Ice Hockey: Shining time for a Knight

Alex Hayes discovers Rob Kenny is a tower of strength to London
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The Independent Online
ROB KENNY has had a busy life. Barely 31, he has been called an Ice Dog, a Solar Bear, a Matador and now a Knight. Kenny is neither a rapper nor a character from a martial arts movie - although such is the level of punishment he endures on a regular basis that he could easily perform his own stunts. Kenny is an ice hockey player.

Born and bred in the Bronx, New York, Kenny has spent the last 12 years playing in the International Hockey League (ice hockey's second division in the United States), moving from club to club without securing a permanent locker. His journey has taken him from Long Beach (the Ice Dogs) to Orlando (Solar Bears) and Miami (Matadors), before he joined the less flamboyantly named London Knights this season.

"I guess American clubs just come up with whatever names they can to attract as much attention as possible," said Kenny at the club's Docklands headquarters, as the team prepared for Saturday's Benson & Hedges Cup final. "The more ridiculous their name, the more likely a team are to get noticed."

While the club's nickname was not the key to Kenny's signature, London definitely was. "It's a great city, and I'm not sure I would have wanted to be in a smaller town which doesn't have as much to offer. During the summer, I even had calls from Germany, but I thought it would be easier for my wife and new-born baby boy [Ryan-Patrick] to settle in an English- speaking country."

Another big selling point for Kenny was the appointment, at the end of last season, of an old sparring partner, Chris McSorley, as coach. "We were local rivals for a while," he said. "I was with the Bears and Chris was coaching in Las Vegas, so we were facing each other 12 times a year. I've always liked his coaching methods.

"The schedule is shorter over here, too," Kenny continued. "Over the last three years, I was playing over 100 games per season, so it was becoming a bit of a grind. I was starting to pick up a few more injuries, too. They take longer to heal with age."

Kenny is hardly ready for the walking stick, but at 31 he has taken his fair share of body checks, slashes and charges. "Most players retire at about 35," he said, "but it depends on how healthy you stay. I'm really enjoying myself, but I realise I'll have to quit some time, so I'm just looking to hang on for as long as I can."

Kenny has achieved a lot more than mere survival since his arrival in London. He has settled well and his all-round contributions - not least as captain - have helped the Knights charge up the table. Their rise is all the more impressive for a club in only their second year. Founded in 1998, they are not only top of the Sekonda Superleague, they have also just surpassed the record number of successive league wins. The streak of 10 straight victories was brought to an end by the Sheffield Steelers a fortnight ago, but last week's success over the Cardiff Devils has put the Knights' crusade back on track.

Away from the League, the Knights have also proved themselves to be a good cup side. And, according to Kenny, the B & H Cup has been a welcome distraction from the day-to-day tedium of the championship. "Everybody is very excited. The club has come from nowhere, so getting to a cup final is an incredible achievement. At the start of the season, if someone had said the Knights would be in the B & H final, people would have just laughed. But we're there now and we want to win."

Their opponents in the final, at the Sheffield Arena, are the vastly experienced Manchester Storm, a team the Londoners have defeated twice in recent league matches. "We don't take them lightly, though," Kenny said. "They have a great team and had a few injuries when we last played them. But we're going real well and we want to give something back to our fans."

The Knights might not be playing to a packed Madison Square Garden every game, but they have more than doubled their season-ticket allocation in the last year, and the signs are that the sport is building itself a solid base. "I'm impressed with the game here," Kenny said. "It's not America, but the talent and organisation are excellent."

Ice hockey has suffered from the all-too-familiar problem of foreign players coming to ply their trade in Britain. Yet, much like football and rugby, Kenny believes that the sport needs to go through this adaptation period before it can attract and develop home-grown talent. "If we can raise the profile of the game and bring in the crowds, then that can only be positive.

"Hopefully, as time goes on, kids will become more interested in hockey. Who knows, one day they might say `I want to be the next Rob Kenny'."