Ice hockey started in Britain, but students face red tape, a dearth of facilities and financial obstacles in efforts to set up a league. Matthew Baker reports
It may be a bit of a sporting sideline in the UK now, but if things had turned out differently more than a century ago, ice hockey could well have been one of our national sports.
"Most people think it originated in Canada or the US, but in fact it was first played here in Britain at the end of the 19th century," says Simon Hopkins, a British Universities Ice Hockey representative from Nottingham University and one of the men leading the sport's revival on the university circuit.
"It started on the Fens in Norfolk when the marshes froze over. But, unfortunately, many of the players involved migrated to Canada, taking the game with them."
Even so, Oxford and Cambridge universities have been playing an annual ice hockey fixture since 1885 - the sport's oldest rivalry - and, as far as Hopkins is concerned, it is time to bring the game back home.
Along with Russell Ellis at the University of London and Graham Barber from Newcastle University, Hopkins has worked hard to create the first universities ice hockey league in Britain.
Their efforts have been enthusiastically welcomed by student players and supporters but frustratingly stymied by bureaucracy and lack of facilities.
"We first mooted the idea of a league in 1999 when Warwick, Newcastle and Northumbria Wildcats, and the Imperial Devils (London universities) created teams to join the Oxford and Cambridge annual varsity match rivalry," he says.
"But this was thwarted by the sport's governing body, Ice Hockey UK, which acted under a ruling made by its governing body, the International Ice Hockey Federation." The problem was that groups of clubs are forbidden from creating leagues unless they agree to pay an International Transfer Card fee of £600 for each foreign national player.
Hopkins was frustrated by the decision to impose this ruling on non-professional clubs. It scuppered his plans because there are many foreign students playing on the universities circuit. But now a loophole has been found.
"I've managed to negotiate with the English Ice Hockey Association to create not a league, but a 'cup competition'," Hopkins says. It will be in league format and will operate under the EIHA recreational section, which in effect allows the new British Universities Ice Hockey Committee to run things as it likes.
Hopkins warns, however, that there are still plenty of obstacles to overcome.
"One of the biggest problems our team has is finding somewhere to train," he says. "We've got the National Ice Centre on our doorstep here in Nottingham, yet we are hardly ever able to use it because they cannot accommodate us. We've offered to come and train at six o'clock in the morning or midnight, but still they cannot accommodate us. They are reportedly losing £1 million a year, and they still do not want our money."
Not that there is much spare cash to go round either.
"We're trying to get a main sponsor, but at the moment all the funding is coming from the clubs - from the students themselves," he says.
Then there is the matter of facilities. "Most of the ice rinks in England are quite old and not very good. We cannot even get our team in the dressing room at a lot of the rinks because they are too small. Sometimes we have to change under the seats of the stand."
Despite these less than ideal circumstances, Hopkins reports that the team spirit among the cup competition league's players is in a class of its own.
"The students take a great pride in being hockey players," he says.
"There are a lot of replica shirts being worn around the campus now, and the bonding and camaraderie are fantastic. They all socialise together so there is a real sense of fun and belonging."
A player himself, Hopkins says the highly charged and tough physical nature of the game adds to the frenzy on match day. "From the moment the players get into the locker room, the atmosphere is electric," he says. "Everyone is pumped up and raring to get on the ice and play hard."
Play hard is precisely what they do. The risk of injury is high in a sport where taking physical hits is part and parcel of the game, the players travel at about 65kph and the puck at 130kph.
"I have had a couple of bad injuries myself," Hopkins recalls. "A dislocated and fractured clavicle was about the worst." He adds that there are a range of skills and techniques that can be employed to minimise the risk of injury when taking a hit.
These dangers do not seem to detract from the sport's attractiveness to students, though, as the increasing numbers wanting to join their university team attest.
Hopkins says: "It appeals to everyone. People who have not skated before, those who are not good enough for the football team or the kind who just want to try something different. They are coming to us in droves and finding that the sport is infectious. Within a short period of time, they are able to play at a competent level."
As someone who used to play in roller skates in the street when he was young, Hopkins has high hopes that the new competition, due to start this October, will significantly raise the profile of the game.
"The college leagues in Canada and the US are huge. They attract massive audiences and they are televised," he says. "It would require a big cultural shift to see the same thing happen here, but that is what we are aiming to do."
University matches have already drawn crowds that are substantially bigger than English Premier League ice hockey matches, he says, due to the large student support base that is fast developing.
Looking to the future, he has one eye on the next Winter Olympics for students in 2005. "By then, we feel a British team will have a very good chance of getting in among the medals, perhaps even winning it."