Editor's Note: EasyOil is one of our plethora of U.K.-based readers. After reaching out to our diaspora readers, we heard many interesting stories about being an Oiler fan in the aether. This is a British-born fan's take on the state of hockey in the U.K.
02 Arena London, Sept. 2007: No market for hockey fans in the UK my arse!
(Photo courtesy of myself, with my camera)
I decided to write this piece after reading, and posting on, Derek's great piece about Oilers fans worldwide. It got me thinking about the state of ice hockey over here in the UK. I will not pretend that I am any sort of qualified writer, so bare with me and hopefully you will learn how the game that Canadians, Americans and Europeans love so much is horribly under-appreciated in the country it spawned from.
There are many cultural differences between Britain and its NA counterparts, Canada and the US, and consequently many stereotypes: British people are all either cockney chimney sweeps or Lords and Ladies who faint at any hint of profanity or sex; Americans are fat, rude and stupid; and Canadians say "aboot" instead of "about". Well I can safely say that I don't know any chimney sweeps and my fellow Brits are some of the most vulgar people I know; my Aunt was American (she died several years ago of a brain tumour, RIP) and she was slim, attractive, intelligent and kind; and Canadians... well the Canadians I know do say "aboot" but are also some of the most generous and accommodating people I have met. However, there is one common trait between us all: we all love sport. And yet the sports we love are vastly different.
In NA, you have the Big Four: American Football, Baseball, Basketball and Ice Hockey. While ice hockey significantly lags behind the others in terms of viewing figures (for reasons I don't understand - us Brits just don't get how baseball is even remotely entertaining), it is still a hugely popular sport, with many nationally televised games every week and many more locally televised ones. It should be noted here that save for news and weather programs, programming in Britain is not particularly localised.
Here in the UK, we have our own Big Four: Football (soccer), Rugby, Cricket (which I suppose is our version of baseball), and... Well the fourth is up for debate. Take your pick from Tennis, Snooker, Golf or even Formula 1. But no mention of Ice Hockey. Or even Field Hockey (simply known here as hockey), the sport from which it came.
I myself am a field hockey player, and along with my fellow players find it mind-boggling how it is not a televised sport. It gets occasional coverage in the Summer Olympics and the odd update on EuroSport, but no full matches or regular updates. And yet there are over 1000 clubs battling it out every weekend from September through to April in dozens of leagues around the country. This might not sound much to you in NA, but consider the fact that the UK would fit into Alberta three times over... My club, Bath Buccaneers from Bath, Southwest UK, is one of the biggest in the UK with 15 Adult teams (meaning over 240 players. Assume an average of maybe 150 players per club and you have 150,000 registered players. At least. And not including under-16 teams, school teams, or university teams.
Compare this with British Ice Hockey: in the UK, there are four official Ice Hockey leagues: the Elite Ice Hockey League (13 teams); the English Premier Ice Hockey League (10 teams); the Scottish National League (12 teams) and the English National Ice Hockey League (two conferences comprising 16 teams each). There is also a University League with 21 teams, making it surprisingly the biggest single league in the country for ice hockey. Each team has no more than 21 players (they only roll 3 forward lines in the Elite League), so that makes 1848 "professional" players in the entire country - 62,000,000 people - or just under 0.003% (this is just an estimate on my part, do not take this for gospel, but it is in this ballpark!). This means that there are almost 90 times fewer ice hockey players than there are field hockey players in the UK. In contrast, approximately 1.5% of all Canadians are registered hockey players, or just under 500,000 people. This immediately indicates a tiny fanbase for UK ice hockey. Or does it?
Those 88 UK ice hockey teams are actually contained within 49 different towns and cities, and three of the four capital cities have several teams: London (8 teams), Cardiff (4 teams) and Edinburgh (3 teams) - Belfast only has the one team, although they are one of the most successful in the country; read into that what you will. Dundee, Manchester, Newcastle and Sheffield also have 4 teams each, whilst Basingstoke, Coventry, Kent and Nottingham each have 3. Several more have two teams, whilst 26 towns have just the one team. 10 of those 26 are in Scotland. Several of the teams in the same cities also share the same arenas.
It makes sense that London has around 10% of all the ice hockey teams in the country as its population is over 10% of the population of the entire country, and the same can be said for each of the capital cities. Unfortunately, this shows that it is only the larger cities that have permanent ice rinks (my home-city of Bath - which as a contrast has a population of 84,000, compared to, as an example of a "small" Canadian city, Regina with a population of 179,000 people - puts up a temporary ice rink every couple of winters but it's only for half-hour public skating sessions), and as such national exposure to ice hockey is extremely limited. SkySports does broadcast Elite League games now and then , whilst ESPN is pretty good for NHL action, but only the people lucky enough to be able to afford the ridiculous charges for subscribing to the sports channels can view these games. I am one of the unlucky ones. A couple of the national newspapers also devote a tiny column to the Elite League standings every few days, but that is it.
The Olympics are the only time in the UK that ice hockey receives the attention it should, and the thrilling final in Vancouver this year, according to a great article by Keira Evans-Determan of the Cardiff Devils Organisation, was watched by over 2 million viewers in the UK. For the UK, 2 million is an outstanding figure for an "obscure" sport, and would rank among the top-viewed programs for a Sunday night over here.
According to Keira, the average attendance across the Elite League in 09-10 was 2000 per game - apparently beating out the average attendance figures of Conference Football Leagues and lower Rugby Union leagues, all of which still receive considerable media coverage despite being several echelons below the Premiership leagues. And yet there appears to be an audience for high-level hockey that just won't be tapped in to by the major broadcasters. When you take in the fact that the average capacity of each arena is approximately 3900 seats (dragged up by Belfast, Nottingham and Sheffield, all of whom seat northwards of 7500), 2000 people per game isn't bad going for a sport that gets next-to-no media coverage, and hardly any local advertising beyond some posters in the local pubs.
Of course there are many easily explainable factors as to why Broadcasters believe ice hockey, both the NHL and the Elite League, isn't a massively appealing sport to the British public. First off, the Elite League has a considerably lower talent level than that of the NHL. Or the AHL. Or even the ECHL. I am reluctant to say it stinks, though I'm sure most Canadians would, because I have been to some very entertaining tilts at the Cardiff Devils, but it would be foolish of me to even try and compare the Elite League in quality to the NA leagues. The most notable difference to me is the quality of skating. The players here are simply poor skaters compared to those in NA, save for one or two players on each team. They can shoot, pass, hit, all the other tools needed to play, but the game is just that much slower here. Some fans like that; indeed one of my friends is a huge Elite League supporter, but when asked if he follows the NHL at all he said, "No, the game over there is too fast for me, you can't see whats happening." Strange, seeing as ice hockey is billed as the fastest team sport on the planet, with speed being one of the main attractions. But there you go. Maybe some Brits are living up to the "boring", no-fun-for-me-please stereotype. A large portion of Elite League players are actually NA import players, several of them known names (especially Theo Fleury following his drug incident, and Wade Belak), which brings the quality of the hockey up somewhat, but may also stifle the development of our own home-grown talent. There is a cap of 11 to 12 import players per team, but that is more than half the squad.
Secondly, and probably most importantly, the time difference. Most NHL games seem to start at around 7pm EST, meaning a 12am GMT start over here; for the Western teams it is even worse, especially for me as an Oilers fan, as most games don't start here until 2/3am. Weekend matinee games are a godsend. But would it be such a travesty to a least devote a daytime/evening program (on a channel accessible to everyone, not just the sports channels) to showing highlights of NA sports? From what I have heard. the Football Premiership is pretty well covered in NA, so why not vice versa?
A third factor is the length of NHL games. At 60 minutes, it is shorter in actual playing time than any of our primary team sports, save for Cricket which goes on for up to 5 days at a time per test depending on the format. Yet add in the ad breaks every five minutes, not to mention two lengthy intermission breaks and you are looking at a three hour run time most nights, longer than both soccer and rugby. Broadcasters would definitely not want to take 3 hours out of their primetime TV slots to show a whole game, which brings me back to my above point about highlights shows at a reasonable hour. Generate interest.
There is a fourth factor, the lack of British born and bred stars in the NHL and as such not allowing for a personal, emotional investment in the sport, but that is a whole topic in itself, and I will write about that, and legend Tony Hand, another day.
The Human Rake in action, London 02 Arena September 2007 - Bastard.
(Photo courtesy of me, again.)
I had the privilege of getting tickets for the London Premiere 2007 at London's incredible 02 Arena between the LA Kings and the Anaheim Ducks, and it was one of those nights I will never forget, even though I wasn't a supporter of either team. Just to see NHL quality hockey was astounding, and the 20,000 strong sell-out crowds (both nights) would agree. If two sellout crowds didn't open the eyes of media execs I don't know what will.
As I have mentioned on this blog before, I am praying for the announcement in the next year or two that the Oilers are coming over to Europe. Lowe recently stated he wasn't aware he could volunteer the team for the now-annual event, but now he knows.
And so over here, as us Brits hole-up in our castles, pubs and chimneys., we wait anxiously for ice hockey to really take off. Slowly but surely, it is.