Regular readers of these pages will need no persuading as to the merits of ice hockey. Whether you’re a player, a spectator or both, there are few sports that can match it in terms of skill and strategy in the thick of the action or theatre and excitement from the stands.
However, British fans of the sport are also well aware of the fringe nature of ice hockey in this country. The NHL and CHL are among the biggest leagues across the Atlantic, right up there with the NFL and NBA. Yet despite broadly similar demographics, the game has remained far outside the mainstream in the UK. Or has it?
Here’s a statistic that might come as something of a surprise. Ice Hockey is the third most popular winter sport in the UK. Only football and rugby are ahead of it, and these are both sports that are taught in schools from a young age. As far as audience numbers are concerned, it is more popular than any other indoor sport.
Online streaming and the general trend of the internet making the world a smaller place has certainly played a role here. It is far easier to follow the NHL than it was 10 years ago, and peripheral sites like online bookmakers have also become far more international in nature. If you want to place a bet on an NHL game, odds can be found here at the click of a mouse.
Much as was the case with the NFL spurring an interest in British American Football in the 1980s, the growing awareness of NHL has caused more people to seek out local games that they can watch live. However, there still has to be a supply to meet the demand, and for that there is one man to thank above all others.
Steelers leading the way
Of course it takes more than one team to make a success of a sport, but the Sheffield Steelers have become by far the best-known team in British ice hockey. The team was founded back in 1991, but 20 years later, interest in the sport had dwindled and the club had gone into receivership. It was looking like a repeat of British American Football, and the Steelers seemed set to follow the London Ravens and the Manchester Spartans into the pages of sporting history.
Then along came Tony Smith, a local businessman with a love for the sport. He bought the club when nobody else would go near it, and set about introducing change from every conceivable angle. Before Smith’s arrival, the game was “a bit like tennis” – terribly polite, with players apologising to one another if there was any contact.
Smith looked to the most popular leagues in the world for inspiration. In came the fancam, the video streams from the locker room, the strobe lights and the music. Today, a Steelers game is all about the experience, from the moment the fans take their seats and the lights go down to introduce the players. It is a recipe that has turned the team into one of the most popular outside North America. And that popularity is only increasing year on year.