Kovacs steers 'uncontrollable' Steelers to title

Dave Hadfield examines the peculiar appeal of ice hockey, a sport where violence may warrant an action replay
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The Independent Online
It was a big night at the end of a big season for British ice hockey as the Sheffield Steelers recovered from an early deficit to win the Super League Championship by beating Nottingham Panthers 3-1.

The introduction of an elite eight-team competition this year has been generally hailed as a success, with average attendances high enough to allow the claim that it now runs third behind the FA Premiership and rugby league's Super League - two others which have taken the same route.

A crowd of 14,000 at the magnificent Nynex Arena in Manchester underlined the broadening appeal of the game at its top level. It has strengths in common with rugby league which, assuming football will remain out on its own at the head of the field, it can aspire to overhaul, in the high proportion of women and children at Saturday night's final, as well as the numbers of fans of clubs not involved.

There are problems, too, not least the over-familiarity created by a division of eight clubs. This was the 13th time these two sides had met this season and they must inevitably get slightly sick of each other.

There is also - and to an even greater extent than its rival sports - a reliance on overseas imports. It would often be possible to organise a "Spot the non-Canadian" contest on the ice, and they are virtually all players on their way down from North America's National Hockey League. Sheffield specialise in particularly fierce, bearded Canadians, who look as though they should be out trapping beaver and rasslin' bears. One of them, Frank Kovacs, scored a goal and set one up to overturn Nottingham's early lead.

Another, Corey Beaulieu, distinguished himself by commuting between ice and sin-bin with greater regularity than anyone. He could have established some sort of record when, crossing the ice from the cooler to the team bench after serving one penalty, he managed to flatten an opponent en route. He got away with that one, but was soon back in the bin after another altercation.

The Steelers have a rugged reputation, the league's referee-in-chief, Nico Toeman, having described them in mid-season as "absolutely dreadful" and "completely uncontrollable".

Not that violence is perceived as a problem in ice hockey. That is to say that there is plenty of violence, but it is not a problem. What would be regarded as indiscipline in other sports is part of the discipline of this one and, with its giant screen action replays of every punch landed, no game is as proud of its fights. Needless to say, the families love it.

Fittingly, it was bravery as well as skill that finally won the final for Sheffield. Their goaltender Piero Greco - an Italian among the Canadians - protected their lead in the final period with some stunning saves.

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