Up at the crack of dawn, down to the Oxford train station, through Birmingham to Derby. Change of trains for the express to Nottingham. Walk to the Motorpoint Arena, a twenty-year-old facility that seats about 6500 people. Time to figure out what the heck British hockey is, firsthand. As I detailed yesterday, there are differences from how things work in North America. If you’re going to appreciate the game here, you have to understand these things.
As this day goes on, the architecture of British hockey is becoming more clear to me now that I’m on the ground and have had the chance to talk to people about it.
First off, the League Championship is really the thing for teams to win. Unlike the Presidents’ Trophy in the NHL, which as often as not brings a curse with it, the league trophy is coveted, a sign of consistency over the long haul (60 games) of the regular season.
The League Final weekend, by contrast, is won in a matter of four games. Two quarter finals, total goals (see yesterday’s story) and two on this weekend—semi-final and final. The weekend is a culmination and a celebration, but not as important as winning the season. The trophy, by the way, for the finals weekend, does not have a name. It’s about 16 years old, having been given out first in 2003.
This weekend is about two things, according to someone I spoke with who is connected with one of the teams: a celebration of hockey in Britain, and a money maker for the league. This because it is not tied to a particular team or an arena run by a team. It’s more like a marquee event—think NHL All-Star game, which is a league franchise.
This is necessary, my interviewee said, because the league needs funds to operate. Nobody’s getting rich here, is the implication, but rather, the league needs a way to keep up operations.
The season of British hockey also involves other aspects, namely a Challenge Cup tournament. This is a series of games played in round-robin fashion held during the regular season. British fans apparently can tolerate splitting their attention to keep track of regular season and within-season Challenge Cup play in a way that the singular focus of North American hockey does not demand.
So it’s possible that a team could play a game on Tuesday which counted toward their regular season standings, a Challenge Cup game on Friday, and another league game on Saturday. The Final of the Challenge was held in Belfast this year, in February.
This, I am given to understand, is a bit of a carry-over from football (soccer), which, as anyone who’s gotten into the English Premier League, for instance, knows, is seemingly always in the middle of some championship or other which involves extra-league play.
There are two other things to win in British hockey. One is the Conference Cup which is awarded to each of the three front-running teams in the three named conferences at the end of the year.
The other is involvement in a European tournament. There are two levels of this: one is the Champions Hockey League, which involves the big European teams. The other is the Continental Cup.
You’re forgiven for not understanding if you’re confused by the terminology. A “league,” in rest-of-the-world parlance, is a group of teams competing over the course of the season for a single championship. The term “league” in the context of this hockey scene in Britain/Europe is rather a tournament.
To hit one more key point: the level of the Elite Ice Hockey League, according to former player Mike O’Connor, is about at the low-level AHL calibre right now. “We used to recruit out of the ECHL,” he said, “But now it’s got to be higher. If you don’t have some NHL experience or connections, you’re not likely to do well here.” He said that depending upon who makes the Final on Sunday, the game could be more like a high-level AHL contest.
The play is somewhat different, however. It’s the bigger ice, you see, that makes that so. I’ll be watching for you as the weekend goes on, to try to spot the strategic and skill difference once those big, wide corners are taken into account. Mike said that it is common for teams to trap. I am anxious to see how that works on the big ice, or whether it costs excitement.
One thing to expect, he said, is that teams will come out tentative. There is a lot riding on a loss, or a win, in a single-elimination tournament.
OK, if you’ve got all that, you’re a bit up to speed on British hockey. If you don’t, then it doesn’t matter. Just remember this: the weekend is devoted to four games, two semis and a final, plus a consolation game for the two losers on Saturday. The team that wins is the PredictorBet Playoffs Champion.
A whole lot of thousands of people in crazy costumes will be watching to see what happens in these four games. But for that, see my next story.
Please let others know I’m doing this. Twitter is @growinguphockey. Thanks!