Ice Hockey: The ice is right for war games: Chris Maume reports from Wembley Arena on the skills and spills of a whole new brawl game for the British

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The Independent Online
THE mild-mannered man from north London had brought his wife and children. Mother and daughters were rooting for the Montreal Canadiens; he and his sons were behind the Chicago Blackhawks. He turned to me and said: 'I like games of war.'

The Molson Challenge was his first ice hockey game, but he got what he wanted - dazzling skills punctuated by the satisfying crunch of player on perspex - despite the introduction of new rules by the National Hockey League to curb some of the excessive violence and make the game more flowing.

Even in the absence of the 'Grim Reaper', the Blackhawks' enforcer Stu Grimson, there was enough GBH to keep the crowd the riotous side of boisterous.

What really brought them to their feet was the brawl in the first period. Chicago's Chris Chelios punched Montreal's Guy Carbonneau behind one goal and instantly there was a writhing heap of bodies - locked limbs with occasional glimpses of referee.

That was the only brawl of the match, as it turned out, and Chelios made history as the first victim of the NHL's drive to turn wild things into mild things, ejected from the game for instigating a fight. The boys from Chicago behind me were disgusted: 'Back home we get to see four or five big fights every game.' Not any more, it seems.

Still, there were 22 penalties called, the Canadiens spending 16 man-minutes in the sin-bin, the Blackhawks 34. There is a splendid variety of offences to choose from - boarding, hooking, slashing, charging, kneeing, spearing, cross-checking, high- sticking and elbowing to name a few.

The overburdening desire to sell the product did intrude, occasionally. Every time the clock stopped the music started - the more infringements there were, the more it seemed like an ice disco interrupted by bouts of ice hockey. Each side had their theme song - Gary Glitter's 'Rock and roll' for the Blackhawks, 'We will rock you' for the Canadiens.

The threat of all the razzmatazz had given the British Ice Hockey Association a rather sniffy approach to the weekend, banning their players from fraternising and holding a full domestic programme.

The key to that lies in booze: Heineken are the sponsors in Britain, while this was very much Molson's occasion - the MC, Kid Jensen, took the opportunity in the rare quiet moments to ask: 'Can we have a round of applause for Molson?' And it worked - the kids in front of me asked 'What's Molson?' and demanded to try the product. Mum gave in, too.

If Heineken lost out off the ice, on it the battle was between the possession play of the Canadiens versus the Blackhawks' more explicitly physical push-and-skate. The Canadiens' sweeping patterns were a joy to watch, but then so were Chicago's thrusting charges.

With the score 4-4 at full-time a five-minute mini-game failed to produce a result. The shoot-out, in which the player takes the puck from the half-way line, was crowd-pleasing stuff. Jimmy Waite, Chicago's goaltender, was quite brilliant in the 2-1 victory to win the game, saving all four Montreal attempts.

With the series levelled - Montreal won 3-2 on Saturday - Waite did his stuff again in a second shoot-out, and the Blackhawks took the dollars 50,000 prize. Was it enough of a war for the mild north London man? 'Oh yes. But I still think rugby is the most ferocious game.'

(Photograph omitted)

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