Getting yourself seen on British television is a bit of a nightmare when you play certain sports. It’s a saturated environment and only a select few get the coverage they may deserve. Football, the two rugby codes, cricket and Formula One, they all can count on regular news reports and prime time slots on the telly. Others make themselves heard at certain times of the year – tennis at Wimbledon, athletics at home Diamond League meetings, cycling at the Tour de France.
Then you have sports like ice hockey. Sports that compete just as often, at just as high a level, but can’t find space to get their matches televised or get a few seconds on the news to broadcast their results. The top ten ice hockey teams in this country just can’t catch a break – and the majority of people in this country would struggle to name an Elite League side, let alone tell you who almost enjoyed a clean sweep of this season’s domestic trophies.
That honour went to the Nottingham Panthers. Playoff winners, Challenge Cup victors, league leaders and just edged into second place in Erhardt (Southern) Conference. Such dominance hasn’t translated well to the national side, who found themselves relegated from the World Championship Division I Group B having lost every single game in this year’s Group A. With Olympic qualification also over for another four years, hopes that an Elite League with a potential to grow in popularity would boost the Great Britain teams were unfounded.
It can’t be helped, really. Ice hockey, like basketball, American football and baseball, is borrowed from North America, where club and country alike are packed with talent. Throughout Europe, ice hockey joins the likes of handball and volleyball as highly competitive sports, something we just can’t brag here. We already have our own traditions in place; you don’t see continental countries worrying about their place in cricket’s world rankings.
It’s still a shame, though, that Britain and ice hockey just won’t click. For me, at least, the sport is a curiosity, not one I could see myself regularly following. A few months ago, I attended my first basketball game thanks to an initiative from the Sheffield Sharks and, interesting as it was and as glad as I am that I can say I went, I won’t be back in a hurry. Same goes for the Sheffield Steelers. As much as I’d like to soak up the atmosphere at a frenzied Motorpoint Arena, I can’t be convinced that becoming a fan of my local ice hockey team is a long-term hobby.
Not that the arena is likely to be heaving. Steelers owner Tony Smith wants to bring to a halt falling attendance numbers and has tasked new manager Doug Christiansen with maintaining an average of 5,500 fans throughout the 2013/14 season. Perhaps if the schedule wasn’t so hectic he’d have a chance. A ridiculous tally of 52 matches, played between ten teams (and that doesn’t include the play-offs or Challenge Cup knockout rounds) could be to blame for the crowd voting with their feet.
The audience aren’t the only ones upping sticks (no pun intended). Great Britain’s Craig Peacock has left Erhardt Conference winning side Belfast Giants to join Frederikshavn of Denmark. Peacock was vital for the Northern Irish side last season, picking up 16 goals and helping to amass 44 points, so it’s tough to see a decent British prospect leave the country. One can hope that playing in the Danish league full of experience and talent will only benefit the national side but I can’t think of many British teams that benefit from their players being scattered across the globe.
So, with Sweden thumping Switzerland 5-1 in this year’s World Championship, the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) weren’t going to hang around and have announced the dates for next year’s worlds. Great Britain’s men, who are now 22nd in the world rankings out of 48 professional sides, begin life in Group B with a trip to Lithuania, where they’ll now try for instant promotion against Poland, Netherlands, Romania, Croatia and the home side. GB’s women travel to Italy the fortnight beforehand.
Amongst all this doom and gloom, there was a brief glimmer of cheer when it was announced that the Dumfries Ice Bowl would the home of next year’s U20 and U18 World Championships, shining a welcome spotlight on British ice hockey and the future of home Olympic prospects.
Lack of success and a lack of media coverage can form a vicious cycle. Steelers owner Smith may be bitter about “Tanya Arnold banging away about rugby every night” but you need to give them something interesting to report. Then again, without public backing and new, British blood to beef up the Elite League ranks, ice hockey’s going to slip ever more out of everyone’s consciousness.
You never know – 2013/14 may just be ice hockey’s year to shine.