I have been to a fair few sporting events – mostly football and athletics – but my first experience of American ice hockey (seemingly just ‘hockey’ if you’re local) must be the most unique.
Wanting to see something new during our holiday to Florida, hockey looked to be our best option; shorter and less complicated than, for example, American football, while giving us an opportunity to be really close to the action. Knowing we were going to be in Naples in December I checked out the local team, Florida Everblades, and it so happened they were hosting New York’s Elmira Jackals on both nights of our stay. They play in the ECHL – the mid-level pro league – and at around $24 dollars per ticket, the price was comparable to seeing a middling league football match at home.
We arrived at the Germain Arena about half an hour before the start of the game and grabbed a beer. There was a buzz about the place with loads of families wearing the team shirts, even babies, and the seats quickly filled as the team mascot (you guessed it, a large alligator) did laps of the ice to great applause.
At this point it’s worth adding none of us follow hockey or understand the rules in any depth but that didn’t matter. Ultimately, in a game where you have two teams and two goals, you’re going to get the gist pretty quickly. The game was fast-paced and at times, brutal; it wasn’t long before the first player crashed into the screens around the pitch and a scrap had broken out. On two or three occasions players slunk off to the Sin Bin.
Not letting a lack of knowledge stand in the way of having an opinion, I’d say the Blades looked lack-lustre and were outplayed by the Jackals, who scored first. The reaction to this turn of events was notably different to what you would see back in the UK. I expected the home fans to go wild, booing the opposition, but not a bit of it. It was all quite…. laid back. The Blades’ equaliser prompted a more animated response but still the fans were quite reserved. What happened next was even more odd.
Sirens wailed, music blared, the crowd leapt from their seats and, as a large stuffed tiger bounced off my head, it appeared the annual Teddy Bear Toss had commenced. Hundreds, if not thousands, of stuffed animals were lobbed onto the ice, collected by volunteers who stuffed them into sacks and threw them onto the four-by-fours which by this point had appeared on the ice. The purpose of this annual charity event is to distribute the toys to local children’s hospitals and good causes which is a great touch, but totally surreal in the middle of a hockey match.
After about twenty minutes the game resumed and, save for one further goal, the Blades performance didn’t improve and they lost 4-2. Not that anyone seemed too bothered. I’m sure there were some die-hard fans there but for many I wondered whether this was just an atmospheric and fun night out and the fact there were some guys haring around battering a puck (and each other) was merely incidental. The big screens even flashed instructions telling fans to ‘make some noise’ and encouraging them to be ‘loud’ and ‘louder’. Can you imagine football or rugby fans in the UK needing encouragement to make more noise?!
That the game didn’t seem to be the main focus was perhaps the biggest difference to UK sporting events. There was a presenter chatting to audience members, team mascots (including, randomly, ‘Recycling Man’ with his bin lid shield), cheerleaders and the ever-popular ‘Kiss Cam’ and ‘Dance Cam’. Snippets of music blared out at intervals (part of a ‘name that tune’ game on the Everblades app), sponsor adverts played at will, and in the breaks fans were invited onto the ice to take part in games to win prizes from match sponsors. We were left amazed at speed and skill of the players, but more so that the general racket didn’t seem to put them off their stroke.
But, for all the oddities, it was an awesome night out and a great experience. I’m tempted to check out the Invicta Dynamos back home in Kent, but will it be similar? Probably not. The noise, music and distractions makes an American hockey game wildly different, but also make it so much fun.