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Ice hockey is mental.
I mean, let’s take for granted how good these guys are at regular hockey, but to play it on ice while whizzing around on blades at the speed of a car? That’s pucking mental.
You won’t be surprised to learn that as a kid growing up in England, I didn’t play ice hockey. The main problem was we didn’t have any ice. It was mostly fine drizzles or light frosts in a temperate climate not conducive to freezing bodies of water. But my interest in the game was stirred by the highly addictive NHL videogame series of the 1990s.
For the first time, here was an American sport with words that I recognized (goal, crossbar, penalty). And the objective was simple: get the puck in the goal. There were technicalities I didn’t understand (power plays, icings, face-offs), but for the most part I skated over these and just tried to either win or get my players into a good old-fashioned punch-up.
Interestingly, at least for a country where you can’t simply go outside and play on a whim, Britain has enjoyed a long and relatively fruitful relationship with ice hockey.
The golden era was undoubtedly the 1930s, which not only saw the founding of a professional league in the U.K., but rather remarkably bore witness to Team GB seeing off the likes of Canada and the U.S. to be crowned World Champions at the 1936 Winter Olympics in Germany.
Sounds a bit fishy, doesn’t it?
It was. Almost all Britain’s players were either Canadian or British-born expats whose families had immigrated to Canada when they were kids. Cheating really, but Rule Britannia and all that.
Today, professional ice hockey exists in Britain as the Elite Ice Hockey League and is made up of 10 teams from England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, making it the only professional sports league in the U.K. to boast representation from all four Home Nations. According to the league’s website, it is the third largest winter spectator sport in the U.K. after soccer and rugby union, averaging attendances of around a couple of thousand per game. Pretty impressive figures—until you consider that that’s around the same amount of people who attend the Dunton Wayletts car boot sale in Essex each Sunday.
A few weeks ago a friend of mine had a spare ticket to a Rangers game at Madison Square Garden and asked if I’d like to tag along. I’d never been to an ice hockey game before and, curious, I accepted. I’m glad I did because it was without doubt the most exciting live sports experience I’ve had in America. The atmosphere was comparable to that of a soccer game in Britain: intense and highly charged. Frightening ice hockey jargon like “slashing,” “sin bin,” and “enforcer” floated around me as I sucked on an overpriced Bud Light. Fans cursed like construction workers as fights broke out down on the ice. But best of all, I could follow the pattern of play without having to constantly ask stupid questions like: “How many points do you get for that?” and “Why have they stopped again?”
There was only one problem.
I couldn’t see the puck (in my defense it does zip around the ice at around 100 mph).
When I apologetically confessed this to my friend I was encouraged to discover that this wasn’t just me being an ignorant Brit. On the contrary, it seemed a lot of people felt this way, even … dun-dun-dun … Americans.
So much so, in fact, that in 1996 Fox Sports debuted the FoxTrax: a hockey puck that glowed blue so that television viewers could follow it on the ice. The FoxTrax, or “glow puck” as it was known by fans, was an expensive technology that ultimately proved unpopular with television audiences (it was held in particular disdain by hockey purists who found it downright insulting). The failure of FoxTrax marked the beginning of a twelve-year slump in television ratings for the NHL, which eventually ended in 2008 with the launch of the Winter Classic games. Still, “A” for effort, Fox. I thought it was a splendid idea.
Of the “Big Four” American sports, ice hockey is without doubt the one I relate to the most, and I’m sure that had I grown up in the U.S. it would have been my game. Perhaps interest in the U.K. could be rekindled if Team GB once again became ice hockey champions of the world, but short of re-invading Canada for their best players, that doesn’t seem likely to happen any time soon.
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