The first thing you notice is the speed. Television does it scant justice — you have to be there to catch the sheer electric pace of the game. Beyond that. Ice Hockey combines skill and power. individual brilliance and organised teamwork. physical grace and naked aggression. and when it is played well. when all these things suddenly interlock in a furious flurry ofblurred motion. intricate passing. precision interception or lethal striking. it becomes a breathtaking experience for the spectator. left to marvel at it all from the stands.
The numbers in those stands has steadily increased since the formation of the Heineken- sponsored British League in season 1983-4. replacing the old Northern League with a genuinely national tournament. although it has remained dominated by the northern clubs. The game recovered from a sterile patch in the 1970s. revived in large part by the then Dundee Rockets manager Tom Stewart‘s pioneering step in importing the first ofwhat has become a steady stream of players from Canada. where the game has the same place in the nation‘s consciousness as football has here.
The match is played over three twenty-minute periods. with six players per side on the ice at any given time. less anybody temporarily banished to the sin-bin for an infringement. Teams are organised in lines (the rules allow up to eighteen players per match). with quick pre-arranged changeovers. In the British League. there are normally two such lines. as against four in Canada. where shifts can last only forty seconds.
Unlike other North American games which have found their way over here. Ice Hockey is reasonably easy to understand without benefit ofspecial tuition and a pocket calculator. Teams are divided into goalkeeper. right and left defence. a centre. and right and left wing. the object being to score goals into a net measuring 1.22m high and 1.83m wide. Skates with protective heel tips and heavy (and very expensive) padding are worn by all players. with goalkeepers particularly well protected from the hard rubber puck behind their massive leg pads and grid masks.
The basic game is a combination of two sports. speed skating and hockey. as Murrayfield Racers Canadian captain Chris Kelland. one
Fast and furious, ice hockey grows ever more popular in this country. Kenny Mathieson talks to Chris Lelland, Murrayfield Racers’ captain, about the game.
Murrayﬁeld Racers take on the Whitley Warrior:
of the League‘s top players. and one of the first imports to come over here. explains.
‘lce Hockey is a hard game to learn because of that — you have to learn to be a skater before you can even think about playing the game itself. The imports are always a little bit better as skaters. because in Canada we start to learn when we are real small kids. at three or four years old. whereas the guys who are good hockey players in this country now usually didn‘t start learning until they were nine or ten years old. The standard over here is getting better every year. though. and the game is now attracting better athletes. It‘s not right up there in the first class with world standards. but it‘s very competitive.‘
Watching Kelland carve his way through the opposition from a defensive position. it is easy to see what he means: the Canadians have an easy grace and an exceptional pace that the home-based players can‘t quite match. That expertise. their tactical acumen. and the quality oftheir stick-work. is all rubbing off on the British players. raising the standard of the domestic game all round. to the point where youngsters like Murrayfield‘s Tony Hand. ex-Dundee. now Solihull goal-tender Martin McKay. or
Durham‘s Paul Smith are setting new
standards for home produced players.
Ice Hockey is a tough. physically demanding game. and it speaks volumes for those who play the sport in this country that they are prepared to put so much effort into what is still an amateur game (the imports are paid as player/coaches). and one which requires a major outlay for anyone not fortunate enough to secure sponsorship or the support of a club.
The physical aspect of the game is one that often produces unsavoury
headlines. but the fans clearly love it.
including the odd fight on the ice. as Tony Hand confirms. ‘Violence is over-stressed — I think you have more chance ofgetting hurt in football than in a hockey match. although people can get serious injuries on the boards. I think if you get hurt it's often down to doing something stupid. You do get the occasional fight on the ice. but that‘s all part ofthc game.
British Ice Hockey has always been dominated by the clubs from Scotland and the North-East of England. Murrayfield are reigning Premier League Champions. with Dundee. Fife and Durham their closest challengers last season. but were denied the coveted - and still
unachieved — double when Durham won a dramatic British Championship Final at Wembley in April. The chance for revenge has arrived quickly this season. as the two clubs meet at Kirkcaldy in the Norwich Union Autumn Cup Final. the first major trophy ofthc new season (see Sport listings). That thriving centre ofpower in the North is a consequence of greater commitment to the sport. in the opinion of former Murrayfield coach Derek Reilly. who was involved with the club as player and coach for 21 years.
‘The game was better organised up here in the early days. We had more people who wanted to play. and more interest in pushing the game from the Rink mangers. and that is reﬂected in the quality ofour teams.‘
It is reﬂected. too. in the support the northern teams receive. a point emphasised by Racers secretary Margaret Reilly. ‘It is very much a family audience we attract. The first thing the sponsors always remark on when we bring them here for a match is that the audience is 50% women — they are not used to that at sporting events. ()ur support has definitely grown this year. and I think that is probably true all round the country. New rinks are opening all the time. and the game is now spreading into the south in quite a big way. We find that people do tend to come back for more ifwe can just get them here in the first place — the game sells itself.‘
Information: Fixtures for the undernoted clubs are listed issue by issue in the Sports section. Elsewhere in Scotland. Dundee Rockets (Heineken Premier League). (ilenrothes. Irvine and Aviemore all support teams at their local rinks. Aspiring skaters who think they might fancy learning a bit about playing should contact their local ice rink. who will put them in touch with the appropriate people. Most clubs run junior and reserve sides from under- 1 3 upwards: Ayr Bruins/Ayr Beavers Ayr Ice Rink, Limekilns Road, Ayr (0292 263024); Fife Flyers/Kirkcaldy Kestrals Kirkcaldy Ice Rink. Kirkcaldy (0592 52151 ); Glasgow Eagles Summit Centre. Minerva Way. Finneston. Glasgow (ll-ll 204 2215); Livingstone Rams lcelandia. Almondvale. Livingstone (Livingstone 416141); Murrayﬁeld Racers/Murrayfield Raiders Murrayfield Ice Rink. Riversdale Crescent. Edinburgh (031 337 6933).
42 The List 27 Nov — 1()Dec 1987