This past weekend, the Sheffield Steelers hosted the Hull Stingrays at the Motorpoint Arena in Sheffield, England. More to the point, I attended my first ever hockey game outside of North America. The Steelers are on pace to win the EIHL regular season title, which carries a lot more weight amongst fans in the UK than regular season titles do in North America. The regular season champion last year, the Coventry Blaze, were still considered the national champions even after the Belfast Giants won the playoff rounds, and represented Great Britain in this year's IIHF Continental Cup tournament as a result.
Hull, meanwhile, is quite a bit further down the table, but still playing important games in order to secure a playoff spot. Hull is actually currently owned by the Coventry Blaze, after the previous owners decided to leave the team in August. The current ownership situation is not ideal, but it keeps the team in operation for the season.
First some lessons on the Elite Ice Hockey League: it's best players are of low level AHL or high level ECHL quality, and there are a couple of former NHL cup of coffee types in the league. For example, Sheffield has Ben Simon as a player-coach, he of 81 games of NHL experience with the expansion era Atlanta Thrashers and Columbus Blue Jackets. Former Florida Panther Rob Globke also plays here, while Sylvain Cloutier, brother of former NHL goaltender Dan Cloutier who played 7 games for the Blackhawks in the late 1990s, skates for Hull. Another brother of a NHLer, Rod Sarich, plays for Sheffield and made a deciding play in this game.
Teams don't ice full rosters, and roster size can play a role in games. Sheffield is fortunate to have a full three lines and three defence pairs on most nights, other teams aren't quite so lucky. That being said, judging by the arena in Sheffield, they draw fairly well, comparable to other European leagues and the Canadian juniors. There was no announced attendance on the scoresheet, but I would've estimated in the three to four thousand range. They charge sixteen Brithish Pounds per ticket in Sheffield, and try and get local companies to sponsor everything from uniform space to goals, penalties, player accomplishments, periods, and other game situations. With competition for North American import players from leagues in Austria, Germany, Switzerland, Finland and Italy, the EIHL does kind of operate from game to game and season to season.
The rules of the game are very North American: they play touch icing, fighting is tolerated and teams get two points for a win. There is no trapezoid, thankfully, but other than that UK hockey operates seperate to their more immediate neighbours on the European continent. They don't take breaks for international play, which is probably a mistake for the national team development, as most Great Britain players play in the EIHL. Sheffield's goaltender, Ervins Mustukovs, was recently called up to play for the Latvian national team during the February international break and had to miss some league time as a result. It's not uncommon for a couple of European import players to play on EIHL teams, but they are greatly outnumbered by the North American and British players.
I've never seen an ECHL game live, but I imagine the pace and the quality is similar. The difference might be that the ECHL is improving in quality with every year as a result of no NHL expansion for eleven years and the gains made in that time frame by Canadian and American players, plus its emergence as the prime AA feeder league for the NHL. I suspect the same can't be said of the EIHL, which operates with much less certainty and in a bit of a bubble from both the international hockey community and the British sporting community as well.
The area around the Motorpoint Arena is more like an American development than a British one: a large strip mall complex of chain restaurants and a movie theater are across the street, and according to my city planner hosts, the development has driven out business from the city centre. Its more convenient to drive to the arena than it is to take the train or bus, so most people pack into their vehicles and pay a small parking fee at the arena for the game. Outside the rink, however, there was a supporting band playing well before game time, while we went across the road to get a drink at the Planet Hollywood pre-game.
We met up with two Sheffield fans wearing Chicago Blackhawks jerseys who had gotten us the tickets. Both are Brits, but are big enough fans of Chicago sports teams to make annual trips to the Windy City and watch the Blackhawks, Bears, Cubs and Bulls. They take in Steelers games regularly, and even Steeldogs games, the EPIHL team in Great Britain's second league that plays in a smaller arena down the road, and features Great Britain's U20 star goaltender Ben Bowns. Jerseys from NHL teams weren't uncommon at the Motorpoint arena, though most word a Steelers jersey of some variation. Jerseys were selling for seventy-five pounds at the arena, so after conversion they're a minor deal in comparison to NHL and junior hockey jerseys in Canada, but comparable.
The arena itself was opened in 1991, so it looks fairly modern but by hockey standards seems a bit ancient. The scoreboard looks like it was bought second hand when the arena opened, and there was no video replay provided. The in game music was pretty much the same as what you'd get in the United States, and they had what I assume were female booster club members dancing on the concourse level to try and keep the atmosphere lively.
Every team has their rituals, and the Steelers fans are no different. I didn't quite get the goal celebration ritual, which had the fans clap in unison to the goal song blasting on the PA, with the fans saying "woosh" when prompted, and doing a hand gesture to accompany it. I didn't really ask about it, but the locals seemed to have fully embraced it.
The game was dominated early by Sheffield, but Hull hung in there, and kept the game close before taking over in the third period. In a tie game, Sarich took exception to what he thought was a dirty play and took a five minute slashing major and a game misconduct at 9:56 of the 3rd. Eventually, after an offsetting penalty to Hull was served, the Stingrays took the lead on a goal by Ukrainian forward Konstantin Kalmikov, and the league leading Steelers didn't have a response to it, even when given a late powerplay. The arena was disappointed, but in another team ritual, the players stayed out after the game and thanked the fans for showing by doing a lap around the ice while acknowledging the crowd.
The action wasn't top quality, as there was some sloppy plays that led to interesting opporutnities in the game, but in reality it wasn't too different from the hockey you'll find in smaller arenas across North America. The difference might be that while a lot of those players are on their way up in the hockey world, these players are either at the end or at the pinnacle of their hockey careers: even a young player like Great Britain U20 team forward Thomas Squires might have a tough time moving out of the EIHL, although he did make some passes that suggested he had more ability than others.
While I think there is a market for ice hockey in Great Britain, the sport probably has too high of operating costs to evolve much in the coming years, especially in a country where governments are slashing budgets across the board. An arena in nearby Leeds is being constructed (groundbreaking occured recently), which may be able to support a EIHL team in the future, but there isn't much ice time available for minor hockey to take hold. After the first period, the local minor hockey players played, just as you'd see in North America, but the age range of the players on the ice was quite significant: there were six year olds playing on the same ice as eleven year olds, and possibly even younger and older. So while the team does well as a spectator sport, the game itself is struggling to create new players.
All in all, I enjoyed myself thoroughly on this night, and I can't see how anyone couldn't have a good time at the game. Hockey has been a part of Great Britain as long as any European country, but it remains an unseen part of the game to many Brits. I don't know if that will change, but the potential is still there, and it'll be up to the game's passionate fans to bring the game out of it's little bubble of existence and into the larger world, be that with the nearby European hockey community or with the greater British population.