Ice Hockey: Chicago raise the tempo

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The Independent Online
THE British season faces off this weekend in ebullient form with last season's traditional curtain-raiser, the Autumn Cup, now firmly nestled under the wing of Benson and Hedges for the next three seasons at pounds 70,000 a year. The Heineken League starts up again next month and there is also international action on three fronts.

In the past the Autumn Cup has been sponsored on an intermittent basis but the arrival of B and H shows that ice hockey can build on its current popularity: it is Britain's most popular indoor sport leaving basketball, bowls and indoor tennis tournaments in its wake.

But the real coup has nothing to with the domestic fare. For the first time since 1959 two National Hockey League teams from north America are visiting Britain. Nor are they from the lower reaches of the NHL Leagues. The Chicago Blackhawks made last season's Stanley Cup finals while the Montreal Canadiens have an unimpeachable pedigree and the two sides, complete with all their top names, play in the Molson Challenge at Wembley Arena next weekend over two games.

While the NHL visit is very like American football's annual visit to the nearby Wembley turf, next month's tournament in Blackburn sees genuine competitive action. The ice may be neutral but the crowd will be partisan as last season's British League champions, Durham Wasps, 'host' the European Cup quarter-final round. They will meet the champions of Norway, Romania and Spain in a round-robin tournament.

And in March the national side, who have left Pool C, meet Bulgaria, Denmark, China, Japan, Poland, Romania and hosts, the Netherlands, in Eindhoven in Pool B with a chance (admittedly slim) of a crack at a Winter Olympic place.

CLOSE-SEASON MOVEMENTS OF MAJOR BRITISH PLAYERS: David Graham (Nottingham to Milton Keynes); Ian and Stephen Cooper (Durham to Cardiff); Moray Hanson (Murrayfield to Fife); Bryan Mason (Slough to Milton Keynes); Stewart Parker (Nottingham to Bracknell); Les Millie and Neil Abel (Fife to Sheffield); Steve Moria (Cardiff to Blackburn); Peter Smith and Neil Browne (Cardiff to Swindon); Ross Lambert (Humberside to Bracknell); Kevin McNaught (Medway to Humberside); Dean Edmiston (Medway to Fife); Jeff Smith (Cardiff to Basingstoke); Jim Graves (Lee Valley to Nottingham); Kevin King (Peterborough to Bracknell); Lindsay Lovell (Murrayfield to Ayr); Scott Neil (Murrayfield to Sheffield).

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