When Nottingham was named England's 'Home of Sport' in October 2015, the judges were doubtless swayed by facilities ranging from the National Ice Centre, National Watersports Centre and impressive Nottingham Tennis Centre, to a racecourse, greyhound track and one of the world's best-loved Test cricket venues at Trent Bridge. There's also a well-established rugby union club, a field hockey powerhouse and, of course, the world's oldest and third-oldest football teams, Notts County and Nottingham Forest. Under Brian Clough the latter believed in miracles, winning two European Cups, but the former don't even really dream these days.
County have been going for 154 years but have just a single trophy to show for it, and their last taste of top-flight football was in 1992. Moreover, the last vestiges of prestige were stripped away by the Munto Finance fiasco seven years ago, when a convicted fraudster negotiated the sale of the club for a quid to "Bahraini royalty" and Sven-Goran Eriksson and Sol Campbell were briefly – very briefly – tempted to Meadow Lane. Such is the Magpies' current plight that this season's average home gate in League Two, English football's fourth tier, is 5,201 (or a paltry 4,825 if you exclude a local derby with Mansfield).
Meanwhile, a 15-minute walk past the UK's sole surviving Hooters and into town, there is an ice hockey team, Nottingham Panthers, that this season have drawn an average crowd of 5,717 to their 7,500-capacity home, the National Ice Centre (NIC). Is that solely about identifying with success? The Panthers have recently won five Challenge Cups in a row (2010–2014) as well as three Playoff Championships (2011–2013), two of British ice hockey's majors (the third, the Championship title, has only been won twice in the club's 70-year existence).
Certainly, the city's affinity with winter sports was boosted in 1984 by two Nottinghamshire bobbies winning pairs figure-skating gold in Sarajevo, and while Torvill and Dean's success was a major factor behind the construction of the NIC in 2000, that still doesn't explain how a team playing an 'alien' sport could put 500 more bums on seats than the world's oldest football club. Or even how the sport could gain any foothold in the country.
Great Britain might currently be languishing 24th out of 47 nations in the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) rankings. But, astonishingly, we are one of only six countries – along with Canada, USSR, USA, Sweden and Czech Republic – ever to win Olympic ice hockey gold, triumphing at Garmisch in front of Hitler in 1936, having scooped a bronze at the inaugural Games in Chamonix 12 years earlier.
By this stage separate domestic leagues had been established in both England and Scotland, which, after the intercession of World War II, amalgamated in 1954, forming the British National League. With seven of the original 12 sides having left by the end of the first season, the signs weren't good and the BNL ran for just six years, Panthers winning the title in 1956 (until 2013, their last).
There was no British competition between 1960 and 1980: clubs that had survived played in various regional leagues, until the British Hockey League was founded. Nottingham Panthers pulled in a capacity 2,800 crowd in the third week and sold out every game thereafter. The BHL ran until 1996 and the establishment of the Super League, which was supported by Sky Sports until its final year saw the 18 initial teams dwindle to five by the season's end. It was replaced in 2003 by the Elite League (EIHL), with an administratively separate and semi-professional English Premier League (EPIHL) also operating.
Currently, there are two five-team EIHL conferences – approximately, the Haves and Have-Nots of British ice hockey. Nottingham's conference comprises the only other existing clubs to have won the league titles: Sheffield Steelers (eight-time winners), Cardiff Devils (five), Belfast Giants (four) and Coventry Blaze (four). These are also five of the six best-supported teams, with only Braehead Clan – founded in 2010 and playing out of a shopping centre near Glasgow – also muscling in.
Braehead share the same owner as Panthers – no conflict of interest, apparently – and are essentially a resuscitation of Ayr Scottish Eagles who folded in 2003. It is not an uncommon tale. Last year Hull Stingrays went bump, replaced in the league by Manchester Storm, a team that once sold out a 17,000-seater venue (before folding and rebranding as Manchester Phoenix) now playing under the old name to 1,260 in an ice rink in Altrincham.
The list of trophy winners reveals a bewildering number of defunct clubs. Murrayfield Racers, precursors of Edinburgh Capitals, won 12 major trophies, more than anyone save Sheffield and Nottingham, while Durham Wasps won more league titles than all bar Sheffield. There aren't many cities that haven't dabbled at one time or another. This makes Panthers' longevity and support all the more remarkable, particularly when they have won fewer league titles than other teams in their conference.
The conference system – each team playing opponents in their division eight times, four each against the rest – has certainly helped stoke rivalries, and none is fiercer than Panthers' with Sheffield. Not only are the Steelers the most successful club in British ice hockey history – no small feat considering they were founded in 1991 – they also have the biggest venue, the 8,500-seater Sheffield Arena.
Rivalry is the lifeblood of all sports, and the frequency of the derbies feeds into the fan culture, yet there is no off-ice trouble among supporters. Jono Bullard, who for 15 years has run The Cat's Whiskers podcast (previously a print fanzine, blog, and YouTube channel) describes a typical Playoff Championship Finals weekend, when four semi-finalists from the top eight finishers in the EIHL descend on Nottingham in April: "Fans come from all over the country and mix together well. The pubs are absolutely full and there's never a problem." Moreover, says Bullard, "There's very little swearing in the stands and it's even marketed as a family sport."
The family image isn't necessarily at odds with perceptions of ice hockey as a highly physical and – on the ice – not infrequently violent sport. Sally Utton, Panthers columnist for Nottingham cultural magazine LeftLion, describes her indoctrination: "I went with husband and children, aged around six and nine at the time. Before the first puck had even been dropped in that first game, two players in the middle had dropped their gloves and started a fight. I was completely shocked, covered the kids' eyes and wondered what on earth I'd brought them to! However, that's not normal – not from the first face-off anyway – and once the game got going I was in total awe of the speed, pace, excitement and crowd enthusiasm. But it's not for the feint-hearted or oversensitive."
For those so inclined, there's a visceral thrill at the physicality and excitement at the near-inevitability of a ruckus (after all, this is a sport with semi-official 'enforcers', defencemen whose job is to protect the slightly daintier forwards), with the frequency of matches hothousing the grudges. Yet despite this being a sport of spearing, slashing, boarding, butt-ending, head-butting and hooking – with an ominous-sounding Department of Player Safety ruling on serious foul play – Bullard says the Slapshot image is overplayed. "It's diminishing year on year. Stories of concussions, and 'fighter' players taking their own lives, have brought it into focus. You don't really get 'bench clearances' and games taking three-and-a-half hours any more."
The fan culture and identification with the teams is all the more remarkable given the high turnover in playing rosters. Currently, Elite League teams are permitted 13 foreign imports – usually from North America (players not good enough for the NHL) or Europe – augmented by as many British players as desired. Paying for the imports isn't always that straightforward, and the Super League's failure was largely due to too many teams overextending themselves financially.
So how does the sport expand, reaching out beyond the traditional heartlands to pull in lay sports fans, or even to improving the infrastructure so that more clubs can join the Elite League?
The lack of promotion and relegation between EIHL and EPIHL, and the vastly different standards, is certainly a major obstacle. However, second-tier hockey towns like Telford, Milton Keynes (about whom a step up has been rumoured), Bracknell, Basingstoke and Guildford, without traditions in major team sports, could in theory cultivate a local fanbase. And then there's London, currently without an Elite League team although once home to Wembley Lions, Harringay Racers, and London Knights.
Bullard believes the principal barrier to growth is the lack of joined-up administration, with five bodies currently running ice hockey in the UK: the aforementioned EIHL and EPIHL; the English and Scottish Ice Hockey Associations, responsible for junior development; and Ice Hockey UK (IHUK), which runs the national teams, juniors and seniors included. "There's massive potential for growth but they don't really talk to each other. There are too many factions and no top-down development".
He believes changing the culture from the bottom up comes down to youth development, which means showing youngsters who take an interest in ice hockey that it's a viable career option. "The UK has 45 rinks and has never produced a player that's played in the NHL. Denmark has 12 rinks and has produced six or seven. Slovenia has five ice rinks and has produced a similar number." As it is, British players receive no fee for representing their country, although, as Bullard says, "good British players are a rare commodity and according to the law of supply and demand can bump up wages," which he estimates at around £600 net per week. "Not a fortune, but not a bad living."
Before they can make it to the rarefied air of the NHL, however, players have to get ice time in EIHL, and the quantity-versus-quality of imports is a highly sensitive debate, one very familiar from English football. Should there be a less-is-more approach – capping it at, say, six and aiming for better quality and more opportunities for British players – or will that diminish the overall product? Does British ice hockey have the economics to pull in better imports? It's a model for the rapid expansion of an alien sport that's been adopted by football in China and the USA, although the high turnover of imports – of Panthers' 13 from the 2014-15 campaign, only two returned this season – cannot help with supporter-club identification.
Media coverage is also not what it might be, with some subscription-only, 'preaching-to-the-converted' live matches on Premier Sports, augmented by clubs' social media channels and generally strong local press coverage. But there are few column inches in the nationals. Chris Ellis, wearing two caps as both Media Manager for IHUK and part of the EIHL media department, believes that "to get national coverage it's going to be through Great Britain. You're never going to get a one-page article in The Telegraph about the Elite League. And to get that national coverage, GB will probably need to qualify for the Olympics, which they haven't done for 2018..."
Whether or not this niche sport does spread its wings, you sense the little pockets of devotion it has nurtured won't be going anywhere. Nottingham Panthers' swanky arena, recent success, tradition, city centre venue and comparatively cheap ticket prices – "adult and child was £22 for three hours entertainment, and the sight lines are all good" – should continue to make it an attractive family day out. Compared with what's on offer at Meadow Lane, at least.
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