The idea for this book was born about as far away from the chilled air of an ice rink as it’s possible to get. On the hottest day of an English summer in mid-July 2012, deep in the dog-days of an ice-hockey offseason, in fact.
Summer does funny things to a hockey fans’ mind, particularly in Britain. We are a clannish bunch, clinging desperately to dreams of “twisted wristers”, “Crispin Glovers” and “bolts from the blue line” like we’re holding onto a tiny raft in a sea of massive sporting indifference. We are a people who flock together, happiest in the company of those who know what a five-hole is, or like to while away time in the pub debating who will win the Stanley Cup.
But, unless you know the places to go, those with ice in their souls will have to wander widely in this land before finding a fellow hockey lover-and even when they do, it still takes a little while to work your way into the small but incredibly passionate world that is that of British ice hockey fandom.
You have to sometimes be prepared to watch (and play) games in rinks that would probably be laughed at as ramshackle in Toronto or Winnipeg, with crowds smaller than junior A games in many places, or stay up until dawn to catch your NHL team live on an unreliable Internet feed or obscure pay-satellite channel (East Coast games aren’t too bad, but those on the West Coast often don’t start until the very dead of night, and God help you if there’s overtime in the playoffs-many’s the time I have finally seen the end of a West Coast game as dawn is beginning to steal across the sky and the milkman and postman are making their deliveries outside).
Here in Britain, football (the proper version, the one North Americans call “soccer”), rugby and cricket dominate the back pages. The sporting public is one that, in the main, is simply unaware of the joy involved in watching one of your d-men go coast-to-coast, or a streaking forward take a saucer pass out of the air and snap it top-shelf. Mention hockey to the average British sports fan and you’ll often be greeted with a blank look-mention that the sport is played in Britain to a decent level and that there is a well-established (though confusing to outsiders) system of leagues in place and that there’s a team in your town, and you’ll often be greeted with surprise or a response of “but that’s the game where they just fight all the time, right?”
In the long summer of 2012, with the country gripped by Olympic fever (or Olympic apathy, depending on who you listened to) due to the Games taking place in London, the off-season seemed to take us further away from a land of ice and flashing blades than ever. But lost amongst the discussion of anti-aircraft missiles on rooftops, British medal hopes and argument over whether it was all worth it, people all over Britain were closely monitoring the off-season moves of their team, watching who signed for their rivals, and already trying to work out their teams’ chances of glory (or lack of them) come the new season.
Just like hockey fans all over the world, in fact.
For me, the comings and goings across British hockey hold more than a fan’s interest. For the past two years I’ve commentated on Coventry Blaze games broadcast live over the internet to paying subscribers, dreaming of using my local team as a stepping stone to become the next Gary Thorne, Doc Emrick or Jim Hughson. The Blaze have been my team since 2000, when they moved to Coventry, and, like hockey, have become one of the consuming passions of my life.
Every Sunday from late August to mid-April I can be found at the small, 3,000 seat Coventry Skydome, positioned on a media gallery describing the action on the ice to a small audience of (at most) a couple of hundred people, as around 2,000 people watch. In the Blaze’s time at the Dome I’ve played match-night music, sat in the penalty boxes and listened to all manner of profanity from angry North Americans, stood nervously behind a goal with a switch in my hand watching the puck intently and ready to light the lamp that would bring hundreds of people to their feet in a roar of joy…or anger if, as has happened a couple of times, I’ve been trigger-happy.
And also, when the rink is empty on a Friday or Sunday night and the blue-and-yellow seats stare silently down as mist hangs over the ice like the lingering ghosts of snipers and grinders past, I’ve joined other hardy souls in attempting to replicate the action I’ve watched on the ice myself. I’ve helped in the office, interviewed players for magazines and radio, written articles for the matchnight programme…and I’ve travelled many thousands of miles up and down the country following the Blaze and playing, taking in rinks from Dundee (Scotland) to Gosport (Isle of Wight) and Belfast in Northern Ireland to Peterborough in the east of England.
Ice runs in my veins, with fragments of blue-line and face-off circle speckled throughout-and like many hockey fans, for me the blazing, bright days of summer seem just too long as we prepare for the glorious time from late August on when the rink doors open again, the thump of flesh on plexi and crack of Kevlar on rubber provide a soundtrack to our lives and the mournful-yet-ecstatic bellow of a goal-horn echoes through the British winter nights.
The 2012 offseason seemed like any other, as I passed the time when not at work hockey-blogging, tracking NHL and British hockey offseason moves, playing (not very well) and preparing to take my place behind the microphone again.
Then I read (well, more accurately re-read, for about the 15th time) Jason Cohen’s great Zamboni Rodeo-an American journalist’s story of a season with the WPHL’s Austin Ice Bats. Few books come close to evoking the atmosphere of life in a minor-league hockey team quite as well as this one does-the fights, the friendships, the sound and the fury). I’d picked it up purely to kill the dull ache of being without hockey that summer causes in my soul, but as the games played themselves again and the characters skated across the page, I began to think.
The 2012/13 season would be an important one for the Coventry Blaze. Four-time champions of the British Elite League since moving to the city from nearby Solihull in 2000 (the Elite League formed out of the ashes of the Superleague in 2003 with Blaze as one of its founding members, and they’ve won it four times so far, in 04/05, 06/07, 07/08 and 09/10), the Blaze had struggled in the last two seasons.
Run on a knife-edge budget and relying on fervent local support to keep them going, the Blaze had been hit by a rising tide of fan dissatisfaction as their high expectations weren’t met. Worse, in many fans eyes, the owners and people running the club had seemingly forgotten about their once-close relationship with the supporters, seeming to see them less as people and more as sources of income.
Then, in Christmas 2011, the Blaze themselves had been days from going out of business before being saved by a British-hockey-wide effort, with money being donated by players from opposing teams, fans and local companies to ensure the team finished the season after their major sponsor failed to come up with sponsorship money. The Blaze had survived, but barely-and coach Paul Thompson and the owners knew things needed to change.
Paul Thompson, known as “Thommo” to both friend and adversary, is a British hockey legend. After a promising playing career was cut short by injury, he was offered the chance to coach the Blaze in their former incarnation in Solihull in 1996, at the age of 31. As a rookie coach he says in his autobiography, Benched, that on his first training session he was “terrified”.
16 years later, the Blaze are the only team he’s ever coached, and he has led them to trophy after trophy. In Coventry, he’s led his teams to five league titles, one playoff title (2004/05 season, in a year where the Blaze won the vaunted “Grand Slam” of Elite League, Challenge Cup and Playoff Trophies), two Challenge Cup wins, and two British KO Cup wins. He’s also twice been named EIHL Coach Of The Year. Not a bad résumé, really.
There are few more passionate men in British hockey-and few men who are more able to turn the air blue when needed. But Thompson is also an astute coach, and when he realises changes need to be made, they’re made. And made with conviction.
This 2012 offseason had been one of the most eventful ones for several years. As part of the rebuild Thompson had ditched many of the Blaze team from the last season, including long-time club captain, defenceman and British hockey great Jonathan Weaver, and begun to build a new, in-your face squad. Amongst the 11 non-British trained players, or “imports” he’d brought into the squad had been brothers Greg and Brad Leeb, former OHL grinder Gerome Giudice, AHL tough guy Benn Olson and former Tampa Bay draft pick Mike Egener. But the major signing was also, for many, the most controversial.
Former NHL player Mike Danton had been signed for the Blaze after a five-year stay away from the game. The ex New Jersey Devil and St. Louis Blue was looking to rebuild his career and his life after serving a five-year prison sentence, and after stops in Sweden and the Czech Republic, was bringing his tough, all-action game to Coventry as arguably the star signing alongside silky-skilled fellow forward and returnee Shea Guthrie.
But with one ex-EIHL coach saying he didn’t believe Danton should be allowed into the league and criticism from opposition fans (particularly those in Belfast, who had long memories of an incident that occurred at the Skydome when their own troubled-yet-skilled ex-NHLer Theo Fleury had played there), and questions over whether the British Home Office would even allow him a visa to play, it had already been an eventful season.
This background, and the late hour, combined with the intake of some fine English ale, led me on a flight of fancy. I wondered about writing my very own Zamboni Rodeo, on life in a league that very few in the upper echelons of the sport took seriously, played in a country where hockey was a genuine minority sport. I wondered if, since I’d spent years around the team anyway and was well known at the rink, if the team owners and coach would give me the access to the team.
And so I spoke to a friend of mine, Rob Coleman. Rob is an amiable man with a ready laugh, a quick sense of humour and an encyclopaedic knowledge of 90s music. Like me, he’s also a hockey lifer.
He’s been involved with the Blaze even before they came to Coventry, and like me has spent many years following the team. I first met him on away trips, before first working with him when I was the matchnight DJ and he was the person responsible for co-ordinating events and timings on a match-night (as a volunteer). A few years doing sterling work in this area, and also pairing up with me to commentate on the webcast, brought him to the attention of the owners, who tempted him away from his job to become the Blaze’s marketing executive.
He is also the man who is mainly responsible for dealing with fan queries, being the public face of the team for fans, marketing the team (on a budget of…well, pretty much zero) and providing fans with the matchnight experience. If it happens off the ice on a matchnight, from the music to the giveaways to the kid being presented with a birthday card by his favourite player, you can be sure that Rob has been involved in organising it, somehow.
I pitched my idea of an “insiders view of a season” to him. Actually, I mentioned it to him late at night while on Twitter, just after asking my hockey-fan followers across the world (all 300 or so of them) if they’d read such a book. The reaction convinced me to at least ask the Blaze, through Rob, if they were interested in collaborating.
Rob’s answer was positive and interested-he’d read a similar book to Zamboni Rodeo before and thought it gave a great view of the inside of a hockey team.
But the sting was in the tail of his answer.
“It’s not me you have to sell to, mate. You need to convince Thommo”.
This was a daunting task. Could I convince the most successful coach in British hockey to let me into the private and normally-closed-off world of a pro hockey team dressing room? Especially one as jealously-guarded as that of the Blaze?
No. I couldn’t. Despite my efforts, a few weeks later the message came back “that’s probably not going to happen”.
But I could still write about it from a perspective as a PBP guy. Still give a new perspective on hockey to the few Brits and North Americans who wanted to read it. And who knows, maybe this could become better than a book, cause a life in hockey is a story that doesn’t stop after a season.
And so, Chasing Dragons was born.
Here we are, two weeks before the beginning of the season, and this first post has hopefully whetted your appetite for more. I’ll be trying to update it at least once a week-maybe more once the season starts. You can dip in and out, or read every post and follow life as a hockey PBP guy in a hockey backwater-and follow a season with the Blaze and British hockey, too. Maybe more than one. I haven’t decided yet.
One thing’s for sure-the chase starts here. Hopefully you’ll come along for the ride.
Let’s go chase that dragon.