Champions League key to credibility

As the European market is diluted by the presence of American sports, the European Champions Hockey League carries increased importance for British teams.

Traditionally dismissed and overlooked as an ice hockey playing nation, Britain is slowly improving its reputation through the increasingly stable and popular Elite League, which includes 10 teams from England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

The league was handed a wildcard place in the 44-team competition in 2014/15, taken up by Nottingham Panthers.

After investing in their squad, the Panthers picked up a victory over Hamburg Freezers, and that was enough to persuade organisers to invite two UK teams for the current season – champions Sheffield Steelers and runners-up Braehead Clan.

Accessibility to the American market through TV deals and of course online streaming, increases the pressure on the minority sports.

The NHL is televised frequently on subscription channel Premier Sports, who also show the Elite League, while the NBA coverage is provided to BT Sport for free – effectively damaging any hope the British Basketball League might have had of tempting some television revenue for their clubs.

Progress for British clubs in the Champions Hockey League at least increases their perception and standing in the game, as the battle for attention gets even more fierce and even more widespread.

Braehead Clan’s surprise 6-4 win over ERC Ingolstadt has given more reason for UK hockey to be positive.

The Clan’s Operations Director, Gareth Chalmers, told us: “The win has opened eyes in a few respects, especially as its the second win in as many years for UK teams. There’s a lot of scepticism towards the UK, so these on-ice victories help.

“It also helps to grow the fanbase. You could certainly feel the difference in the atmosphere at the arena for the European game, as opposed to a normal league game.

“We beat a team that has a budget perhaps 10 times as big as ours, so that shows that the Elite League is gradually getting back towards a good level.

“It earns us respect. It’s traditionally been harder to recruit because the UK is frowned upon as a hockey nation, but perhaps that is starting to change, and some of the recruitment this year shows that.”

Clubs can do what they like off the field to improve their presence, as the Clan have shown with their reliance with online marketing, but it’s on the ice that plays the major part.

Chalmers added: “As a country, we will always struggle. We don’t have the facilities or the ice time to compete with the bigger nations, and of course football, rugby, tennis, cricket and golf and more are all there to compete with. It’s a society thing that we can’t change.”

The more money in the league, the better imports it can attract. There is a small pool of British players for clubs to go at, perhaps less than 200, while more than 20,000 players are available from overseas.

The progress of the Great Britain team, perhaps with the inclusion of dual-nationality stars, is also important to the UK’s growth.

The next aim in terms of the Champions League is to earn a so-called B licence, which would then mean clubs can earn a bonus for competing, believed to be around 15,000 euros.

“The Champions League put bums on seats. It got people’s attention. The whole competition was eye-opening, especially the professionalism we got to experience when visiting the other teams.

“We’ve learnt a lot of lessons and ideas to take on board. If we push on in the Elite League, we try and push the boundaries, and hopefully that means everyone else steps up. If we can aim for a B licence, and it might take time, it will certainly help with the credibility.”

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