As a Canadian you can imagine that I live and die by hockey – that’s hockey, not field hockey. And you’d be right, I love the game, I grew up with the game. In Canada it’s a national institution. You may think it’s our national game, but it’s not lacrosse is, though it certainly feels that way.
It’s tough to watch hockey here. ‘Hockey Night in Canada’ starts at midnight in the UK on ESPN America. Many times I record the games and watch them on Sunday morning, but sometimes I have a nice hot coffee and watch live. Though it makes me a little homesick, I bear through just to get a little heart-on-sleeve sport. For those of you who haven’t watched hockey before, I suggest you do. I know you live and die football, some may also watch rugby and cricket, but almost all of you will have a football club in your heart.
I have always felt that the British would like hockey, that the essence of what makes hockey great would appeal to the average British sports enthusiasts. It’s a game of blinding speed, men skating at 45mph, in full contact mode, finessing a small piece of vulcanized rubber. These men are like gladiators at times, the goalie has to stop 90mph shots on the fly, hits come fast and furious, and once in a while things boil over and a scrap ensues. I really do love this game; it’s beauty and power in one ultimate package. And I miss the game as well.
I missed it so much I began to search it out. I started to take a look at the EIHL, the league here in Britain. I needed some hockey injection, and this was going to be my syringe. I had a good conversation about hockey with the commercial director of one of the clubs here in the north. Now if I’m honest I was skeptical, I wasn’t sure if the quality would be up to snuff. I have been used to watching the top league in the world for my whole life – I have seen international hockey stars play on a regular basis. How was I going to feel about this hockey? I realised I had to stop being a hockey snob and give it a punt.
I asked a colleague to go with me, as he loves all sport and thus he was an excellent candidate. I felt he would be an excellent ambassador for hockey in Britain, as I think that’s what the sport needs. It needs sports fans in the UK to watch so they can spread the word of … Awesomeness?
As I waited with anticipation to ogle that first puck drop in the UK, the lights began to dim. Smoke began to billow out of the dressing room corridor and music began to play. I can’t quite recall what song was playing but it surly had a tone suitable for the game of hockey: fast paced and aggressive. Spotlights were sweeping across the crowd and only stopping when a young fan was dancing deliriously to the music. It is what we call pre-game entertainment.
Now it must be noted that about 3,000 fans were at this game – not what I would call a packed house, but there was an excellent atmosphere anyway. The fans were really anticipating this, and I was told with regularity that I should be there when a derby is on. I’m told this is hot, the tensions run high and emotions get the best of even families and children. This is hockey in the UK, a fringe sport, or as we would say in North America, ‘minor league’.
What I like about ‘minor league’ sport is that it has to try. Minor league sport has to come up with unique or innovative promotions to get people through the gate. They have to succinctly target their audience or in many case their audience split. They have to find a way to talk to families, grown men and women all in one communication. These hockey teams rely on the sponsoring of everything, form the boards, shirts and even the players themselves. A marketer for a minor league club works twice as hard as one for a ‘major league’ sport.
Major league snobbery would turn their noses up at this sort of over-sponsoring and promotion, they may even think they are way above this. This snobbery is one of the most interesting elements of sport financing and development in the UK. A team, whether it is in football, rugby or cricket would think this is a form of prostitution. What amazes me the most is that most teams have half empty grounds and struggle to make ends meet. Their hubris is their demise, they think that the sport and only the sport is what people should come to watch, win or lose. Sorry ladies and gents, this is not the way any longer, fans now have a comparative analysis as they experience new level of service in sport. Fans are now able to realize when they are being treated well and when they are being asked to pay for a very poor product, both on and off the field of play.
Sure, they are not very sophisticated with respect to merchandise sales, TV promotion or community programmes, but neither are most major league programmes. Most major league community projects in the UK are grotesquely underdeveloped, but that’s another story.
All of this effort on a very minimal budget is why I’ll go to another hockey game in the UK. They appreciated my hard earned money. They tried really hard to ensure that I had a good time. And I appreciate that.