British Hockey Must Break Stereotype
The Elite League is not the first league to see an altercation spill over – where things should be left on the ice, tempers flare off it.
In each case, the results are always unsavoury. No matter the physical contact (or lack thereof), it reflects poorly on all involved, the optics painting an ugly picture.
Regardless of whether it’s the NHL or the EIHL, such incidents are, rightly, frowned upon.
But where, say, the AHL may quickly be able to move on from such incidents, the British game is hindered by them.
The sport here is too often a victim to stereotyping, and it’s on the clubs, leagues and governing bodies to change that.
The run in between Manchester’s Devin DiDiomete’s and Fife’s Danny Stewart on Sunday night appeared on TSN’s ‘Bardown’ site, and it feels inevitable others will pick up on the story – much like they did when Edinburgh’s Joe Grimaldi speared Nottingham’s Max Parent, before throwing his helmet at, and then fighting Parent last season.
Again, we see these odd incidents in other leagues from time to time. They are, thankfully, rare across the hockey world, with the EIHL no better or worse than some others when we consider how many games pass without incident.
The problem is not that they happen, but that the British game is somehow intrinsically linked with them in some people’s eyes.
It’s a two fold issue – one on the home front and the other ‘internationally’.
At home clubs face a constant battle for peoples hard earned cash. Whether we’re talking about a club like Sheffield at the top end of the EIHL or Lee Valley Lions toward the bottom end of the NIHL, they all want to get people through the door.
One of the greatest barriers to this is the image ice hockey has in the UK.
Whilst existing fans, and even old fans who have drifted away, have a handle on what the sport is really about, the majority of non-fans still see hockey through a stereotype – a bunch of toothless Canadians fighting each other and occasionally chasing a rubber disc around.
Personally, I lost count of the amount of time I was asked if I’d ‘been in many fights’ when people found out I played hockey; but that is how the majority sees the sport.
Some claim that fighting puts ‘bums on seats’, but if that were true we’d already see many more spectators at games each weekend – the stereotype alone would do much of the marketing for teams. Just sign your circus act and let nature take its course.
The reality is, fighting is dying out within the sport naturally. Times are changing, no matter how hard some people would like to cling on to it, and billing hockey as a ‘family sport’ whilst fighting is still actively promoted at the same time seems bizarre.
It doesn’t sell. I can partially accept the argument that fighting is part of the sport, at least for now, but active promotion of it, or a passive attitude towards dispelling the myth, only hold the sport back in Great Britain.
The world is moving on. The sport is moving on. And hockey in Britain is failing to keep up. Players like DiDiomete keep finding a job here.
The knock on is that British hockey’s image across the hockey world is also tarnished by this.
Cam Janssen is unlikely to have found a job in any other major league. DiDiomete’s stats probably tell even the most casual observer everything they need to know about his style of play. And thus the idea that Great Britain is still a haven for fighters continues to burn.
Each ‘tough’ signing that is trumpeted only pours further fuel on that fire.
And when such reputations spread, they become barriers to recruitment.
The Globe and Mail’s James Mirtle described British hockey as a sort of ‘Slapshot hockey’ on The Hockey PDOcast in October. This is the image the hockey world has of the game here, and when it comes to a choice between the ‘tough league’ in Great Britain or the ‘skilled’ Danish League, potential players think they know what they’re getting in to, one way or the other – unfortunately that often means missing out on someone who would actually make the league better.
And we will continue to lose out if players see the British game as some kind of last chance saloon for pugilists.
The real tragedy is that the inability or unwillingness to try and change this stereotype undoes a lot of other good work around the sport here. Those players that do sign in Great Britain often express their surprise at how high the standard of play actually is here, a standard which is only increasing each year.
But for all the good Manchester General Manager Neil Russell and his team have done to promote the Storm in their inaugural season, Sunday’s incident will remain the talking point for an uncomfortably long time.
British hockey doesn’t have to eradicate fighting – that’s a whole other debate for another time – but it does need to address its image if it is to grow.
It is possible to be seen as a fast paced, contact sport without promoting fighting. The onus now is on the clubs, leagues and governing bodies to break the stereotypes and show people, both at home and abroad, that the EIHL, EPL and NIHL are on the up, that skilled players can ply their trade here and that ice hockey is about speed, finesse and artistry – not punching each others lights out.
Because that stereotype just ain’t working for us.