Ice Hockey: Society's return to the ice age

Guy Hodgson sees the rebirth of a sport as the Nottingham Panthers overcome Ayr Scottish Eagles in the Benson and Hedges Cup final at the Sheffield Arena
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The Independent Online
It is difficult to reconcile the past with the present at the best of times. With ice hockey it is well nigh impossible. In the recesses of the memory are black and white television images of Wembley Lions v Brighton Tigers; a visit to the sport now is genuinely shocking.

In the 60s and 70s, the sport was dying. To say it is in rude health now would be to under-state the case. Rock music, flashing lights and, most of all, filled stands are testament to the vibrancy of the recovery point. OK, there is barely a gimmick the game will not cling to but rather than symptoms of decline, they are by-products of success. It is a different age and a different audience.

Nottingham Panthers beat Ayr Scottish Eagles 5-3 on Saturday night to become the first club to win the Benson & Hedges Cup twice, but apart from that rather obvious fact, the greatest impression was of confidence. This is a game on the up and the people within it know it.

"Ice hockey is here big time," Mike Blaisdell, Nottingham's Canadian coach, said, "and it's here to stay. It has been revived to a level where it will only grow again."

A crowd of 8,500 in Sheffield Arena was testament to that and it is not difficult to understand why ice hockey's national centre will be based in the city thanks to Lottery funding. But elsewhere there is evidence of a swing to the sport: 17,000 crowds to watch Manchester Storm, Nottingham sold out for every match and hoping to build a new venue.

Sport sociologists will look at this in future years and link the rising tide of support to the increasing difficulty of watching live football. If cost and seat availability mean Manchester United are becoming out of reach of the masses, then Manchester Storm are a pretty good substitute.

"We know football is a great sport," Blaisdell said, "a British tradition. But tell me the last ice hockey game that ended 0-0?" Or when it became too expensive for a family to watch. The price of tickets for ice hockey's premier final were pounds 10 for adults and pounds 8 for children. Economics are driving the move towards the sport.

Much of what happens at an ice hockey match would make a sports purist cringe. "Let the ice war begin," boomed over a loudspeaker in a Darth Vader voice and that is just the start of the hard corn onslaught to the senses. Every time a game stops, and that is often, music blares out and Beethoven it is not. We are talking time travel to an adolescent's record collection circa 1974 and the ears are blasted by Gary Glitter, T-Rex and Abba.

You would expect today's teenagers to leave in disgust and the mass stirring at the first of these blasts from a glamrock past suggests they might. The impression was wrong. The movement was the start of choreographed hand-jiving that continued throughout the night.

On the ice, the motion was no less frantic, but to use the analogy of the loudspeaker, the war was over almost as it began. The Panthers scored after 29 seconds and were 2-0 up within 12 minutes, thanks to goals from Derek Laxdal and Mike Bishop. And if that suggested the Panthers had one claw on the Cup, then Trevor Robins put the issue beyond doubt.

Ayr swirled round the Nottingham net, but the minder repulsed them with a sequence of saves so that their threat never manifested itself into levelling the score.

The Eagles, who were formed only five months ago, were behind and never really looked likely to catch up and even a potential controversy over whether Nottingham's fourth goal was kicked in by Greg Hadden dissolved in the inevitability of it all. "I can't change it now," Colum Cavilla, Ayr's minder, said with grace. "The refs can't see everything."

Nottingham meanwhile, could reflect on a success that was in stark contrast to the seven successive League defeats they had carried into Sheffield. "I guess we were due a win," Blaisdell said.

As indeed was the game as a whole after the 60s and 70s in which it resembled a barely moving corpse. The off-ice periphery might be banal but, judging from the audience's reaction, it works. "They call ice hockey a minority sport," Blaisdell said. "Never." After Saturday, it is becoming increasingly difficult to disagree.