To our cousins across the pond, playoff time means sold out arenas, best-of-sevens, and general hockey mania. Over here in Britain, it’s not quite so extravagant.
A far cry from the format of the NHL playoffs, the Elite League culminates in one weekend of 3 (meaningful – sometimes there’s a 3rd/4th place game that’s largely pointless) games – semifinals on the Saturday, final on the Sunday – in Nottingham, a city in the midlands. It’s not quite the postseason climax that you kids get.
Of course, a league that’s comprised of Brits and Europeans as much as North Americans is never going to be as skilled as the Show, and accordingly will never command the same media attention. Add this to the fact that the majority of Brits will never be dragged away from their Saturday afternoons on the ‘soccer’ terraces and the subsequent evening’s binge-drinking and casual violence in the pub, and the future looks pretty bleak for British ice hockey. Teams are slowly but surely moving to smaller (but newer) venues, and the rise of the sport in the nineties has been followed by a definite slump in the noughties.
And yet, for the rare breed, the British hockey fanatic, playoff weekend is something to look forward to as much as gathering round the TV to watch the finals series on NASN, or watching Manchester United lose, and that’s because not only is the quality of hockey the best we get all year, but the hockey community is brought together for 2 glorious days.
Unlike the finals in the US and Canada, the very nature of the Elite league playoffs means fans from each of the ten teams (yes, just ten) buy their tickets in advance, hoping that their team will make it – and if they don’t, the fans go along for the banter, the drinking, and to cheer for whichever team is playing their biggest rivals. With every single team in the league – and several from lower leagues – represented, the city is turned into a veritable hockey town, with every other person sporting a jersey from somewhere and the local Hooters packed to the rafters.
However, British hockey differs from soccer in that this doesn’t necessitate a heavy police presence, or forced division of fans in the stands. On the contrary, one of the biggest pulls to this weekend is the opportunity to mingle with fans from all over the country – and this usually means drinking with, not fighting with.
Sure, Sheffield fans and Nottingham fans might hate each other with all the intensity of a Leafs-Habs rivalry when the game is on, but after the match the abuse melts into a gentle chiding over a pint. Yes, there's banter aimed at each group – Belfast fans being the typical Irish drinkers, Sheffield being the arrogant ones, Coventry’s fanbase being 90% ‘chav’ – but its all taken in a light hearted manner and given back in the same way. Even the players join in the occasion, with those knocked out on the Saturday often partying that evening, and the winners on Sunday painting the town their team’s colours (metaphorically of course) on the closing night.
The next morning, everyone goes home, goes to work, and the rest of the country can go back to not even realising the sport exists in this country. Sure, there’s no real media coverage, no 20,000 seater arenas and certainly no Don Cherry, but there’s the best of British hockey and a damn good party, and that’s just about enough to tide us over til the NHL playoffs begin.
It’s all very British, very understated, and very good fun. Lord Stanley would be proud, I’m sure.