In theory, all of the ingredients are there: sub-zero temperatures, a dose of tactics, and an acceptable level of competitive brutality. And, yet, ice hockey in Scotland, a country with a notorious predilection for at least one of the above, is afflicted by a strangely marginalised status.
Disillusionment with the ever-precarious Scottish football may leave some sports fans open to a new spectacle – and the increasingly popular Elite Ice Hockey League could offer just that, a sentiment echoed by Neil Black, owner of Glasgow side Braehead Clan.
Speaking exclusively to The Journal, Black said: “I think it can do really well in Scotland because there are a lot of boxes that it ticks. I think a physical contact sport is the sort that Scotland takes to in terms of fans and the weather here also suits indoor sports like ice hockey.”
But even with those boxes ticked, the sport has endured something of a turbulent existence in Scotland. The British Ice Hockey Superleague (BISL), the previous incarnation of league hockey in the UK, collapsed in 2003 due to severe financial difficulties, only after it had endured several criticisms for its over-abundance of foreign recruits.
The Elite Ice Hockey League, successor to the Superleague, seems to be paving a more promising future for the sport in this country, though, with a conspicuous absence of homegrown talent gradually waning.
Black said: “A few of the teams have had quite a few years of training British players and bringing them through so we’ve got a good, hard core of British players in the league.”
A promising sign of progress certainly, albeit the spectacle itself is what will attract fans and generate revenue.
In truth, this shouldn’t prove a fruitless endeavour. The sport is vibrant yet accessible, physical yet somehow gentlemanly. What’s more, the league itself is “competitive from top to bottom” – just 23 points separate the top six teams after almost forty games – and “most of the people coming to the games are able to very quickly get up to speed with the game and a knowledge of the game,” added Black.
So, the league itself could fill the vacancy of a compelling family sport in Scotland, a vacancy for which football and the somewhat limited rugby union are no longer appropriate candidates. But what of the local outfit? What of the clambering Clan’s prospects?
The Braehead team are currently sixth in the league standings with 40 points, comfortably ahead of its three Scottish counterparts: Edinburgh
Capitals, Dundee Stars, and Fife Flyers, with the Capital outfit closest to the Clan, some 15 points adrift. It is perhaps the Glasgow club that best epitomises the growth of the sport as a whole in Scotland.
“There was a game only a couple of weeks ago where the [4,000 seater Braehead Arena] was sold out,” Black explained. “Braehead has probably only ever played 40 home games. That’s the history of Braehead: 40 games. So, it’s really in its infancy.”
What is not immediately certain is how the team – and indeed the league – will emerge from its infancy. Should we anticipate graceful ageing or a turbulent adolescence?
In truth, it could be a mixture of both. “The people going into it are going into it for the right reasons – because they like the product and not to make a name for themselves,” Black asserted.
Nonetheless, there lingers the aspiration to go bigger. “It would be nice to increase the media exposure in order to raise the profile of the game without becoming beholden to television,” he added.
“There’s a lot happening politically in Scotland. If there’s a sport I think it should embrace with a possibility of becoming very good at it, it’s ice hockey. The current world champions are Finland, a country with the same population as Scotland.”
As always, however, effective youth development of local talent will be paramount to realising this ambition. Currently, ice hockey is absent in many universities, a dilemma which could, and perhaps should, change.
“I’d like to see the universities in Glasgow start to embrace the sport,” said Black. “You can imagine it would be quite a nice spectacle and there’s a venue in
Braehead just sitting there waiting to be used in the evenings.”
It may seem a peculiar thought but with a promise of controlled violence and welcome respite from the harsh Glasgow winter, it’s hard to think of anywhere else young Scots would want to go.