“You should go to an ice hockey game. We’ve got a decent local team, and you might enjoy it!” said my wife of a miserable Saturday afternoon. Little did she know of the Pandora’s box she was hacking at with her rusty penknife of good-intention, held so delicately in those dainty little hands.
I’m aware that ice hockey isn’t a British thing, and that it probably came from Canada or America, or somewhere else that speaks funny. But I’m also aware that despite the exotic (pffft) roots of the game, the UK needs ice hockey. Not in a ‘yeah it’s okay I suppose, I’ll watch it if it’s there’ kind of a way, like Coronation Street or the Leicester Square street performers, but I mean that the UK really needs ice hockey for so many important reasons. With sticks and pucks and scary masks we could truly have a shot at fixing the grey, unhappy, introverted ne’er-do-wells of this great(ish) country. We could go from a nation of dejected football fans, crushed daily by the News At 10 and the rain, to an army of bloodthirsty brothers-in-arms with beaming smiles and fire in our bellies, proud to be a part of something huge and exciting together. A people tcomfortable flitting precariously from doing the YMCA, to screaming “smash him in the faaaaace!!!” as if it were the most natural thing in the world. Oh, to be fearless and happy. What a wonderful and magical land we could all live in.
So I took up my wife’s suggestion, albeit with no real expectation of the night ahead. I’d tried so hard as a kid to enjoy watching football matches, trudging onto the terraces of the mid-nineties to watch Huddersfield Town get sent to the slaughter over and over again, and trying to enjoy the more high-profile matches on the telly so that I could join in with the banter in the school yard. Always the same problem though; the pace was slow, ninety minutes felt like five hours, and the whole thing just felt… drab.
My wife used to date an ice hockey player, which is why she knows things about the game, and so on that night of nondescript weather and probably average temperature, she led the way as we entered the bright-white guts of Planet Ice Milton Keynes, and hunted down our chilled plastic blue seats in Block 12, Row B, ready to watch the apparently mighty Milton Keynes Lightning take on their local rivals Coventry Blaze.
Now, I’m a music fan. I’ve played in bands most of my life, and I listen to just about ANYTHING. Anything, that is, except for Coldplay or jazz - neither of which, I’m happy to report, could be heard spewing from the huge speakers dangling from the ceiling of the rink. Instead it was an insane and colourful mish-mash of techno, cheesy party hits, rock anthems, and kids sing-along classics such as the hokey-cokey. Never a full song, mind; you get about five seconds of each track before the next one kicks in, as if the DJ has been taken hostage and replaced with a fidgety Haribo-buzzed child and his iPod. But despite this onslaught of ‘next!... next!... next!’ the punters were all loving the music. And so was I! Garish, loud, silly and exciting! What an atmosphere! Such fanfare is a treat, and there was even a guy dressed as a polar bear getting the crowd all spooled up ready for the hockey.
As all this was going on, the players entered the ice and started warming up with painful-looking stretches.
What the shit?
The players had started taking practice shots at their respective goalies, and each missed or deflected shot was hitting the 8ft high plexiglass surrounding the rink with a ferocious amount of force, each one making me jump and twitch with its sharp thwack and adding yet more layers to the noise and the buzz. I was hooked, and the game hadn’t even started yet.
After the warm up we were all asked to stand for the British National Anthem, which I found weird for two reasons:
I’m not really patriotic. I’d leave the UK in a heartbeat for the right money. I’m also not in the Royal Family fanclub.
80% of the players on the ice weren’t British. Whatever, though, I played along.
Queen saved, it was time to watch my first ice hockey game, and holy fuckballs was I in for a treat.
I stopped eating meat in October 2017, and it wasn’t until I sat down to write this little article that I realised that the hockey game I’m telling you about took place in September of the same year - just one month earlier. Something just switched in my brain when I went veggie, and I’m suddenly struck by the notion that not only did I have ethical reasons to stop chewing on carcasses, but maybe my predacious and carnivorous instincts were instead being satisfied by watching two teams of guys with sticks battering the living fuck out of each other. Much better than a packet of Tesco ham.
And batter each other they did.
The average UK male probably spends their weekends in not the most healthy of predicaments, at least according to my own experiences and observations. Weekends are generally reserved for drinking, drug-taking, hangovers, television, dehydration, bad diets, and frivolous spending. Also potentially a healthy dose of wanking. It all comes down to distraction and indulgence, you see. But what was on offer here, at the hockey and in dazzling HD, was the healthy alternative to this destructive British weekend lifestyle. A chance to buzz your tits off without the impending self-loathe or regret. An opportunity to step off the precipice of standard weekend guff, and impale yourself upon the joyous spikes of shouty mob fun.
The game moved fast, faster and more brutally than any other team sport I’ve seen, and the hits came thick and fast.
Another player is creamed against the plexi by an incensed opponent, the shockwaves sending a spectator’s pint of beer into a cartwheel which leaves the cup empty on the ground, and the old guy’s shoes all wet. He doesn’t care. He fucking loves it, the hockey slag.
A cheeky Blaze player skates up behind one of the home team guys and, completely without provocation, nails him in the back with his stick. Our guy goes down, the crowd jump to their feet in protest, and I just can’t stop smiling at this amazing slapstick spectacle. It reminds me of Friday nights in the early nineties, sat watching Bottom on the telly. Eddie smashing Richie in the face with a frying pan just to keep us entertained.
And then it’s time for retaliation, and the moment arrives. The moment that sealed the whole deal for me. The moment that I knew I was not only a hockey fan, but also a bit of a twisted bastard:
Our defence doorstop Matt Nickerson, a hulking bearded guy who wouldn’t look out of place on Game Of Thrones, skates up behind the offending Blaze player Danick Paquette. Nickerson throws his gloves and helmet to the ice in a gesture that screams COME ON THEN, YOU PRICK, and Paquette wastes no time in doing the same. The two throw their fists up in front of themselves like old-school boxers did in black and white photos. They face each other as they skate in a small arc, and stare deep into each other’s souls as they snarl and spit like a couple of rottweilers.
Surely the referees won’t allow this! Bare knuckle fighting on ice can’t be allowed, can it?!
The refs just stand and watch. I’m so happy.
The fighters lunge at each other, each grabbing the other by the jersey, and after a small scuffle the punches are rained down by Nickerson onto Danick’s wet face. Each punch pounds into his face like an anvil being dropped off a shed roof as he flails under the battering ram. The entire crowd erupts, and Danick drops to the ice, Nickerson falling on top of him. Both refs dive forward to separate them, and Nickerson raises his arms in jubilation as he’s escorted off to the sin bin to pay his five minute penalty.
The whole rukus lasts only 15 seconds, but it was the greatest 15 seconds of any sports game I’ve ever witnessed, and a surge of warmth and togetherness sweeps the home supporter’s stands of Planet Ice, as strangers smile and laugh and hug. Everyone is brought a few increments closer. Over the next few matches the shy hellos will turn into small chats, and then pre-match meetings for food and coffee. Soon there are BBQ invites and social events, completely independent of any hockey game. Friendships and happiness borne of a couple of short-fused sportsmen smashing the holy fuck out of each other. Thank you ice hockey for bringing me some shiny new friends.
It’s also worth noting, for the record, that the fighting is real. This isn’t Wrestlemania. These guys have perpetually busted noses, and big gaps in their scowls where bunches of teeth are missing. It’s also worth noting that the above mentioned Matt Nickerson has since been dropped from the team for attacking a fan. I know I shouldn’t like this, but I really REALLY do. It’s dangerous, and very very real. He actually walked past my house recently, a few weeks after his sacking, and in my starstruck panic I couldn’t find the right words to greet him so I just swung my door open and shouted “MATT NICKERSON!” at him like a special needs child. He looked a bit scared and made off quickly with a polite nod. Oh well.
On top of all of this, the healthier weekends and the fighting and the new mates, there’s also the AWAY games. The perfect excuse to spend weekends travelling the country whilst proudly showcasing your team’s colours. And because this isn’t football, you’re unlikely to get stabbed on the train! Bonus! In fact, opposing team supporters regularly mix on the stands, all cuddly and happy together. Imagine that!
Take all of this good wholesome shit and layer it up with the pepperoni pizzas, and the hotdogs longer than your dong (thrice as long as mine) which the many rinks serve up during each period break, and it’s not hard to see what a treat ice hockey is, and how it can put smiles on the faces of the down-beaten patrons of our proud country.
And what of the spectacular MK vs. Coventry game that served as my introduction to this outstanding sport? MK won of course. 5 goals to 1. They shitted out when it came to the league standings, though, didn’t even make the playoffs. But it’s all cool. All the more reason to come back again next season.
And where’s the fun in always winning anyway? Everyone loves a good underdog story, and just like the classic movie underdogs — Rocky Balboa, Daniel LaRusso, Happy Gilmore — I predict that the popularity of ice hockey in the UK will increase steeply, turning hordes of new fans into a real force to be reckoned with.
It will creep upon us when we’re not looking, and nail us in the back with a stick.