete for unique ambience with the twin towers. Urinals refuse to flood. There is ample, cheap car parking. Decent pubs are nearby and edible food available at affordable prices. No spectator's view is obscured.

It will cost the Americans pounds 5m to build a stadium with a capacity to match Sheffield's 9,000 seats. But Manchester and Newcastle have found the right commercial arrangements, and plans are advanced for Nottingham, Belfast and Birmingham to acquire premises.

The operating balance sheet is more difficult to calculate. Spectators pay pounds 6-10 a game for about 36 home games a season. Players in the Superleague earn from pounds 250 a week for modestly accomplished UK players to pounds 1,000 a week for recruits with experience in the North American National Hockey League.

Telford Tigers and Slough Jets are a long way from NHL standards. Excluded from the Superleague, they were among four teams allowed to compete against Superleague opposition in the Benson & Hedges Cup.

They contested the Plate final yesterday, a warm-up for last night's final between Ayr Scottish Eagles and Cardiff Devils.

Slough won 4-3 through Derek Higson's second goal, struck from close range one minute and 17 seconds from the end. It was a dogged encounter which did more to flatter the respective netminders.

But minding standards have improved more than any other facet of the game, which is still characterised by outbursts of thrillingly malevolent violence. Improvements made during the past two seasons will have to encourage wider participation by British youngsters in a sport whose dangers were noted by an American research project.

In a survey of 9-to-15 year-olds, one in three was found to endure injury in the season.