Can ice hockey become mainstream in the UK?

Ice hockey is recognised worldwide as a Canadian and North American sport, with high profile games and players in both countries.

The National Hockey League (NHL) is a professional league with 31 teams – 24 in the United States and seven in Canada.

Europe is starting to demand attention with Sweden (SHL), Russia (KHL) and Germany (DEL) gaining recognition – but not yet being given the credit they deserve.

This leads to the question of how the UK fits into the grand scheme of things and the popularity of the sport in the country?

The Elite Ice Hockey League (EIHL) was formed in 2003, replacing the previous Ice Hockey Super League. It is the highest level of ice hockey competition in the United Kingdom.

It currently consists of 12 teams from all over the United Kingdom, with representation from each home nation (England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland).

With the development of new and updated ice rinks around the country, the UK now has more opportunity than ever before to become serious contender and is producing more top quality players.

Its teams are heavily populated with US and Canadian players, with the style of ice hockey in Britain similar to that played in North America as opposed to the one adopted by many other European countries.

The game is well known for its aggressive nature, with publicised fights bringing as much attention as a spectacular goal.

However, in June 2006 the EIHL followed the NHL’s lead and announced the adoption of the ‘zero tolerance’ interpretation of the rules with regard to holding, hooking and interference implemented in the National Hockey League (during the 2005–06 season). This increased the pace of the game and led to a rise in spectator numbers.

Spectator interest in the sport could well do with improvement, even though numbers are growing steadily. Ice hockey isn’t as widely covered as other sports in UK, with the lack of a high-profile television deal a major obstacle to future growth.

More media coverage from newspapers and the major TV stations would help increase awareness and hopefully grow the fan network.

Individual clubs are doing their own marketing at a local level to introduce the sport to a younger and wider audience, while it is rumoured that Neil Black, the owner of Nottingham Panthers, is setting up a new EIHL franchise in London playing out of the Wembley Arena.

Another positive sign, which proves the sport does have a future, is the fact that most reputable and established online sports betting operators provide a comprehensive range of betting markets for ice hockey matches and competitions all over the world.

In the UK, the online bookmaker Sportingbet has always covered the sport and has noticed increased activity in terms of the number of bets being placed and betting markets punters are interested in.

Hopefully all these initiatives and activities will ensure that the sport progresses in terms of local players and audiences.

History has proven that without a growing fanbase who are serious about the sport, ice hockey could remain on the periphery of being one of the main sports in the United Kingdom.

(Image permission: Al Goold Photo)

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