Sharpen your skates!

First published in What's On

By Simon Hope.

Sport is an important aspect to many people's lives in Britain. Whether it be participation during school years, having a kick about with a Sunday league Football Club or just being a dedicated fan of one of the many teams across the country representing a wide range of sports. Some of those skilled and lucky enough may even take part in the Olympics hosted in London this year! 2012 will take on a whole new level of national pride as fans across the nation live out their hopes and dreams through our British Athletes who look to make their name on the global stage during the games this summer.

The British sports fan has been a resilient being. No amount of disappointment will ever stop us from tuning into Wimbledon every year, The Football World Cup every 4, the Ashes, the Rugby World Cup, F1 racing. The list is endless, within them all a number of heartbreaking moments inter spliced amongst sheer joy. With each new tournament comes the feelings of “This is our year!” And it will be no different throughout the months of July and August. This IS our year. Whatever controversies lie underneath, rumblings about the costs of the games and so on. It will be set aside, and rightfully so, if one of those representing our flag steps up to that podium and has gold placed around their necks. In that moment we will all be proudly united. Winners or losers, this IS our year.

Bolton itself has been home to a wonderful crop of successful athletes, Amir Khan, a silver medal winning boxer ready to take America by storm with his rematch against Lamont Peterson. As well as the late, great Nat Lofthouse. Bolton Wanderers has had it's moments of disappointment this year as they continue to struggle, but even if relegation is on the horizon, the club will be back fighting with it's dedicated fans at it's back. All this is without mentioning the wave of young talent waiting in the wings looking to make a splash in the sports world. It could be a reader in a few years time!

What I would like to do with this article however, is bring a little attention to a beloved sport of mine which doesn't quite hold the same limelight. Ice Hockey.

Ice Hockey was likely invented outdoors amongst the icy conditions of Canada by British Soldiers stationed there and the many immigrants coming to the country taking the idea of Stick-and-ball games, which had been played since the Middle Ages, and developing them. Today it is a sport that is a mishmash of skill, strength, speed and grace. The rules may have changed throughout the years, but the spirit , purity and fierce competitiveness of that primitive first foray onto the ice still resides within the game. It is not for the faint-hearted. Every shift (players work in shifts, the game is so explosive and quick less-than-a-minute shifts are rotated amongst 5 skaters on each team, 3 forwards and 2 defencemen. With a sixth player on each team being the goalie) the players leave their hearts, and sometimes their blood, on the ice as they aim to shoot puck into the oppositions net and keep it out of their own! It is a sport that continues to grow in Europe, as national teams begin to bridge the skill gap,slowly but surely, between themselves and the powerhouse nations of Canada, Russia, Sweden and the USA. There are many domestic leagues throughout these countries, which include the Kontinental Hockey League of Russia and the Swedish Elite League. The ultimate goal for many up and coming players however, is to make the National Hockey League of North America.

Each year teams within the NHL battle for the Stanley Cup. Originally inscribed the Dominion Hockey Challenge Cup, the trophy was donated in 1892 by then-Governor General of Canada the Lord Stanley of Preston, as an award for Canada's top-ranking amateur ice hockey club. After years of changes, leagues uniting or disappearing and expansion within the United States the NHL is at it's arguable peak of competitiveness. 30 teams within the US and Canada play a regular season of 82 games, in which they must qualify for one of the 16 playoff spots, (8 in each conference, North America being so large the league is split into the East and West) Once this seeding is decided teams must fight it out in 4 best-of-7 series to be crowned the winner. 16 wins in all. One of if not the hardest trophies in sports to win. Try catch a game online sometime, there are a number of classic games on sites like Youtube. One of which was the Gold Medal game of the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver between the USA and Canada, televised on the BBC.(Canada won Gold in overtime, much like the Golden Goal rule in football in which the two teams continue play after regulation and the next goal to be scored decides the outcome) Which links in very nicely...

Earlier in the year the Youth Winter Olympics of 2012 took place, it did not receive much publicity or TV coverage so It's likely that many had no idea about the tournament and some of the participants. Ice Hockey was one of the many sports in which 1100 athletes from 70 countries competed for Gold. Amongst the hopefuls, was Katherine Gale of Great Britain. Team GB did not have a team representing during the games but Katherine was to take part in the Individual Skills Challenge, She made a valiant effort and placed fifth in the standings. A big well done to her and let's hope Katherine Gale is a name many more people will come to know of as she furthers her success.

Unfortunately Great Britain is rather far behind many others when it comes to Ice Hockey, we may be a fair way from competing with the best nations during the Winter Olympics(though it may surprise you to find, despite the lack of success Team GB has had in recent times, Great Britain actually has a Gold Medal from the Winter Olympics in Ice Hockey, won in 1936, they shockingly beat Canada to win Gold, that's right, Team GB has won as many Ice Hockey gold medals as England has won football World Cups!) but hopefully within a few years we will be making headway in progressing the sport in the UK. Team GB came awfully close to being promoted to the same division as Canada and the other big Hockey countries earlier this year but results did not go their way, though recently they staved off relegation from their pool with a vital victory over Hungary. With newly appointed head coach Tony Hand, a legend amongst British Ice Hockey fans Team GB may be on the upturn yet. Tony Hand was actually drafted in 1988 by the Edmonton Oilers of Canada but returned to Britain after exhaustion and feelings of homesickness, he is still playing today at 41 years old with the Manchester Phoenix team of the English Premier Ice Hockey League(one of two domestic leagues within Britain,the other is the Elite Ice Hockey League), he holds the position of Player-Head Coach and recorded 133 points the season before last, tallying 25 goals and a whopping 108 assists. Manchester Phoenix were crowned league Champions during the 2010/2011 season but fell short this season and succumbed to the Slough Jets in the Playoffs.

The Manchester Phoenix play at Silver Blades arena in Altrincham,so if you feel like trying something new, please go and watch. Only through fan support can Britain get better and go on to compete.

So that is that. A little information on a lesser known, yet fantastic sport. Hopefully the game continues to grow, and maybe within a few years we will start to hear “British Superstars” and “Ice Hockey” in the same sentence. Here's hoping! So go out there, get skating. Hopefully you fall on your face less than me.

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