Steelers' rave music

Mike Rowbottom hears about the generation gap at ice hockey's final
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The Independent Online
Saturday night's experience for a British record ice hockey crowd of 10,136 at the Sheffield Arena was . . .

Boom, Boom, Shake The Room,

Say Boom, Boom, Shake the Room.

. . . was a thing of disjointed beauty, a Benson & Hedges Cup final between two sides whose rivalry matches that of, say, Manchester United and Liverpool, but is crucially devoid of . . .

Simply The Best, Better Than All The

Rest, Better Than Anyone . . .

. . . devoid of the kind of viciousness which has never been purged from the National Game. When some followers of the Nottingham Panthers left a couple of minutes before the hooter signalled their 5-2 defeat by the home side, the Sheffield Steelers fans stood up and waved them a manic "Goodbye". Cutting, eh? And the instant . . .

Uh Oh, We're In Trouble, Someone

Came Along And Burst Our Bubble

The instant insertion of anthemic music into any pause in the game's action created an atmosphere that was somewhere between a rock concert and a mad party game. In common with that other North American import, basketball, ice hockey is selling itself to a new generation of followers in Britain as more than simply a sport.

In this respect Sheffield Steelers, set up four years ago with the backing of a local millionaire, George Dodds, have pointed the way to the future. While other teams - including the relatively venerable Panthers, set up in their present form in 1980 - have followed the National Hockey League example of playing organ music in the breaks, the Steelers have targeted the teen audience with sing-a-long-a-sound-bites - and others are following their lead.

During the breaks in Saturday's action the Sky TV cameras were able to swing round to scenes that were a warm-up man's dream. Young girls wearing Steelers replica shirts swayed to the music. Family groups responded en masse to each familiar burst of song, entering into a semi-ironic ritual of clapping or hand jiving. The most popular hand jive in the Steelers fans' repertoire was a kind of reverse doggy-paddle, with optional nodding- dog movements. God, these people were having fun. So where was the catch?

Whisper it, but not all in ice hockey are enamoured of the razzmatazz at the House of Steel. "The music here is too loud," said Maxine Taylor, a Nottingham Panthers supporter for 15 years. "I don't know how players can concentrate on the game. I was sitting with a group of Steelers fans and I couldn't hear myself think."

She and the group of friends she had travelled up with from Nottingham also voiced the twin criticisms which have been made of Steelers since they started up, namely that they have simply bought success in the manner of Blackburn Rovers - with Dodds as the Jack Walker figure - and that they have not used enough local players.

Alex Dampier, the Steelers coach, shrugged off the charges. "When a new franchise starts up, you have to establish it with players from places like Canada and Scotland," he said. "Nottingham did the same thing. There isn't an option."

The increased ease of movement across borders in Europe has meant that British teams are using more foreign players, even if many of them can claim dual nationality through British relations. Consequently, openings for local players have diminished.

"It's not nice, but it's the reality of what's happening," Dampier said. He nevertheless believes it is important to have a local representation in the team because of the way it can stimulate support.

Steelers work at maintaining a fan base that provides average gates of 8,000 by running a youth development scheme which at present involves 400 youngsters. They also send players into the community to develop roller skate street hockey.

Paul Shaw and John Riley, two 16-year-olds who have become regular street hockey players, have both invested pounds 120 in a Steelers season ticket. "I watch football, but the atmosphere is better at ice hockey," Paul said. "Sometimes at football matches you have to keep your head down," added John.

Eric King, watching the game with his wife Wendy and their son Cameron, not quite two, also emphasised the general civility of ice hockey followers, a quality that stands in bewildering contrast to the violent activity that takes place inside the perspex-ringed rink itself. "I would never take my family to football," he said. "There is no trouble here."

And then he was off on a paean of praise. "They are always, always such a good team. They work as a unit. They are brilliant." He was talking about the opposition. For ice hockey, such sentiments really are music to the ears.