I’ve now been twice to see ice hockey in Chelmsford, a sport only previously seen on TV, largely at the Winter Olympics. My memories are of people being slammed into the clear plastic barriers at great force, and of frequent mass brawls. Oh, and a small black rubber disc occasionally finding its way past a man wearing a sumo suit and into a tiny net no bigger than an onion bag. Going in person gives a different perspective, but evidently the world of ice hockey has not changed too much in the intervening years.
Essentially this is football on ice – each team trying to score more goals than the other, but there the similarity ends. This is men in thick padding on skates wielding sticks that have the potential to be vicious weapons. As for the rules and the modus operandi, read on… This much I will say: the sport has its own vocabulary, and to write this blog I did take advantage of a glossary and overview of the sport. Essential for beginners!
Admittedly this was not the Olympics, but English National League, equivalent to Division 3 UK behind the Elite League and Premier League and thus proving that giving leagues silly inflated titles is not restricted to speedway. But what counted tonight was a fierce local rivalry: Chelmsford Chieftans playing the Romford Raiders, respectively second and first in the league. The Chelmsford faithful in their white and orange crammed one side of the arena, while the Romford mob, resplendent in royal blue and yellow favours, occupied a large corner near the benches where non-playing team members sit, of which more in a moment.
The atmosphere was building long before a puck was struck in anger, though in fairness nobody was tearing lumps out of anybody else, nor ripping the facilities apart. The rivalry was friendly, though the verbal abuse decidedly fruity on occasions – but lacking the f-words you would have found in the more macho culture of football stadia.
Then the house lights dimmed and each side made its entrance by the light of a mirror ball and demonstrated their prowess by skating in circles around their half of the rink to much cheering. How quaint, I thought!
The players, foreign imports apart, are young amateurs. They play for fun at small provincial rinks which attract a loyal and enthusiastic following, and just occasionally the most talented will rise up the ranks. Disappointingly, I saw only one black player on either side, though a smattering of Eastern European names demonstrated where the hotbed of ice hockey talent remains.
Then the face-off. No, not the silly Travolta-Cage movie, but one of two refs (usually they have three) dropping the puck then standing well back as the sticks scrabble and the puck flies off. The puck is black but often it’s invisible. You only know it’s there because players are tussling for possession. It did occur to me on occasions that it might be like the tennis match at the end of Blow Up, where the ball is imaginary, but then the puck scuttles briefly into view before being despatched up the ice at 100mph, pursued by skaters. Pace is everything, though like the quickstep, there are moments when possession is maintained, often when the puck is in the end zone, behind the goal.
In fact, pace is such that the players are on and off the ice continuously. I have no doubt it would wear me out in no time, but it was somewhat surprising when after 30 seconds the clock stopped for an infringement and both sides changed their entire squads on ice. Throughout the game players are continually hopping in and out of their team area, such that the refs have not a hope in hell of keeping track of how many players are actually out there.
Attacks are relentless and frequently end-to-end, but scoring seems tricky. How do you get the tiny puck A past sumo B into onion bag C? The answers seem to be as follows:
- Hit it so fast he can’t see it, let alone react in time
- Aim for his box and hope he fails to protect his modesty in time by laying pads down on the ice
- Scuff your shot so it deceives said goal minder completely
- Engage in a free-for-all in front of the goal, where the puck could and often does go anywhere.
Ah, I hear you say, but what about the violence for which the sport is famed? This is where I started to get confused. There seemed to be any amount of pushing, barging, body checking, slashing, even head butting going on in full view of the refs, for which no penalty was exacted, but at regular intervals penalties were called against player or team, for which 2 or more minutes in the “sin bin” for offences including tripping, hooking, slashing and more. But what about occasions they were slashing without penalty, I asked my neighbour. Shrug. “It has to be personal against the player.” In other words, m’lud, there must be a clear intent formed to knock the nuts off said opponent. Bit tricky that, but dissent was minimal so presumably the players accept a ref’s interpretation… apart from the occasions when they attack the refs too (I hear this has happened.)
At any rate, the crowd seemed very much in favour of boxing and wrestling as much as ice hockey: “Take him out,” screamed a woman in front of me. “Knock his block off,” yelled another. Why is it women seemed to love the fisticuffs more than the male spectators?!
Yes, but what about the violence?! Well one home player was penalised for 10 minutes for grabbing his partner by the waist, and not for the next waltz. There were a couple of flare-ups, including what promised to be an all-out war of attrition, though strangely nobody got penalised at all on that occasion. Much to the delight of the crowd, a home favourite tried to knock seven bells out of a Romford opponent, and got a 4 minute penalty, even though there were only 2 minutes 45 seconds left to play!! Ah, my child, this is indeed a strange game. My neighbour had been coming for 6 or 7 years and still hadn’t got the hang of all the rules.
As for the match, well remember this is a game of three “halves”. They play for 20 minutes a go, though the clock stops frequently. In the first period, the Raiders scored and Chelmsford equalised. 1-1 and my neighbour was still confident of a home victory. Sadly the wheels came off in period 2 – three unanswered goals for the pesky Romfordians and it was 1-4 and a mountain to climb. A brief flurry in the final period brought it back to 2-4 but somehow the opposition managed to score from what appeared to be behind the goal.
Football chants rang out: “Romford, Romford”. The home fans became subdued, sighed philosophically as they queued for their coffee and beef burgers, and went home to slash and hook their cats. Still a pretty entertaining night out for £8.50, and the Chieftans will be back to fight another day. Or should that be…
PS. Seems this is all tame stuff. If you want to see the real blood and guts, you have to try the NHL games over in America. Team members are employed as “enforcers” and a widespread belief that the league won’t dispense justice so the teams apply their own form of vigilante justice, resulting in players being stretchered off regularly with concussion and broken limbs. The league is trying to re-establish control by applying suspensions to players deemed to have taken the law into their own hands, but remember this is the land where proven drugs cheats get 4-match bans. The fans doubtless bay for blood every match, but as it gets nastier there is a very real possibility of players dying on the ice. What then?