The United Kingdom is a country that’s associated with several major sports. England is where football, rugby, and cricket were all invented, the West Midlands is home to the majority of the world’s Formula 1 teams, and sports like golf, tennis, and cycling are all incredibly popular across all four nations of the UK.
The country is also home to the Premier League, the world’s largest and most-watched club football competition, and hosts a number of major international events each year. This includes Wimbledon, the only Grand Slam event played on grass; the British Grand Prix at Silverstone, the track that saw the first official Formula 1 World Championship race; and The Open Championship, the oldest golf tournament in the world.
With so much sport on offer, it’s little surprise that Brits love taking part in, watching, and betting on the many different competitions. In recent years, bookmakers like The Pools have seen huge increases in betting volumes after offering free bets to new customers and advertising online and during sports broadcasts on TV.
Although football is by far the most popular sport in terms of the number of fans, watch-hours, and betting volume, almost every other discipline has also found a strong following in the UK.
One sport that has struggled, though, is ice hockey. The sport has seen turbulent periods in its recent history with multiple league restructures, several liquidations, and spectator figures that have yo-yoed up and down several times.
The UK’s Long Relationship with Hockey
Hockey has a long and close relationship with the UK. The sport originated in Canada, a country that enjoys copious amounts of snowfall and ice in the winter, providing the perfect place for an ice-based sport.
According to the International Ice Hockey Federation, the first organised game was played in Montreal back in 1875. 13 years later, a man named Sir Frederick Arthur Stanley became the 6th Governor General of the territory.
Stanley was a member of the British aristocracy, bearing the title 16th Earl of Derby. He was a member of the Conservative Party and had a number of roles, including Civil Lord of the Admiralty, Secretary to the Treasury, War Secretary, Colonial Secretary, and President of the Board of Trade.
However, his appointment as Governor General of Canada would have a major impact on ice hockey to this today. It was while in Canada that he and several people close to him became avid ice hockey fans.
This led to him donating the “Dominion Hockey Challenge Cup” to the country, a trophy that would be awarded to the best hockey team on an annual basis. A few years later, the trophy received a new name, and one that has stuck to this day: the Stanley Cup.
Struggles for Hockey in Britain
Despite the biggest trophy in hockey named after a member of the 19th-century British aristocracy, the sport has struggled to take hold at home.
In the 2000s, a decline in spectators led to a number of teams to struggle financially, with some even folding. In April 2003, the Ice Hockey Superleague went into liquidation leading to tension between those responsible for the regulation of the sport in the UK. This is something that has not gone away, with the English Ice Hockey Association rejecting proposals to create a UK-wide governing body in December 2020.
Besides some in-fighting, there are more structural issues for hockey in the country. Ice hockey thrives most in nations that have very cold winters, such as Canada, Russia, and Sweden. The only major exception to this rule is the United States.
Despite the common stereotypes of the country being cold and miserable for much of the year, snow is relatively rare in the UK. Freezing temperatures are typically quite brief, with Brits waking up to a light sprinkling of frost in the winter, but much of this melting by mid-day. Therefore, there isn’t the scope for outdoor and makeshift rinks for people to play on. Instead, all ice hockey must take place on indoor rinks, with few opportunities for amateurs to get started.
Lack of coverage by the media is another problem, with most newspapers all but ignoring the Elite Ice Hockey League and those in the tiers below it. This is despite the fact that the Elite Ice Hockey League is the only national sports league in the country that includes at least one team from each of the UK’s four home nations: England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland.
Signs of Strength
Despite many difficulties, there are many positive stories that have come out of British hockey in recent years. Perhaps the most famous success story is that of the Sheffield Steelers.
Founded in 1991, it’s the third-oldest surviving club in the league, behind the Coventry Blaze that was formed in 1965 and the Nottingham Panthers that was established in 1946.
The Steelers’ FlyDSA Arena Sheffield has a maximum capacity of 13,600, almost twice as big as the National Ice Centre in Nottingham and the SSE Arena in Belfast. The team has won five EIHL titles, more than any other in the league.
It hasn’t just been a success on the ice either. The club was bought by a local businessman in 2011. Before then, it had been struggling financially and had seen a long decline in game attendance.
Smith took a different approach to others in the league. He invested in a giant Videotron, the giant box of screens you see hanging down from most indoor arenas in North America. In a typical Yorkshire style, he told a reporter from The Guardian that it had “cost (him) an arm and a leg”, but that it was an investment worth making.
The Steelers are a long way off the 20,000+ attendance figures that are seen week in week out in the NHL, but they’re trying to get there. They’ve got around halfway to that number, with attendances as high as 9,000 in recent years, by emulating the rivalries, excitement and tension created by the North American competition.
Hockey has had a turbulent history in the last few decades, with several rises and falls. However, a UK-wide competition and shrewd investments that seek to learn from leagues like the NHL appear to be working for the sport.
In another decade, things will likely look very different for hockey in the UK. If those involved can continue their hard work, the future could well be very bright.