The following commentary is for entertainment purposes only. The views and opinions expressed herein are those of the individual speakers, and do not represent the views and opinions of any of its affiliates.
What a wild weekend of hockey. Deeside Dragons, hoping to achieve their season goal of promotion to NIHL North Division 1 took on the Coventry ENL Blaze, who hoped to avoid relegation into Division 2. We were expecting a tough weekend. The first leg, an afternoon encounter at Deeside Leisure Centre. The second, a late night fight at Coventry Skydome. Both times were far from perfect, with Deeside’s gate no doubt affected by a sunny Saturday afternoon and Coventry’s late a start (a scheduled 20.30 faceoff) on a Sunday meaning fans from both sides missed out.
Whilst I have no doubt that fans from either side expected the very best hockey of the season (and why wouldn’t we? Playoff hockey!), both games were marred by a number of incidents which proved a sad indictment of the state of affairs in British Ice Hockey.
Let me get this clear from the outset, I believe first and foremost that this game should be played for the fans. Like them or not, they are paying customers. They buy tickets, replica shirts, programmes, raffle tickets, food and drink. Without their cash flow, you cannot play sport to such a professional level. This is especially true of hockey, with limited ice time and facilities, or even baseball, which has a shocking lack of diamonds in the UK. I don’t care whether you are Deeside, Coventry or MLB’s Miami Marlins (who recently ejected fans from their stadium for showing their support for their team), you need the custom.
So, number one on your list of ‘pleasing the fans’ is ensuring your referees do an acceptable job. I’m not one for referee bashing. In fact, a few months ago I defended referees from media criticism. But that was in the context of perceived bad calls. I’m not getting in to the old argument over how many penalty minutes were dished out. My issue is with the flow of the game. At Deeside, the fans wanted to see fast-paced hockey. And both teams wanted to deliver that. But in an effort to control a heated game, the referees killed any momentum, leaving long protracted periods of confusion, causing fan interest to wane.
A few years back, I noticed this was especially prominent. NIHL (at the time, the ENL) had become dull and incredibly slow. It wasn’t the teams’ fault. It was the horrible pace set by the officials. And after sitting through tedious game after tedious game, I stopped coming. I found the standard of officiating in EPIHL to be of such a higher standard, that I travelled an extra twenty miles and paid an extra fifteen pound per game to see hockey that didn’t bore me to tears.
That should be absolutely no reflection on any NIHL team. Every single team I have watched this season has given their all and fully deserves legions of supporters cheering them on. But the officials set the pace. And when they are not of a standard, it is quite easy to switch off. There’s lots of things I could do with my weekends. Why watch these referees muddle through a game? And if penalty minutes were not enough, there were four ejections from the game, in total. This is a playoff. Tempers will flare. Either exert authority early and reign players in, or let them go. Three periods of senseless calls only escalates hostility on both sides.
Following such a scrappy game, I had hoped for a better approach the following night at the Skydome and, on the whole, I thought the second leg was officiated to a much higher standard. There were overlaps from either game, but some officials were noted by their absence, on my behalf.
But here’s where my next gripe begins, at the Coventry Skydome. A fantastic Elite League venue, spoiled entirely by hostile and aggressive staff, who held some ill-conceived grudge at the away fans. Having travelled with the away supporters, I witnessed first-hand the odd abuse received. Again, in a sport in which fans are integral, the League let themselves down.
The Dragons had brought a huge away contingent, a nice mix of young and old, families, kids, couples, and friends. There was no doubt that they would show their vocal support for the Dragons. Why travel otherwise? And, speaking to Dragons players, their support is hugely appreciated by the team, who thanked the fans on the bus for their indefatigable support. But the support of Dragons fans, for reasons both illogical and insulting, were resented by the Blaze staff in attendance at the game.
Let me say this; the Blaze fans to my knowledge were welcoming and accommodating. My broadcast partner, Matt, found himself fronted by a Blaze fan at the end of the game (Blaze fan: “You’re just bitter that your team lost.” Matt: “Mate, I’m Press.”), but otherwise I’ve had no bad reports. The stewards however, were hostile and intolerant. Two men, identifiable by high-vis vests, there for the safety of the fans. If I were a Blaze fan, I’d be concerned that they seemed non-plussed with their end of the arena, claiming that they “could see everything” from right in front of the away fans.
Granted, a few cheeky airhorns were confiscated, but that did not justify such authoritarian behaviour. I’ll come back to their part in the Skydome’s warm atmosphere later.
The announcer, sat on the opposite side of the building, fixed Dragons supporters with an icy glare. Admittedly, it’s hard to look intimidating from across a freaking arena, but he was trying his damn hardest. Bless.
In the midst of the battle, a cry goes up from a Dragons fan, “Rip his head off!”
And our announcer, embittered by the lack of home crowd support no doubt, retorts on the microphone, “Foul and abusive language will not be tolerated,” and threatens ejection.
For ‘Rip his head off’?
I’m from Liverpool. This announcer’s mind would literally explode if he stood in the Kop. To my knowledge, none of the four words spoken were ‘foul’. Were they ‘abusive’? Well, in a way, I suppose. But this is Coventry Skydome. Home of the Coventry Blaze. Renowned for trolling and abusive behaviour towards the opposition. When Theo Fleury, the biggest NHL star to ever play in the Elite League, played in front of the Coventry crowd, they made fun of his addictions, incensing Fleury to the point of ejection from the game. And the Blaze organisation made several statements to the press defending their abusive fans. Surely far more abusive and foul than ‘rip his head off’ (and certainly far more damaging to the public perception of the League).
Maybe the announcer genuinely feared that the fan was calling for a decapitation? The angry looks continued from the announcer following a 2 minute penalty to Rikki Byrniarski. “Two minutes for split ends!” shouted a Dragons fan. My personal favourite shout out of the night. Certainly wittier than the stupid remarks expected at EIHL Blaze games, but we can only assume the ENL Blaze announcer is used to quieter nights.
An on ice bust up between Shaun Kippin and a Blaze player results in an injury, unbeknownst to the away crowd, who don’t catch the sulky announcement whilst applauding the efforts of Kippin. Again, our snarky friend pipes in, “That’s not the type of reaction I expect when a player gets injured. Show some respect.” Whoever put this man in charge of a microphone should perhaps rethink their match night crew. The Dragons fans were not aware that an injury had occurred as a result of the fight. We couldn’t see the Blaze tunnel, although I’m sure the all-seeing, all-knowing stewards could see from their eagle-eyed viewpoint. Further indication of the contempt shown to a strong away contingent.
The game ended 5-1 in favour of the Blaze. A disappointing result, but by this point the Dragons fans wanted an explanation from the Skydome for their antagonistic attitude throughout the game. Whilst talking to the Stewards, the Dragons fans were confronted by the rink manager, who stated that “Dragons fans come with a reputation.”
A reputation? For being abusive, foul mouthed and insensitive? Maybe he doesn’t operate the rink on Elite League match nights. Besides, the behaviour of Dragons fans paled in comparison to the behaviour of Matt Selby, a Coventry Blaze defenseman. Never heard of him? I don’t blame you. According to the Elite League website and the statistics supplied by the ENL Blaze, Selby has only played 2 games all season for the ENL Blaze. He has spent 40 games playing for EIHL Blaze.
The EIHA Rules of Competition clearly states, in issues of player eligibility, that movement between teams within a club is permitted subject to restrictions, most notably; “10.5.12 All players must have played a minimum of 25% of their teams league games to qualify for play-offs.” It is our opinion that Matt Selby, first and foremost, was ineligible to play for Coventry ENL Blaze on Saturday at Deeside. We have invited the EIHA and the Coventry ENL Blaze to issue a statement on this issue.
Moreover, Selby should not have been eligible for Sunday’s game had it not been for a match ban. What caused it? Selby, following a penalty, smashed the glass at Deeside in an attempt to assault a passing fan. Once ejected from the game, Selby got changed, crossed the rink and pursued the fan, fronting him in the stands before the rink manager stepped in. Did the Dragons fans behave inappropriately at Coventry Skydome? Certainly not. Did Coventry ENL Blaze players behave inappropriately at Deeside Leisure Centre? Without a doubt.
Again, the fans suffer. This time, at the hands of a seventeen year old Coventry goon. Perhaps an apology is owed from the Blaze organisation, on behalf of Selby and on behalf of rink management at the Skydome.
A game that should have been contended on the ice became a farce contended in the stands. Momentum killed by officials, unsafe ‘family atmosphere’ thanks to marauding goons and hostile welcome to fans who travelled through the day and night to attend their favourite game. It’s about time the League held clubs like Coventry Blaze to account, pushing fans about as they did. But I doubt they ever will. Their Elite League side helps prop up a league on shaky financial ground and provides the base of operations for the GB squad. But if casual fans and newcomers witness such foolish behaviour as was witnessed this weekend, the sport suffers. And ultimately, the fans lose out.
© David Griffiths 2013