Ice Hockey: Canadiens on top: Hester Matthewman sees the wild men of the NHL collide at Wembley Arena

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The Independent Online
Expectations were high outside Wembley Arena before the Montreal Canadiens met the Chicago Blackhawks - the first National Hockey League game to be played in the UK for 33 years, writes Hester Matthewman. Bill, an expat Canadian, had dug out his red Canadiens cap and was looking forward to 'nostalgia - memories of the great days of the 60s and 70s. The Canadiens are the ice hockey equivalent of Manchester United, Arsenal and Liverpool all rolled into one. There is no more exciting spectator sport'.

Many fans were kitted out in team strips - red with blue and white stripes for the Canadiens and red with black stripes and a jaundiced-looking Indian logo for the Blackhawks. Ronnie, Thomas and William had never been to an ice hockey match before, but Ronnie had already acquired a Canadiens shirt (on sale for pounds 42). They had travelled nearly 400 miles from Glasgow - '399.6 miles, from the front door,' William said. What were they hoping to see? 'A real first class game. We wouldn't get this standard up in Glasgow,' said William. 'Blood and gore,' said Thomas. 'I'm looking for slaughter. If I don't get it I won't be coming tomorrow.'

The rules allow a lot of body contact - it's fine to barge and shove your opponent, hold him back, knock him down, get in his way or try to hook his legs out from under him. Stu Grimson of the Blackhawks, also known as the Grim Reaper, had to strip off his gloves to try and throw a punch before being sent off for unsportsmanlike behaviour.

This was quite tame, according to Mark from Chicago, in a Blackhawks T-shirt. 'I've seen people break bits of themselves, I've seen them stretchered off. Man, I've seen blood. This is only a bit of shoving.' Jean, also from Chicago, in cool mirror shades and bright lipstick, agreed. 'This is only a pre-season. They don't usually beat up on each other until it means something. You people don't know hockey]'

The final seconds of the game, as the Canadiens defended their 3-2 lead, were fast and furious. A particularly wild scrimmage sent the Canadiens goal flying across the ice. The audience yelled and chanted and whooped hysterically. 'Comparing this to British ice-hockey is like comparing Premier League football to Sunday morning football,' sighed one man wistfully. 'We just don't get this every week in Durham.'

MOLSON CHALLENGE (Wembley Arena) First game: Montreal Canadiens 3 (Brunet, Lebeau 2) Chicago Blackhawks 2 (Roenick, Sutter).

(Photograph omitted)

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