I’ve made no secret in the past that I’m something of a fan of what the Braehead Clan have been doing over the past few years. Under the steady guidance of first Kirsty Longmuir and now Gareth Chalmers off the ice, and Ryan Finnerty on it (after a succession of several coaches) the past two seasons have seen the Purple Army rise from “stable expansion franchise” in their first two seasons to one of the new powers of the EIHL. They have an incredible arena at IntuBraehead (one of the most beautiful in the league), a professional and slick off-ice operation and a fanbase that for the most part has grown with the team, to the point that they’re now regularly gaining more fans watching then more “established” teams down south and selling out their arena.
This year, though, there’s a different feel about the Clan-a feeling that they’re no longer just aiming to be the premier team in the Gardiner Conference, but have far loftier ambitions. They currently sit at the top of the EIHL table, having won all of their own conference games and only failed to take a point from one-a record only matched by Nottingham (who’ve only played one game in the Erhardt, so probably aren’t that brilliant a representation).
They also have scoring at a rate few can match-two of the top five scorers in the EIHL are Clan players (Neil Trimm and Scott Pitt) and they also have the leading defensive scorer (and only blueliner in the top 20) in Scott Aarssen. In their first TV appearance (against the fancied-in-preseason Coventry), the Clan looked calm and capable, making the Blaze look ordinary. Ryan Finnerty and Zack Fitzgerald have their team playing fast, hard-nosed hockey that has seen Kyle Jones well-protected and any preseason worries about their netminding covered.
But it’s off the ice the feeling is most noticeably changed. To look at the way the Clan fans talk about their team and the way they support it, it appears that the Purple Army, rare among EIHL clubs, is not so much the people who turn up to watch the team and clubs play lipservice to as the lifeblood of it. Much like Fife and Belfast, the whole drive of the Clan has been not to get people through the doors just to watch a sport, but to become part of something bigger than just a hockey team. It’s an ethos that’s already paid dividends in Belfast and Fife and is now being stepped up to another level in the way Braehead conduct themselves.
It’s fascinating to watch the way players interact with their fanbases during a game. Many teams seem to prefer to keep that distance-only acknowledging fans in your traditional moments like goal celebrations. But it’s interesting watching this Clan team interact with the Purple Army. The glances up towards the stands in breaks in play. The moments where the players almost seem to feed off the fans and then the fans get even louder in a virtuous circle.
Here’s an example-when the Clan were down in Coventry at the beginning of the month, a goal down at the start of the third and looking willing but with the Blaze repelling their attacks, there was a faceoff in the Blaze zone that saw Clan captain Matt Keith look up at the chanting Purple Army as the players took their positions. He looked up at them, and just as he settled into position, his left hand came off the stick and pumped up and down, twice, in the universal “turn it up” gesture. It was a quick, quiet gesture that many may not have noticed.
But the Clan fans did, almost as if they’d been waiting for it. There was a roar from the hundred or so Scots in the Skydome, a “come on now, boys!” in a strong Scottish accent bounced off the roof of the Dome, and the Clan won the faceoff.
Next shift…bang. Derek Roehl equalised, set up by Keith. And as the Clan celebrated, you saw Keith again, look up to the Purple Army behind the goal-and Roehl, too, as they celebrated. Both with a “that was your goal, Purple Army” look on their face.
This team has a connection with its fans-and both they and the fans feel it acutely and feed off it. In that particular game the Blaze managed to cling on for a win by their fingernails, but it’s equally visible in the Braehead Arena-the team and fans, for the first time, have moved beyond the basic “player/fan” relationship into a place where they’re all simply members of the Purple Army.
I said preseason that this Braehead team was the best roster they’ve ever had, but more than that, it’s a roster that’s instantly connected with its fanbase in a way the previous four possibly haven’t. It’s a roster that’s perfectly placed to reap the hard work done of the previous four years on and off the ice-the work that’s led to strong sponsorship, one of the most passionate and loudest fanbases in the league built from scratch and a team that regularly packs its sparkly new arena.
In their fifth year, this Clan roster has finally become what every EIHL team wants to be. So far, it’s a shining light of what can be achieved by patient, hard work. It’s also a very, very good illustration of why EIHL teams should never, ever focus on the bottom line and sponsorship over the fan experience and never risk alienating their core supporters, as some have done in the past few years.
The battle cry in Braehead this year is “Join The Clan”-and all the work done to get to this point means that people are flocking to do so-but more to the point, “Purple Army” isn’t just a name-it’s an ethos.
The difference this year is that when that Clan go into battle now, teams playing them aren’t just facing twenty men with a few thousand in the background. They’re facing a single, united force of three thousand or so who back each other up whatever happens, like all the best.
The Purple Army are truly united. And so far, they’re well and truly on the march in a way that’s more menacing, more powerful and more intent on victory than at any time before.