Oh, I’ve done it now.
A nice quiet Friday and the way I decide to preview Blaze’s first home meeting with Nottingham Panthers this season (on Sunday) is not by a breakdown of the teams, but but attacking one of the misheld truths of the Elite League.
Forever, we’ve been told that Nottingham v Sheffield is THE BIGGEST GAME IN UK HOCKEY. Some (misguided) souls have tried to claim it’s the biggest hockey rivalry in Europe, which I’m pretty sure would make anyone who’s ever seen a Prague Derby (Sparta v Slavia), a Helsinki Derby (HIFK v Jokerit) or a Rheinderby (Cologne v Dusseldorf) laugh like a demented clown. I’ve seen two of those three, and let me tell you, Panthers and Steelers fans…your little snipefest is nothing compared to the big derbies of Euro hockey. Come back when opposing fans need to be separated by a wall of armed riot police (as I’ve seen in Helsinki) or the game is more about class war and regional pride (as is the case with the Rheinderby) then just because you happen to be close to another team and have an estate agent shouting that THIS IS THE GAME YOU SHOULD CARE ABOUT! and then maybe we can start talking.
The simple and obvious fact is that Sheffield v Nottingham doesn’t really register in the top ten European club hockey rivalries, never mind the big ones.
In fact, it’s not even the most vicious rivalry in British hockey, just the most over-hyped. It’s a classic example of fans being told something so much that they believe it.
Want a more vicious one? Try Durham Wasps v Whitley Warriors, for a start. The Battles of The North East are legendary for their passion, their noise and the fact that every game was the closest thing Britain has ever seen to war on ice. If you were a Wasp or Warrior and didn’t come away from a Durham-Whitley game with bruises and voices hoarse, then you weren’t considered to be trying hard enough-and that was just the fans.
Yes, OK, so that rivalry is dead now due to the demise of the Wasps-although Billingham v Whitley keeps a shadow of it going in the NIHL. But even in today’s Elite League, Nottingham v Sheffield is an example of hype over hate when it comes to derby games. Sure, the rinks fill and all the same tired rhetoric gets spouted, but it feels like teams going through the motions rather than genuine rivalry. It looks right, but it’s a facade kept up to keep up appearances.
Basically, it’s a giant ruddy dog-and-pony show pantomime of a rivalry-and it’s tired. It’s now a rivalry of convenience, used to sell tickets and try and get the NIC and the Motorpoint Arena full a few times a year. A charade.
And so I’d say it’s not the top rivalry in Britain. It’s not even second. There are two rivalries in British hockey that beat it into the weeds for passion and pure bloody-minded fury-one north and one south of the border. And both are taking place this Sunday. Let’s examine why they’re bigger than Nottingham v Sheffield.
Edinburgh v Fife: This is a PROPER local rivalry. Murrayfield and Kirkcaldy kids are fed hatred for the other team with their mothers’ milk. It’s Lothian v Fife, the Scottish capital vs an ancient kingdom, tribe vs tribe. Every time one team makes the short trip across the Firth of Forth to face the other one, you’re guaranteed a war, and you’re guaranteed a packed rink.
This game is British hockey’s equivalent of The War Of the Roses. It’s two storied teams and their fans fighting tooth and nail for the honour and pride of their respective cities. At every level, from under 10s to pros. With a lot of locals traditionally playing for both sides, it’s the EIHL equivalent of two armies meeting in the middle of the Forth Bridge and fighting to the death. And the passion of both sets of fans is something else.
Flyers v Caps is proof that, in rivalry terms, league success means nothing compared to local pride.
Coventry v Nottingham: Right now I can hear the whir of several thousand laptops as Sheffield fans fire up their computers to go “…but this isn’t even an OLD rivalry” and Nottingham fans try and say “Blaze fans are the only ones who care”.
And my response to both those arguments can be summed up in one word…
There is no game in the Elite League, except perhaps Edinburgh v Fife, which contains such an atmosphere of raw, genuine dislike in the very air of the rink. I referred earlier to Sheffield v Nottingham as a “charade”. I’ve been to every rink in the EIHL, and going to the NIC as a Blaze supporter is the only one that feels like going behind enemy lines. Not just different, but outright hostile. Nottingham fans I know say the same.
When Nottingham come to the Skydome or Blaze go to the NIC, there’s a different atmosphere in the air to any other team. It’s not so much an attitude of “beat the opposition” as one of “the invaders must be repelled”. As the game builds towards faceoff you can almost feel the crackle of electricity in the air…like Edinburgh v Fife, this doesn’t feel like sport-it feels like legalised war. And it’s an atmosphere that even neutrals can sense.
Frankly, it’s an atmosphere that I’ve simply never felt at a Nottingham-Sheffield game. I have, however, felt it at Edinburgh v Fife.
And isn’t that what a genuine rivalry is? A game where even neutrals can visit and feel the undercurrent of hatred and sense the sounds of thousands of voices all silently rising to the hockey gods and saying the same thing…
“Please, Gods-if nothing else, let us beat this lot”.
This Sunday, the hockey gods will be hearing that a lot from EIHL fans as the two biggest rivalries of their kind renew hostilities once again-and there won’t be a South Yorkshire accent in sight. Sorry, Sheffield.
When it comes to rivalries, Steelers-Panthers has had its day a long time ago.