By Callum McCarthy
Establishing hockey as a mainstay in a country that has less ice than a fast-food soft drink was never going to be easy. So when Ice Hockey UK (the sport's governing body in Britain) decided to establish The Elite League (EIHL) – a league complete with (limited) TV coverage and a (limited) collection of imports from Canada, the USA and Europe – even the most enthusiastic fans of hockey in Britain raised a skeptical eyebrow. Five years later, that eyebrow is still a haunting shadow over the game in the UK.
Ever since Britain was abruptly introduced to "fighting on ice" in the late ‘80s and ‘90s, those who saw the NHL's game of the week every Sunday morning could testify they had never seen anything quite like it. Grown men with mullets smashed seven bells out of each other while a little disc flew up and down and a loud horn blared occasionally to add some variety. They may not have understood what was going on, but by Jove they loved it. Alas, in the late ‘90s, interest in the game dwindled, and broadcasts were eventually cut.
But with the EIHL's founding in 2003, the opportunity to bring hockey back to the 18-34 male demographic who loved their testosterone-fuelled barbaric scenes of bench-clearing carnage seemed simple. However, as with all minority sports in the UK, the EIHL has struggled to gain a widespread following – relying mostly on a weekly broadcast in an evening slot on digital television and minor sponsorship deals in order to stay afloat and remain stable. Even in the league's short existence, teams have come and gone, unable to compete financially with the more successful teams in the competition.
The Manchester Phoenix and the Basingstoke Bison are the first of what threatens to be many casualties as a result of the lack of investment in the league this year, opting instead to compete in the rival professional league, the English Premier Ice Hockey League (EPIHL). Even though the EPIHL is considered as the second tier of British Ice Hockey, The Elite League fears this could spark an exodus amongst their membership, with the EPIHL offering a more traditional British league with privately owned clubs as opposed to franchises with salary cap requirements, reducing the pressure on those teams that are struggling financially.
"With some clubs living hand-to-mouth, week-by-week to pay their bills, the (Elite) league would argue they can't afford even the simplest of campaigns," Nottingham Panthers GM Gary Moran said. "It isn't easy. Clubs who think they can put information on a website, sit back and wait for the tickets to be snapped up fall by the wayside."
The attendance figures for the Panthers can only be described as an anomaly, ranging between 3,500 to a full house at 7,000 strong for high profile clashes. Even the Sheffield Steelers – league champions this past year – are fighting to keep up interest in their team.
"We are a tenants in an arena and have to compete with every other promoter for dates," Steelers GM Mike O'Connor explained. "Consequently, we struggle at points throughout the season for prime dates which, in turn, affects our business. This has always been a major problem – to the extent that we are working with a developer to build our own arena.”
O’Connor said that the new arena will be part of a larger £300-million development located 15 minutes from the Steelers’ current home.
“There is a light at the end of the tunnel,” he said.
Whether this light will be anything other than the freight train of funding cuts and young players giving up the game to play other sports is yet to be determined. With the NHL's popularity hitting a peak in Britain, Ice Hockey UK has the perfect platform to launch hockey into the hearts of the general public and make the game a genuine option for youngsters who are looking to play a competitive and physical game.
However, the Elite League suffers the curse of being a poorly marketed and undervalued gem. The hockey is good, the play is fast and physical and there is no lack of passion on the ice. But the League needs funding – and lots of it – if it is going to grow and pluck British fans of North American hockey out of their armchairs and into a seat at a game.
"I'm not convinced that our weekly television exposure on a national basis has done a great deal of good, but it certainly hasn't done any harm," Moran said. "At the end of the day we are a bums-on-seats industry. Once you get (the fans) to sit down in the stands and if you give them something fun to watch, they will come back."
With money on the tight side (the aforementioned TV deal is a large drain), the Elite League may be better off investing in the spectacle itself. One or two ex NHLers could secure the future of the league – just one aging big-name from the ‘90s coming to rainy England to coach or to play could turn things around. The game in Britain needs a face to lead it – but without the money, the only thing left of the Elite League in 10 years will be a sense of missed opportunity and wasted potential for a sport that Britain fell in love with once – and has the potential to do all over again.