April 5th 2015- a date of no regular significance to the average person but to the Sheffield Steelers, this was a day of great importance. The league leaders took on the Coventry Blaze in a close contest which partly determined the destination of this year's title. The event sold 50 short of 7,000 seats. What's so significant about a city the size of Sheffield packing out an arena for a sporting event? Well, Sheffield Steelers aren't a household name football team- they actually play in the Elite Ice Hockey League (EIHL).
Ice Hockey is the sleeping giant in Britain and Ireland with arenas in the largest cities of the country close to sell outs. A sport boasting a massive following in other populous countries such as Canada, USA, Sweden, there is a lot to ponder why the UK hasn't taken to it. Ice Hockey has many elements, which is similar to the most popular sport, football.
The Elite Ice Hockey League spans the entire United Kingdom and Northern Ireland. The latter has one representation in the EIHL, Belfast Giants- one of the strongest teams in the league.
England is represented by Coventry Blaze, Hull Stingrays, Nottingham Panthers and Sheffield Steelers- joint most successful team. Wales, like Northern Ireland, is represented by one team- Cardiff Devils.
Meanwhile in Scotland there are many more: Dundee Stars, Edinburgh Capitals, Fife Flyers and finally, Braehead Clan- one of the newest franchise teams in the EIHL.
The story of the Braehead Clan has been described as one of fantasy. They were formed for the 2010-11 season to be the team for the Glasgow catchment. When the EIHL began in 2003 there were plans for a team yet nothing came to fruition until the Clan's birth. Ryan McCue, a Braehead Clan fan, outlined their brief history, he said:
“The Braehead Clan were formed in 2010 as an expansion team to the Elite Ice Hockey League, the highest level of Ice Hockey in the UK. They have made the play-offs in each of their five seasons and they've gone from being a mid-table side to competing for the league title under coach Ryan Finnerty.”
The opening season for the Clan proved a difficult one with nothing to cheer about for the fans who came to support the new club. Over season 2010/11, the Clan pulled in 38,000 people with the average number per game standing at 1,311.
As news of the Clan got more widespread through social media and word of mouth, coupled with the increase in more positive results, these attendance figures rose slowly but substantially.
In the season recently passed, with the Clan's greatest season results wise, the number of spectators inside the Braehead Arena hit 92,497. Additionally, the average game attendance hit 3,083.
This is a wonderful feat for a team inside the West of Scotland catchment competing with major football teams. St Mirren FC, the closest football team to the Clan's average was 3,916 this season.
These figures are replicated, not just at Braehead Clan, but across the league. For example, Sheffield Steelers, the joint most successful team in the EIHL has seen a great rise and consistency in past seasons to their games.
In the past three seasons, the complete attendance of the Steelers has been; 128,870; 136,643 and 131,960 respectively. The average attendance at the Steelers continues to push the 5000 mark.
Once again comparing with football, Sheffield has two teams to compete with, yet they still draw massive crowds to watch their ice hockey team. Not bad for a sport that didn't have much recognition until recently.
However, the Steelers are still to match the heights of the 1990s when they pulled in 177,007 a season, averaging 7,375 a match. Besides, the current way of success will definitely see them returning to similar results in future.
The Clan and Sheffield Steelers aren't the only teams seeing consistent rises in their attendances with Belfast Giants, Cardiff Devils, Coventry Blaze, Fife Flyers and Nottingham Panthers all experiencing increases on the previous season. Only Edinburgh Capitals and Dundee Stars didn't see rises. This could be attributed to both of these teams finishing the bottom two in the league at the end of this season.
The question remains though, why are these teams experiencing higher attendances each season? There are added extras which you don't get in the beautiful game, especially in Scotland- alcohol inside the stadium.
Imagine watching your favourite team inside the warmth of an arena, sat on comfortable seats, a perfect uninterrupted view of the playing area with the added extra of having pint- that's bliss to most sports fans. Even the odd tussle between players is sometimes encouraged which gets the adrenaline going.
Polar opposites between ticketing prices at football often criticised for its reduction in fans at matches whereas there is an increase in hockey numbers. Ryan McCue states:
“I think that might be an issue for some people but I think it's more because others, particularly in the west of Scotland, see it [ice hockey] as more of a family game.
“You do have a lot of people that don't want to take their children to Celtic or Rangers games because of all of the hatred that tends to come with it”
Ticket prices could be described as fair with the average at Braehead Clan being £19. Other teams follow suit- Belfast Giants' and Cardiff Devils' is even cheaper at £15 for adults. Moreover, each team have special deals for families, concessions and the elderly.
Dundee Stars allow under 5s in for free, including season tickets. Definitely a measure that should be undertaken by clubs of many sports.
In the NHL, the biggest ice hockey league in the world, similar free ticket giveaways has seen a team reap its rewards. Manchester Phoenix fan, Callum Evans said:
“Organisations such as the Chicago Blackhawks were giving out free tickets within the last decade to try and up the popularity of hockey in the city, and now they’re one of the best teams in the NHL.”
As well as ticket revenue, the teams in the EIHL receive money from a TV deal with Premier Sports. The deal includes some live matches throughout the season as well as repeats, which is perfect exposure for the league to be broadcast across the UK and Ireland. Ryan McCue said:
“In my opinion it is more of an advantage for ice hockey because having it on TV is a good advertisement for the sport and teams in this country whether they're at the very top in the EIHL or in amateur leagues.”
But is the TV deal doing enough for the EIHL's exposure? “In my opinion, the deal with Premier Sports is good, but not great. As it is a fairly obscure channel that people don’t know, it hasn’t helped improve the sports exposure in Britain. As Sky Sports used to show some games, people were more likely to see games then they are now.
“However any investment is positive, with EIHL constantly on the brink financially, and Premier Sports do also show more games than Sky did. Furthermore, Premier Sports have helped ensure that NHL games are broadcast in Britain. Showing the best players in the world is important to help inspire others,” clarifies Callum Evans.
This proves that the league is still in the progressive stage and still faces major challenges. Callum Evans said: “Without a huge increase in money in British hockey, it’ll never challenge its counterparts.”
As well as the league, the United Kingdom faces another challenge- its national team’s performance. They’re currently languishing in the third tier of international ice hockey. Though, to their credit, results are picking up and promotion is in their sights. Callum Evans said:
“They've had some really good results recently, especially the win over Korea. However it’s important not to get too carried away, we still need two wins against good sides to get back into the second tier of international hockey.”
“I don't see them ever playing to the same level as Canada or Russia, but perhaps countries like Austria and Switzerland, teams that qualify for the Olympics but aren't really to the same standards as the rest of the competition. What you have to remember, though, is that Team GB won gold at the Winter Olympics in the 1930's, it was a big sport in the UK until the war and it's definitely back on the rise.” explains Ryan McCue.
What UK ice hockey has is at least EIHL and its teams are listening to fan demands and are making edgeways to become a big sport like it is in other countries. For the league to get an ounce of success the NHL has had can be deemed a job well done by the organizers.
There are junior teams across the country with massive waiting lists for youngsters wishing to join up. This shows there is growing appetite there, and that generation could take the EIHL to the dizzy heights at the top.
The current crop are laying the solid foundations for something greater, but now it needs a lift to take it to the next level.