UK Hockey LIVE Rotating Header Image

October, 2012:

A Tale of Two Cities

Sport is built on different levels of competition. Competition itself does not lie on a level field. The emotion that can be built over an opponent can vary based on circumstance and from person to person that can develop individually or as a collective depending on events. Meanwhile “Rivalries” can spawn through persistent eventful competition.

A rivalry is a strange thing. It can’t truthfully be manufactured. It can only be born. And it lies in the hearts of the fans, nowhere else. However it is rivalries that can be taken advantage of. Used for commercial gain and, if done correctly, successfully nurtured over time to bring continuous support and a vibrant atmosphere to an arena.

The arrival of the New York Yankee’s to Fenway Park regularly ensures that not one seat goes unfilled. A journey down the East Lancs Road by Manchester United to Anfield will turn the crowd noise up to 11 while life is always difficult when the Bruins arrive in Montreal. Great rivalries that have, over time, grown and thrived bringing with them a recognisable sporting resentment between teams, fans and even organisations.

Rivalries can build identification and character in a sport, so far as in they can draw spectators from outside for a glimpse of a level of competition their own team may unfortunately lack. A display of sporting emotion on the ice and in the stands all to infrequent in many leagues and many arenas.

It’s strange to think that in a sport as physical as ice hockey, only two real “rivalries” exist at Elite League level. The continued sporting tête-à-tête above Hadrian’s Wall between Edinburgh (nee Murrayfield) and Fife is a renewed vitriolic combat that brings quite the fervent supporter to boiling point. The typical Scottish tempers fraying in the stands as they do in so many sports.

The other rivalry is one that can never escape anyone’s attention, as it has become the most widely publicised in the sport within this country. The Sheffield Steelers and Nottingham Panthers have experienced a one-time heated rivalry that, in my opinion, has unfortunately waned in recent years.

At its hilt these two neighbouring teams, joined only by a stretch of the M1 motorway, developed a deep rooted sporting hatred. The impending fixture would draw attention among the fans involved and those outside for the competition between the teams and the individual disagreements between the players on the ice. Names through the years would make opposing fans wince for years to come, it is a brave man who utters the name Ken Priestlay within the walls of the NIC.

At the peak it was what a rivalry should be, a reason to fill your arena and support your home team, a vent for your emotion and the ultimate in sporting enjoyment. A proper exciting enthralling and emotional rivalry.

But no more.

The rivalry between these two has been all but rubbed out in an avalanche of apathy, fuelled by a parody of persistent commercialism.

The enthusiasm and expectation from outside the rivalry has turned to resentment and boredom. What was once a regular heated exchange of great expectation now gains ridicule for its continuous, if somewhat tongue in cheek, proclamation for being “The Biggest Ice Hockey Rivalry In Europe”.

The games have fizzled from ferocious combat to mere routine encounter. Last Saturday’s game in the Motorpoint Arena most notable by its lack of notability. What was once a stand out fixture in Sheffield now vanishes into ether of a stale atmosphere while the PR machine grinds its gears in a means to revive what was once great?

I will admit that the NIC match ups have been more successful in their attempts to fuel the competition between the two, but as fans come and go, fewer and fewer will recall what made these two teams such enemies. Acting in such a way through routine rather than rivalry.

The copious commercialisation of the games, while understandable to a point, has become a parody of itself all too quickly. The competition and rivalry should live in the stands, it should live in the hearts and minds of the opposing fans. And that should only be fuelled by the action on the ice. As I professed earlier, it cannot be manufactured, it is a response not a creed.

The continuous attempt by both organisations to revive the dying atmosphere of this perishing match-up has reached a situation where they have become one organisation. One organisation beset by a need to develop a mutual PR strategy. A need to support each other through a now faux resentment. A mutual organisation dubbed “Sheffingham”.

All clubs need PR and need new and ways of bringing in fans and revenues. I am not so naïve as to neglect this. However was such PR needed when this rivalry was at its hilt?

The most recent example of the faux “Sheffingham” rivalry is today’s announcement of the “Grudge Cup”, a cup with a title that in itself displays the depths of the commercial barrel that we believed could no longer be scraped, where for a mere £100 (plus VAT) fans can do their bit to beat their “arch rivals”, only this time.. on the golf course. Taking the sporting rivalry from the stands.. to the golf course, for a fee in a commercial haze. And there lies the problem.

“Sheffingham” now meet a minimum of 8 times this season and before the first month of the season had even passed the encounters had become stale. No doubt the attempts to pull this rivalry back from the apron of its death-throws will continue in a series of further excruciating PR stunts, invented press claims and embarrassing promotional attempts all feeding from a belief that such acts are the will and want of those who fill the seats.

Remember this? The excitement it developed, the attention it drew? The rivalry it nourished?

These attitudes happen with the fans, not the organisations. And the current developments in “Sheffingham” are an unfortunate and sad indictment on what the product has become.
The once great rivalry has but gone.
————————————–
Coming Soon:
SHEFFIELD STEELERS V NOTTINGHAM PANTHERS – THE HOT AIR BALOON RACE!

The fiercest rivalry on ice takes to the air as Corey Neilson attempts to race Ryan Finnerty from the NIC to the Motorpoint Arena by hot air balloon in time to meet the 7pm Face Off of Europe’s greatest match up!
And you can be part, for only £250 (plus VAT) you can join your coach in the basket of the balloons, one shaped like Steeler Dan, the other as Paws! And be part of the first victory of the day! (limited to 3 fans per basket, all fans will be weighed prior to take off to ensure suitablility)

And if Gary Moran tries stealing that idea… he’ll be hearing from my solicitor.

Patrick Smyth

Wir schaffen eine Atmosphäre

It dissertation editors can be strange how attitudes vary in life, never mind sport. But there is something tribal and visceral about sport spectatorship that effects so many people across the world. Even sports that appear as tame as darts or bowls can draw a competitive empathy from an onlooker who, though not competing themselves, wants to believe that his or her actions in the stands have added to and inspired the success of the team at task before them.

Thus comes the common misnomer that “we’ve won the league”. When Belfast lifted the Elite League title last season I was among friends looking on and to a man (and woman) we were proclaiming how great it was that “we won the title”.

“We”.

There is an emotional link with your sports team. The gentlemen who pull on the hockey shirts of your team are felt to be representing you. Each person in the crowd, while knowing little of the personal life of the team members, uses the abilities of the individuals and team as a whole as a representative of themselves on the national sporting stage. You watch your team win and cheer, you watch your team lose and gripe. Those in the stands cannot will the puck into the goal. They cannot put a hit in on a player at the boards, nor can they snatch the puck out of the air as a forward snipes on goal. Yet the emotion that such actions create draws the support or the derision of all spectators.

And when the season is complete fans of opposition teams congratulate the fans of those teams who took the ultimate spoils, again without merit of creating the achievement themselves, merely through choosing to support the successful team. Be that choice be consciously or through birth or abode.

Despite all this, can fans actually have an input to the game, can a collective create an atmosphere that can intimidate a visiting team and inspire a home team to victory? There is little analytical doubt that yes, a boisterous crowd can certainly have an effect. But inevitable there are varying theories on how and why. A BBC Online article from July 2008 cites everything from the adrenaline boost given by home advantage to the effect of a partisan crowd on the subconscious of the referee. While in 2004, Hilary MacGregor of the LA Times, was quick to highlight how, in certain finesse sports, a crowd can actually have a negative effect to that intended.

It does take a crowd to provide the atmosphere to give this sway. And it’s astounding how differing lands can give differing approaches and atmospheres to sport. Last week I was privileged enough to travel to one of my favourite cities in the world, Berlin. And to once again travel to see local DEL side, and reigning German Champions, Eisbaren Berlin as they took on Dusseldorf. This wasn’t my first trip to see them play but every time I enjoy it greatly for two distinct reasons.

Firstly I find the standard and style of hockey played there to be very entertaining. While not running down our own product, I wouldn’t be shocking anyone by giving my preference to the game in Central Europe.

But the second and most notable reason is the atmosphere. Taking up my position in the ‘Fankurve’ terrace at the O2 World Arena the atmosphere is overwhelming. The crowd all bedecked in their colours, their scarves, all in fine voice as the players take to the ice, joining the announcer in the introductory role by announcing the surnames man by man. The drums are loud, the songs are boisterous, the beer is flowing and the caldron is brewing. It is, quite simply, breath-taking. Short of my experience at the Ryder Cup in 2006 it is difficult to draw a memory of a more overwhelming sporting atmosphere than that in Germany.

From first puck to final buzzer the noise is persistent, both from the terrace and the seats. The songs are both complimentary and encouraging to the hosts while also providing derision and defamation to the characters of the visitors. Scarves are swung around heads as goals are scored, the visiting team subsequently mocked. And in all this the atmosphere remains relatively friendly. As a foreign visitor I have received nothing but welcomes and fantastic hospitality since my first visit back in 2005. Though there is little doubt a rival teams fans would not receive the same.

The question that bugged me a day or so later as the adrenaline and excitement of that experience, once again, began to fade; Outside of the crowd size, what is different to allow the atmosphere in German sport to be so vastly superior to our own?

Do we in the UK have a certain inbuilt subconscious inhibition that prevents us from going as far in our boisterous support as our European cousins? The Fankurve terrace sits as the hub of noise that influences the rest of the arena. However a “call and response” instance between fans midway through the final period demonstrated the attitude was not limited to those stood at one end of the arena.

The involvement of a terrace is one thing, yet outlawed in the UK Stadiums since the Taylor Report in 1990, standing does not overtly influence attitudes. A history of loud chanting and songs through the ages, passed from father to son could be cited, however teams like Nottingham and Fife can claim to somewhat have this history intact, while other fans will have been watching ice hockey through various franchises for almost 20 years, at what point does a “Culture of Noise” develop.

Crowd capacity is certainly an issue, the empty blue seats of the Motorpoint Arena etc cannot make noise on their own and this is certainly an “atmosphere killer”, something that commercial development to bring larger number through the door could try to rectify. Yet it would need those who are regular patrons to inspire the newly arrived into regular chants, into regular songs and demonstrate what the atmosphere could be like.

Sadly in my years following the sport in this country such an attitude is all too rare. Silence has been deafening in many arenas from the NIC to the Metro Radio Arena in Newcastle. An all too unwilling fear that to make noise would set you apart, or disturb someone watching the game.

I look forward to travelling to Germany in the next few weeks, many Giants fans maybe travelling to a German hockey arena for the first time. I pray that the atmosphere that will meet them may inspire them to pack it in their suitcases and return it to the Odyssey Arena. To be creative in their support and in such good voice that they regularly leave Queens Island hoarse.

The sport on the ice is only one half the entertainment. The atmosphere we create should be the other, because in the end our home arena should have its identity determined by the one constant fixture.

The Fans.