Growing up in the West Coast of Scotland, the nearest thing to Ice Hockey that a lot of people will know is the Disney classic “The Mighty Ducks” and then maybe not so much the two sequels… However what you may not know is that Ice Hockey is fast becoming one of the most popular sports in Scotland and the UK! Don’t believe me? Lets look at the stats:
The Elite Ice Hockey League or EIHL as it is known is now about to begin its 14th season after creating way back in 2003. The EIHL itself actually replaced a British Hockey Superleague which had been in exsistance since 1996 and perhaps surprisingly Ice Hockey in the UK has been on the go since the early 80s. Across Scotland there are 4 teams which compete in the EIHL, we have Braehead Clan, Dundee Stars, Edinburgh Capitals and the Fife Flyers.
Based on a season which runs from September to its conclusion in April with an ever sold out Play Off Weekend, the EIHL is drawing record crowds year after year and “hockey-fever” is very much alive in Scotland. “The Clan” as they are affectionately known to their supporters sell out the Braehead Arena on a regular basis drawing crowds of over 3000 on a weekly basis and this is generally the case across “The Caps”, “The Flyers” and “The Stars” who draw crowds of around 2-2500 weekly respectively. Putting this into comparison with Scotland’s biggest sport, Football and it’s biggest teams such as Celtic, Rangers, Hibs, Hearts isn’t fair due to these team’s massive worldwide fan bases and rich history but put the figures alongside the average attendance of other “bigger” teams like Kilmarnock, Morton, Hamilton and St Mirren and attendances are similar if not better!
I guess what you are thinking is why? What would attract someone to spend their Saturday or Sunday night watching a sport which doesn’t have a major TV contract in the UK (One Match a week shown on premium channel Premier Sports), doesn’t receive mainstream attention in the media and is stereo-typically known as an American Sport… Well let me tell you because I thought the same as you… Until I actually took the venture to an actual game.
October 17th 2015 – Fresh from spending £27 watching my football team (Celtic) take on Motherwell at Firpark in what turned out to be a dull 1-0 victory for the Hoops, I took the journey to the Braehead Arena with friends to watch Braehead Clan in a local derby match against Edinburgh Capitals. Now firstly I have to say, the ticket pricing for this match was £15-17 for Adults, already a lot less than what was paid to watch the football earlier in the day! Another thing which is instantly noticeable is the relaxed atmosphere within the arena, fans sharing a beer with rival fans (yes drinking is allowed at Ice Hockey, and relatively reasonably priced!), Young fans encouraged to “chuck a puck”, which involves throwing a rubber puck onto the ice from your seat towards Clangus, Braehead’s Cow Mascot and fan favourite across the league, to win a prize from one of the Clan’s multiple sponsors! Along with a 50/50 draw, Win the Players Jersey and Merchandise Stands, its clear to see that the popularity of Ice Hockey in the UK is down to the extremely close relationship between the teams and their fans, something certainly that football could learn from.
Clangus – Braehead Clan’s Mascot and Fan Favourite
Now as a complete novice who had played NHL 2005 on an old Playstation 2 many moons ago, I had a vague basic knowledge of what to expect, but as Face-Off approached on game night, the atmosphere built and it was starting to become obvious why so many people turned up week after week to watch “The Clan”. An uplifting rendition of “Flower of Scotland” later and the match starts. Now for Non-Hockey fans here is a little breakdown of the basics. Each match has 3 periods of play, each of which are 20 minutes long. Each team starts with 6 skaters on the ice for each team, 1 Goaltender(goalkeeper) 2 Defensive Players and 3 Forwards, rolling substitutions is the rule although each team must have no more/less than 6 skaters on the ice at one time, having more or less can result in a foul and face-off. One thing which even the non-hockey aficionado would know is that fighting is allowed and pretty much encouraged in this league which provides additional entertainment whenever two skaters decide to “drop the gloves” and have a good old fashioned square go! Of course this does lead to a punishment which is served in a “Sin Bin” along with other offenses on the ice, similar to yellow card fouls at football, giving one team an advantage for 2-10 minutes depending on the severity of the offense.
The match itself was very one sided and it didn’t take long for Clan’s superiority to show through, Braehead actually finished 2nd in the regular league and 1st in the Northern Conference, where EIHL teams are split by location North and South where Braehead fall under the Nothern Conference, also known as the Gardiner Conference, named after Scotland’s NHL Hall of Famer Charlie Gardiner. A strike from Braehead forward Stefan Meyer, an import from Canada gave the Clan the lead before Edinburgh equalised just before the end of the 1st period. A stronger showing in the 2nd and 3rd gave Braehead a comfortable victory on the night with a final score of 5-1 in the home team’s favour sending the Clan fans home happy.
Something which stuck out during the whole match was the incredible support from a section of “ultras” known as the Section N Purple Army. This is a group of fans located in the top right hand corner of the arena who are the Clan diehards, a group of around 100 fans who travel to every week home and away and build the atmosphere at the Braehead Arena, affectionately known as “Castle Clan” to the diehards. These ultra’s were distinctly different from the ultra’s you would expect to see at a football match, yes there was the drummers, yes they stood from start to finish and yes they started the chants but this was different. The Purple Army weren’t there to start any trouble, in fact it is widely accepted that Hockey is seen as family entertainment and lot of Section N is younger kids with their parents, they weren’t singing songs about the other team or even trying to wind them up. Instead the chants and songs were all for the Clan players and even their manager – Ryan Finnerty, In fact my favourite chant of the evening was for Clan Defender – Welshman Ben Davies who wears number 5 for the Clan, to the tune of fellow Welshman Tom Jones’ hit Delilah!
Braehead’s Purple Army
Leaving the arena, I felt that the bug had certainly hit me and throughout the rest of the season I attended “Castle Clan” a further 7 times and actually traveled to Belfast to support Braehead in what was the best match I saw all season, a tense 2-1 victory for Braehead made even tense by the fact that I was the only Scotsman in the Home section directly above the benches… Since my first match I have encouraged several family members and friends to give Ice Hockey a chance and several actually have, none of which have came back to say they didn’t enjoy the experience and I would say I and they will be back at Castle Clan this season!
It isn’t only Braehead where Ice Hockey is a brilliant family night out, the experiences across the league whether in Scotland or across the UK often results in Sell Out games and a night to remember. I would encourage you all reading this, whether you have never been or haven’t been in a while, get yourself to the hockey! With cheap ticket prices, alcohol on sale and an atmosphere which is family friendly why wouldn’t you and your pals, or your family give it a go! Check out the EIHL website for fixtures and ticket prices – http://www.eliteleague.co.uk or check out your local team on Twitter and Facebook, as most teams keep a high social media presence, another example of teams connecting closely with their fans!
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