Ringing changes at the rinkside

Ice hockey
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The Independent Online
The domestic season faces off with a full Benson and Hedges Cup programme today but the familiarity of the traditional cup competition, guaranteed for another three seasons, will be shattered once the league gets underway next month.

Gone is the 10-team Premier Division and 14-team First Division. In their place is the Ice Hockey Superleague, consisting of eight elite teams, the Premier Ice Hockey League, eight strong and primarily based in the south and Midlands, and the Northern Premier League, seven strong, encompassing the north, Scotland and Belfast's Castlereagh.

The Superleague aims to promote high-quality sport. Entry has been strictly controlled - criteria including a financial bond, stadium seating capacity of 5,000 within two years, television facilities and increased safety provisions.

There will be no automatic promotion to the new Superleague nor play- offs between the bottom and top clubs from the leagues. Instead, applicants will have to satisfy Superleague criteria. Guildford did not feel they would be ready this season but are confident of admission next year while there are rumours of interest from Birmingham's NEC and a London venue.

The Superleague will avoid geographical clashes by emulating American sports and awarding franchises that, while maintaining traditional rivalries such as Sheffield and Nottingham, do not split the potential fan base.

The Bosman ruling has seen an influx of European talent with no limit on the number of imports teams can play.

Manchester Storm, will be the British representative in a newly formed European League of four-team leagues with the winners of the round-robin home-and-away games progressing into further competition. Sheffield Steelers, last year's league winners, are in the European Cup.

Defenders of the changes say that if British ice hockey is to survive into the next century, it has to recognise that the sport must be profit- led rather than running at a loss - previous seasons have seen clubs collapse at worst and financially struggle at best - and that fans demand brand- new facilities.

Detractors argue that clubs that kept the sport alive in the Sixties, such as Murrayfield and Whitley, have been cast aside and will now struggle to attract crowds, sponsors and decent players. They also argue that the influx of foreign imports will diminish the chances for British players to progress and limit Britain's chances of Olympic and world championship level.

If audiences do not come, sponsors are not attracted and the hoped-for media coverage does not boost awareness of the sport, those who consider the changes as a last desperate throw of the dice might be proved right. On the other hand a year of teething troubles may be the only price to pay before Britain's most popular indoor spectator sport gains not just a new and wider audience but a secure future that has looked in doubt in recent years.

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