Ice Hockey: When a good old punch-up is the icing on the cake

Greg Wood joins the grannies and toddlers on their feet as the referee stands back and battle is joined Brazil and Hungary went to war in a 1954
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The Independent Online
THERE ARE any number of evocative noises in the sporting world, from the sound of leather on willow to the ping of a tennis ball hitting the sweet spot. But there is nothing which sums up a sport quite like the thwack of bone on Plexiglass. It is sharp and brutal, the sound of a score being settled or a gauntlet thrown down, and at the Ice House in Cardiff they love nothing more.

Forget the sociologists who claim that violence on the pitch leads to more of the same in the stands. If it were true, the Ice House would have been a smouldering ruin after yesterday's match between Cardiff Devils and the Nottingham Panthers. Instead, the only damage was a thick carpet of cola cans and hot-dog wrappers, the remnants of a roaring afternoon for all the family. Two thousand fans spent the afternoon bouncing cheers and jeers off the rink's low roof, generating an atmosphere which most football teams would kill for.

In ice hockey it seems to be the spectacle which matters as much as the scoreline. The game allegedly has one of the most extensive rule books of any sport, but you could never tell. It tends to be played by large men with stubble and wonky noses, and an overwhelming desire to get to the puck, no matter who or what stands in their way. When they lock and rattle their sticks at the face-off, they are like rutting stags on skates.

And there is no doubting the identity of the Alpha Male in Cardiff's line-up. Ivan Matulik, forward and captain, seemed to spend almost as much time in the sin-bin as he did on the rink. His longest spell in the glass box came after a fight with Jarret Zukiwsky, which appeared to develop for no better reason than that it was already the second period, and we hadn't had a punch-up. Matulik and Zukiwsky traded blows for almost a minute, while two referees and their team-mates watched. Only when they had thumped each other to a standstill did the officials deem it safe to intervene.

For this, Matulik served two consecutive two-minute penalties in the sin-bin, while Zukiwsky left the ice to get his cuts seen to. Penalties, which in theory can be anything from two to 10 minutes, occur frequently, but you have to do something fairly serious to an opponent to get sent off for five minutes or more. The general rule seems to be that so long as he is still breathing, you only get two.

The crowd, meanwhile, loved every second of the scrap. From grannies to toddlers, they were out of their seats, cheering every blow which Matulik landed (there will be a lot of sore throats in Cardiff this morning). Yet as soon as peace had been restored, they went back to their hot dogs. It was, it seemed, just part of the fun, like the brief snatches of bouncy golden oldies which blasted from the sound system to fill every quiet moment.

The match, though, was no laughing matter. Though soon ahead, Cardiff were 2-1 down by the end of the second period. The touch, agility and speed of the players was breathtaking, especially in view of the mountain of padding strapped to body and limbs, and none played better than Nottingham's Jason Weaver. When he and Jamie Leach worked the puck out of the corner for Leach to score the second, it was like watching elephants playing chess.

Cardiff were level again early in the third and final period, but a lightning move with four minutes left allowed Graham Garden to score the winner the visitors deserved. The fans yelled the Devils forward, and there were some frantic scrambles in front of the net, but when it really mattered, even Matulik could not save them. Off the supporters trooped into the relative warmth of a Cardiff evening in mid-February. Thank You For Coming, it said on a sign at the exit. Have An Ice Day. Despite the result, they surely did.

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