The NHL is starting its regular season in London this fall. With Canada having a summer of soccer, it only seemed sporting to check into how hockey is doing in Great Britain. U.K.-based sports journalist Mike Appleton, author of Tony Hand: A Life in British Ice Hockey, a memoir of the most celebrated player in British ice hockey, took the time to answer a few of Neil Acharya's questions via e-mail about the state of shinny across the pond.
OOLF: It says in the book sleeve that you caught the ice hockey buzz in 1996; take us through how that happened?
Mike Appleton: This makes it sound like I'd never heard of hockey before my 19th birthday. Not true! I actually remember watching the Panthers in the British Championship Final on BBC 1 and being amazed at the speed of the players. This has to be in the early nineties. I also remember the Championship Final at Wembley going into penalty shots (Cardiff v. Murrayfield) and delaying the Soccer scores on the BEEB (late eighties).
I really got into Hockey in 1996 when my partner and now wife Hannah, dragged me along to see Manchester Storm at the then Nynex Arena. I was hooked straightaway. I couldn’t believe there could be anywhere near 10,000 in an arena watching a North American sport. It moved the 'fan experience' up a level for me and from then I was checking the web daily for news on my adopted team. I was well and truly hooked.
OOLF:Is the current situation in Great Britain, where you have two leagues (EIHL focused on bringing in the best players possible from around the world, ENL which has a focus on development of GB talent) the best of both worlds? Is this the perfect recipe to pack seats and grow talent or would one league be more ideal.
Mike Appleton: Difficult really. I can see it from both sides. EIHL clubs want to nurture GB talent because they realise how much the fans like it when a local lad comes through and develops well in the team and league. But success and failure is such a fine line that stepping onto one side of the line could mean the difference between a club being around or not at the end of the year. It costs a vast amount of money to train and develop a British player -- and even then you are hoping they will make the grade in the way a Tony Hand, MBE, or David Longstaff have done -- that is, have the impact that an import would have.
So, economically it makes more sense to get that 'quick fix' by bringing in a tried and tested import from North America or Europe that can do the job already. It also ensures a degree of success.
The ENL can focus on British talent because of the semi-amateur nature of the league. More British players can play in that league, train and maintain a day-to-day job.
It really isn’t as simple as unifying the leagues into one. It is better hockey, better promotion, more goals and more fights -- they bring the fans in. Creating an event like they used to do in Manchester and now do in Nottingham and Sheffield also helps as well.
To nurture GB talent you need more British kids in the top flight coming through, more representative games that aren't just exhibition matches and more training camps. Above all you need more coaches that can make the grade and also show kids the 'line to the top flight.' That means creating a programme that will pick up a youngster at an early age and show that if they work hard, and have the talent, they can make the Elite League.
OOLF: With the Summer Olympics being awarded to London 2012, there is an obvious attempt by the government to put more money into sport (this is similar to Canada with Vancouver 2010). How has this affected the winter Olympic program and moreover, is there any attention being paid to improve the national ice hockey program?
Appleton: I'm not sure you can class the extra money the government (Sport England) has put into the sport as 'more money.' It is simply what the national team needs to be able to get together every year and have a crack at the World Championships. Ice Hockey UK have had to fight for this money as the opinion seems to be that if GB win a medal, it is one medal and not 'X-medals' depending on the side of the squad. They don't see Hockey as a good return on their investment as say an athlete.
With Paul Thompson coming in as GB coach there does seem to be a refocusing of efforts to make Vancouver in 2010. And that started at the (2006) World Championships in Slovenia where Britain cemented their place in the World's top 30 to have a crack at qualifying for the event. Unfortunately, club hockey is king in this country and that is unlikely to change. Until the clubs can agree to how develop the national team then GB will always struggle to reach Pool A again like they did in 1994. Then you have the problem of 10 imports per team in the Elite League, which means less ice time for British kids.
OOLF: Professional soccer has gone through growing pains in North America and seems to finally have caught hold with the MLS. What is the state of the game in GB, is it in any way parallel to the MLS. Do you foresee more shakeups in league structure?
Appleton: You only have to read Tony Hand's book to see how far hockey has come since the semi-pro days of the early eighties. Money has increased; more players are now fully pro and the EIHL has a more professional structure. We still have a long way to go though because there are two leagues pulling in opposite directions. As for a shake-up? Unlikely. There are far too many personalities in the game for significant unification of all clubs to occur. There also isn’t the fans or venues to have 11 or 12 teams competing on an even keel.
OOLF: North America's progress in creating a strong soccer league was gaining a lot of momentum. David Beckham joining the L.A. Galaxy provided a huge surge forward. Does hockey in GB need top-flight players to go over in the latter part of the careers? Theo Fleury is obviously not a fair comparison to Beckham, but in the same vein.
Appleton: Theo was a revelation in this country. He caused a lot of publicity -- both negative and positive -- and really ripped up the league in terms of point scoring. His antics in the penalty box at Coventry left a lot to be desired (he took a lot of stick from Coventry fans and tried to get out of the box to confront a fan) but he was a real success. Yes, of course, we need more players like this. Hockey fans are really knowledgeable and appreciate quality on the ice. But we aren’t top payers anymore and only seem to attract the 'goon' type players who fit in, in our game.
OOLF: Is there a television deal for the two leagues? If not, would a TV deal help draw fans in the long run, or are owners more reluctant to TV because of a loss at the gate?
Appleton: We simply aren’t a big enough sport to have TV coverage. The days of Sekonda (Watch manufacturer) and SKY TV are long gone. There is an Internet TV station which records matches and that is proving very popular, but that is as far as it will be going at the moment. There simply isn’t demand from the non-hockey public for a TV deal and would it improve the sport? Possibly it would expose more people to the game but would it drive up attendances?
OOLF: Since hockey is not the prime sport in mainstream media in the UK, how important is the Internet and blogs to the coverage of the sport?
Appleton: Vital. The Internet has revolutionised all sport. Club websites in this country are excellent at the moment and will only get better. Radio is still proving to be a big draw. BBC Coventry covered GB through the Internet when they were in Slovenia. Internet forums are pretty popular too but can propagate rumour and argument. And you always have the problem that the person that is slagging a player off is 13 years old and has only seen one game.
OOLF: Would a ENL, EIHL fan follow other European leagues with any interest and moreover is there any kind of a following for the NHL, is it sought out and viewed on television?
Appleton: The NHL is major over here amongst hockey fans. Every hockey fan owns at least one NHL shirt (I have a Rangers one that I bought in person from Madison Square Garden). People talk about Sidney Crosby, et al., during period breaks in the games. It is also shown on Channel 5 early in the morning and on NASN – a subscription channel. The Hockey News sells pretty well too.
Europe isn't so big. Some fans will follow it on Satellite, but the closest people come is when a player is signed from the Continent, then we are all onto the Hockey Database to find out where he has come from!
OOLF: Despite hockey being followed with great intensity in Canada, the crowds tend to be pretty tame (in Toronto it is argued that it is so quiet because the average fan is priced out of the Air Canada Centre). There is a lot of tradition in the way fans in the UK support their clubs most notably in soccer. Does that carry over into the way hockey is supported? What are the traditions that exist in the stands at the homes of British ice hockey? What can fans in North America learn from UK fans and vice versa?
Appleton: There is a respect for other clubs in this country that perhaps you don’t get in football. As an Everton fan I hate Liverpool and everything they do. In Hockey there is rivalry between Sheffield and Nottingham and some other clubs but apart from a few isolated cases it never descends into hatred. Hockey is a real family sport and when the team I cover -- Manchester Phoenix -- were mothballed waiting for a new rink, our fans would travel two hours to Hull to watch the Hull Stingrays instead. They were welcomed with open arms and given discounted tickets. It just seems like something we do over here. Fans bring drums to the game and there are sections of singers in the arena – perhaps that is something you guys could think of? The chants are all pretty clean compared to football too!
There is probably not a lot fans could learn from each other apart from merchandising. You guys over there have a lot more than us. We also eat far less during period intervals!
OOLF: There is mention in the book of players that play a rough and tumble brand of hockey signing with British teams as opposed to teams in other European leagues. Has the adoption of the zero tolerance policy on obstruction changed this pattern? How has the zero tolerance policy been received by fans?
Appleton: At first zero tolerance was a disaster. Referees either were totally intolerant and penalised everything, or let a few things go that should have been called. There were letters in Powerplay Magazine about the death of the game. After a while referees seemed to adopt a 10% tolerance policy and the games got better. But attendances were still down on a whole from the year before, but that probably had more to do with over familiarity of teams. Clubs faced each other four times -- more in the Cup competitions and perhaps fans got bored.
As for the players, it was a difficult transition at first. Tough guys struggled and had to learn how to play hockey again. They couldn’t just goon it up and if you looked across the league, more of these types of guys managed to get more and more points last season. Teams like Newcastle that built their success on tough tactics also struggled.
Next season should see quicker games, more goals and fewer penalties.
OOLF: It appears that Nottingham is the hockey hotbed in Great Britain. Have other teams studied their success in hopes of creating a long-standing hockey market of their own? Do many of the national players come from in and around Nottingham?
Appleton: Nottingham is an incredible hockey story. They market the club to fans in the area and are always in the press pushing themselves. They also spend a lot of money to do this too both on and off the ice -- but perhaps this isn't the place to comment on the rights and wrongs of this. Manchester and Sheffield are traditionally hotbeds, as is Cardiff, Coventry, Dundee and Fife. There is best practice shared around the clubs, but teams tend to market themselves individually instead of a 'league wide' policy.
National players are spread all over the country, but Nottingham, Coventry, Guildford and Cardiff provide the bulk. It’s simply down to better facilities.
OOLF: What are the misconceptions you find that North Americans do have, and can have regarding British ice hockey?
Appleton: That it's crap! Simple as really. They think it isn't as quick or as skilful. They’re probably are right in a way, but many North American players have cut out a long career in the sport over here. We may not play on the same scale you guys do, but the atmosphere and passion can be just as good. The one game, winner takes all playoff final is simply breathtaking.
That's all for now. Send your thoughts to firstname.lastname@example.org.