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“Did You See What I Saw?”

The enduring enjoyment of a sport can lie in the opinions and perceptions of the game. The agreements and disagreements that come from contemplation over what has been witnessed and the differing mind-sets of what each spectator wishes to gain from the sport they enjoy.

In ice hockey, the action that takes place on the ice is finite. The goals that are scored, the hits that shake the plexiglass, the slashes that shatter sticks or bruise calves all stand as actions with consequence and probable reaction. However they also develop opinion and response. Fair and Foul.

A referee may see a player fall to the ice and in his opinion it was due to the dragging stick of an opponent left to trip his opposite number. However the offending player will most likely see it differently, and a third opinion falls to the spectator in the crowd.

Here, in the comfortable seat of Block 3, the opinion of Johnny-Home-Fan is once again polarised by the shirts the players wear, not necessarily by the action that has taken place. His opinion is split between what he witnesses, what he believes and if this is in line with the decision of the referee.

Yet depending on his opinions, his experience of the game and love of his club, the immediate reaction may be partisan, falling in line with those around him. However deep down his contemplation of the event may lead him to believe his reaction was wrong, the referee seeing the correct incident, the players actions being worthy of the penalty. And here-in lies the tribal opinions of sporting fans. Few willing to stray from the norm of resentment for actions that impede their team’s advances.

On Sunday night in Coventry’s SkyDome Arena I witnessed what, for me, stands in the top 5 British hockey games I’ve ever had the privilege to attend. Over 2000 people stood with me as a saga unfolded which stirred opinions, emotions and elations. When an opening period takes around one hour to complete due to the extreme battle on the ice you begin lose sight of what is controlled and sensible. As a fan you encamp yourself among your fellow supporters and you stand tall against the opposition. As a visiting fan, doubly so.

As I stood watching Belfast and Coventry entertain the crowd with a distracting display of physicality, skill and aggression I also began to become aware of what was going on around me. The responses of the Coventry fans, the Belfast fans around me and my own approach to the game.

Those that know me know that “from time to time” I’m not afraid to express my opinions at games, loudly. Yet I found my opinions in the stands during that game were different to those that I discussed in the period breaks, different to those that I discussed in the bar afterward and different to those I typed up in report of the action. All because I felt a need to show support in the game for my team.

Even if I knew the referee to be right, I berated him for “being wrong”. I witness Gregory Stewart wholly defeated in a vastly one-sided punch up with Mike Egner, yet I cheer like Stewart was the victor upon its tumbling conclusion. Likewise the Coventry fans chant “Hirshy Hirshy Hirshy” for their starting netminder, many already in acceptance that Referee Andrew Carson had little choice but to eject him for “3rd Man In” to the tussle between Chalmers and Stewart. They boo as the angry shot-stopper is shown to the dressing room. Booing and disagreement all round, yet forums and discussions are heavy with understanding by Blaze fans as to why he had to go. But the consequence deemed superfluous to the cause and who such blame lies on.

The game stirs these emotions. The game stirs these opinions. The game stirs these reactions.

The key, however, is understanding these facets of your character and not letting them take the better of you. Such a failure of control leads to incidents like was witnessed in Cardiff over a week ago when one fan saw fit to confront Benn Olson because the game and the actions witnessed had stirred him to feel this was the correct course of action. It was not.

Unfortunately games such as Sunday’s in Coventry are all too infrequent. I am hard pushed to find anyone on the ice, on the bench or in the stands that left that arena without their money’s worth of entertainment. No doubt twitter feeds and discussions between fans across the league that night were rife with information and mis-information from between those walls I was lucky to inhabit.

Games like that reinvigorate your passion for the sport. Remind you why your opinions become so strong and why you follow your team. Belfast fans left happy with the win, the discipline of their team and the way they were able to provoke their opposition to the verge self-destruction.

Coventry fans left happy in the display of “never-say-die” hockey the Blaze provided in the face of adversity, the performance of young replacement netminder Adam Goss personifying the spirit that brought the blaze fans to their feet in applause over the final minutes of the game. Points lost, but pride intact.

The final buzzer goes and you walk away from the arena. You mind whirring from what you have witnessed. Your opinions chomping at the bit to be expressed. The bar is filled with discussions and disagreements. Not everyone sees things the same way. Not everyone understands the game in the same way and not everyone sees the entire action across the vast frozen rink. But as you piece your night back together and understand your friends opinions, people begin to realise why sport in itself is so popular.

Because I don’t agree with you!

Patrick Smyth

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.
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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.

Giants Appoint Keefe As Chief

Adam Keefe, in his second season at EIHL level, has been made Belfast Giants captain. An unexpected, yet certainly not unwelcome appointment of a man who last season was prominent in his ability to lead from the front.

Christiansen’s squads in the last 2 seasons, and this season to boot, have been filled with leaders. Men with significant experience in the game along with time spent carrying a letter firmly on the front of their shirt. So the choice of Belfast Giants captain cannot be an easy one, not least after only a couple of weeks on the ice together.

Keefe’s appointment shows the development of the Belfast Giants, and possibly the league as a whole, over the last few seasons. The original acquisition of the 28 year old Ontarian was met with the typical excitement toward his ability without gloves as opposed to with them. Stepping into a Giants side that in the previous year had lacked the grit needed to pick the Elite League title, many Giants fans maybe hoped he would have even a pinch of hockey nuance to meet with his pugilistic skills, so fresh was the memory, and disappointment for some, of Sean McMorrow in many minds. Adorned with the monikers “AK47” (*wince*) and, alongside fellow new-comer Daryl Lloyd, “The Bash Brothers” (*double-wince*), pre-conceptions and expectations followed the #47 shirt onto the Odyssey ice.

What was received was a breath of fresh air. A physical yet intelligent game. A player willing to do his part for a team-mate but not at the cost of the team or the game. A player who entertains as well as undertakes his role. 13 goals in a 31 point season truly banished the memory of McMorrow and re-introduced a long forgotten ‘tough player’ role in Belfast, not seen properly since the days of Schulte or, to a lesser extent, Skihar.

To pick, as I have, on McMorrow may not be unexpected and some may consider it to be unfair, but in comparison to the product Keefe produced for Belfast last season, it really highlighted what a fish-out-of-water he was. Though not his fault, his ability and roles were not unexpected and one which the coaching and management staff obviously believed were required and of use. The appointment smacked of commercial desperation rather than sporting ambition. Memories will live long of McMorrow standing on the blueline frantically pointing with his stick toward the man he was picking up, only for said player to skip away easily. Likewise the look of amusement on Jay Latullipe’s face while a rampaging McMorrow met nothing but plexi as his intentions of a hit were lost in the vastly differing speed of the Cardiff Devil’s centre.

Keefe’s appointment and his performance in the Giants side last season may have once again redefined how the league recruited for this forth coming season. Of course this role is no stranger to those in South Wales. Brad Voth, sadly now retired, captained in such a way for many years. However in Sheffield, Coventry and certainly in Nottingham such a player has been sporadic in their influence on the ice in seasons gone by. So much so that an appointment such as that in Belfast would come with equal surprise.

Supported by Craig Peacock and Robby Sandrock as alternates, the new Giants captain will have both experience and youthful creativity at his side as the season begins. His public approach has been commendable, not least on social network Twitter where his banter, while not reaching the (admittedly humorous) abusive depths of new Devil “hard man” Devin DiDiomete, has been both entertaining and respectful in its approach toward fans, fellow players and nay-sayers alike.

I have to wish Adam good luck this season. There is no doubt he will be a fine captain. We look forward to him proving that the responsibility of captaincy is merely a feather in the cap rather than a weight on the shoulders.

Patrick Smyth

Look To The Sky…

Elite League Ice Hockey is to return to Sky for another season. However the question cialis online remains as to its value.

There is of course no doubt that media coverage is paramount in the successful promotion of professional sport. And while Sky Sports remains the leader of sports coverage in the UK, EIHL’s partnership with Televideo doesn’t come without some question as to its actual ability over the last 5 seasons to “pull in” the casual sports fan.

The main problem has been scheduling. I’m not so naïve to think that such a minority sport deserves primetime “front and centre” exposure, however over the seasons the magazine show in whichever form it has taken, has been sporadically scheduled and rescheduled across different Sky Sports Channels. A lack of scheduling consistency has led to the lack of regular viewing from many. ‘Jimmy Sports Fan’ may catch the end of one of the shows, and despite interest, return the next week to see that it no longer resides at the “same bat-time” on the “same bat-channel”, and thus the potential pull has gone.

What worth is a place on Sky Sports 3? The latest press release is full of platitude as to the “national exposure” the continuing deal provides. However, OfCom estimates there are 60million televisions in the UK, while SkyTV has only around 11 million subscriptions to the service, and around 6 million to Virgin Media, thus the actual subscription to Sky Sports package will only be a low percentage of that. So a 28% coverage of the UK with an *ability* to watch the EIHL does not take into account the uptake of Sky Sports, nor the actual viewership of Sky Sports 3 or 4 at a sporadic time on a Friday evening.

Would this time, money and effort (it’s not hard to see where I’m going with this), not be better served in an attempt to curry favour with the national terrestrial broadcasters? Be it BBC or commercial. Be that Radio, TV or Online. Yes it’s not as easily said as carried out. However such a prospect would no doubt give higher return. Of course scheduling slots are probably more in demand terrestrially than on subscription channels. But the frustration in loving a sport that is practically ignored by the nationwide media does not stop the dreamer from hoping for a better time and better way.

I do understand that despite my gripe, even a 1 hour magazine show for Aviva Premiership Rugby is relegated to 9pm on a Sunday night on ITV4, but even this has a larger potential audience than its Sky Sports counterpart.

It would be interesting for the EIHL to be forthright and upfront about the success of the Sky deal. With the renewed contract for a 6th season there must be some implied value in it that this blogger isn’t really picking up on. And while I’m not running down the content, my belief in the product is such that, like a lot of people, we hope for more.