Ice Hockey: Coventry draw first blood

After the storming success of last year’s varsity event, 2012 looked to be a pivotal year in asserting ice hockey as a dominant sport at Warwick. 2011 saw crowds of over two thousand fans from Warwick and Coventry come to support their university and revel in possibly the single greatest spectacle of the sporting calendar.

On the ice, pucks were fired, goals scored, punches exchanged and hearts broken in a spectacular display of aggression and will. Despite Warwick narrowly missing out on victory, expectations were high. And they didn’t disappoint.

This year, the Skydome Arena in Coventry maxed out with three thousand students, of which nearly half made the journey from Leamington or campus. Demand was so high that there were fears early on from the organisers that there wouldn’t be enough buses to transport the horde of Warwick students to the rink. Queues stretched around the arena as the crowds fought to witness what was promising to be an intense evening of primordial rivalries and thrilling action.

Suffice to say, Varsity ice hockey has never experienced such overwhelming energy before. The universities, segregated either side of the ice to prevent open conflict, cheered, hollered and jeered at one another, with unkempt ferocity. After a series of Mexican waves and screams of “P-O-L-Y, you ain’t got no alibi”, the puck dropped.

Warwick came out off the blocks flying, dominating the game for the first few minutes. Despite intense pressure on goaltender Alex Young, the Coventry team managed to hold out an onslaught of shots from the Warwick offense. Of particular note was Warwick alumni Lukas Szabo, whose unbelievable speed, agility and puck control left fans and players alike aghast.

Szabo, who has played US college Ice Hockey, came all the way from Belgium to support his alma mater in their time of need.

This early enthusiasm looked promising, but as the Warwick bench turned up the heat it was inevitable that the pressure would force errors. Between the sixth and seventh minutes, Warwick gave away two crucial penalties, leaving themselves on the three-man penalty kill for two minutes. Against such an experienced side as Coventry, it was only a matter of time.

During the seventh minute, Coventry’s Kevin Cozens put a slapshot from the blue line past Warwick’s Daniel Harrison, having been left entirely unmarked by the depleted Warwick line. Within twenty seconds, Cov had crashed the net and Luke Brittle had pushed the puck into the net before forcing it off its moorings. Despite appeals that it had been kicked across the line, the goal stood firm and Warwick were down two to nothing.

After seven minutes of intense battle from blue line to blue line, a speculative shot by Rikki Bryniarski sneaked through Harrison’s five hole and confirmed the nightmareish prospects of what Warwick were about to experience. Before the buzzer called for first intermission, Warwick had conceded three more goals: a wrister from Jonathan Stobart, a slap from Adam Fleet and a backdoor effort from Richard Slater. Unsurprisingly, Warwick left for the dressing rooms disillusioned, the score six to nothing.

The next two periods proved to be an eternally uphill struggle for the ravaged Warwick side. First, a disgraceful elbow to the face of captain Lukas Szabo put Coventry’s Rikki Bryniarski in the penalty box, much to the delight of the Warwick fans. Despite Coventry holding out the penalty kill, Warwick finally responded with a goal from Tom Hiscock in the twenty eighth minute.

This superb individual effort past the goaltender was speedily retorted with a goal by Coventry’s Mauri Pulkkinen, followed by another Warwick goal by club president Matti Konsala. This game of tennis would ensue for much of the period, with the exhausted Warwick defence unable to hold their ground. By the second intermission, Warwick were still down by six; the score being eight to two.

The final period saw Warwick claw back three more goals, two from Tom Hiscock, and a powerplay goal from Adam Holton. Hiscock’s hat trick was executed in particular style, one-time slapping a puck deceptively dropped by the captain Szabo. Coventry, however, managed to sneak into double figures through a persistent attack from Rick Slater and Muari Pulkkinen, who both added to their own goal tallies. This result meant that Coventry were able to retain the title for a third consecutive year.

Questions were immediately raised about the scale of the defeat, something that Warwick Line Manager Sam Evans was willing to discuss: “You can’t put it down to defence or attack”, he said, “we were genuinely outplayed by an experienced and highly skilled Coventry team and they deserve the plaudits.”

According to Warwick’s Paul le Cuziat, their biggest problem was giving away so many penalties. When asked what went wrong in the first period, he replied: “For a very simple reason, we didn’t avoid penalties… then when we started losing, we started believing Coventry were better than us.”

Coventry’s win should not detract from the brilliance that lies in the Warwick side. Tom Hiscock has scored three goals in two games for the Warwick and Coventry Panthers, including a shorthanded goal, putting him at the top of his team this year. This is startling as he only made his Panthers debut last season.

Likewise, new Warwick goalie Daniel Harrison has maintained a 0.87 save percentage despite taking more shots than anyone else in his division. His ability was made amply clear by his effortless glove saves that denied potential goals by Ignas Romaškevičius and Adam Fleet.

In reality, the majority of goals scored by Coventry resulted from powerplays or messy scrambles in front of the net, neither of which a goaltender is expected to deal with.

The general consensus amongst the Warwick team was that Harrison had been their most valuable player. Hiscock commented that “our netminder Daniel played an amazing game. Without him the scoreline would have been very different”, whilst Le Cuziat believed that “Harrison deserved far less than ten goals.”

In light of this, it’s certainly not all doom and gloom for ice hockey at Warwick. As a University we still hold a well of sporting talent that’s waiting to be unleashed.

Moreover, the event’s success stretched far beyond the score line. Warwick Panthers Publicity Officer Jamie Holland reminded us that it had entirely served its purpose as an incredible sporting spectacle: “We managed to sell out a professional sports venue, something the home team (Coventry Blaze) regularly fail to do. The atmosphere was fantastic and I’d like to say a big thank you to all the Warwick students who came out to support the team.”

Le Cuziat also added, “It was the best [event] I’ve played in terms of attendance and organisation.” Holland also revealed that the event was so successful that there have been talks with the Coventry Blaze to play an exhibition match with their professionals. In a ‘Varsity Sequel’, the Warwick and Coventry teams would be bolstered with some of the country’s finest professional players for the ultimate showdown at the Skydome.

Looking forward to next year, it appears that things can only go from strength to strength. Varsity attendance has exponentially grown from year to year and it is widely seen as the spectacle of the season. The reasoning behind this is clear. Not only is Varsity the ultimate excuse to slag off our cousins in Coventry, but it brings together thousands of people with music, entertainment and excitement in a way that no other event really can. And let’s be honest; it’s a damn slight more awesome than football!

**Controversy**

In spite of the incredible success of this year’s Varsity ice hockey, two events of that evening have threatened to stir up trouble in the corridors of the Warwick and Coventry Students’ Unions.

Allegations have been made of foul play prior and during the match, largely concerning the prevention of Warwick from fielded two of their players and the purported ‘rigging’ of the mid-game raffle (see pages 1 and 4).

The Monday night game was intended to start at 8.30pm, yet the start was delayed approximately twenty minutes. A source from within the Warwick and Coventry Panthers informed the Boar that this had been caused by a pre-game incident in which the Coventry sports authorities had refused to allow Warwick players Sean “Preecey” Preece and Luke “Spooks” Curtis from playing on the grounds that neither technically belong to the University of Warwick.

Both Preece and Curtis play for Warwick Panthers due to a provision in the BUIHA rules that allow students to play for an alternative university if it is closer to where they officially reside. Varsity rules, however, state that players must study at, or be alumni of, the university they intend to play for.

Despite obvious anger at the decision prior to the game, the Warwick Panthers have since agreed that it was not anything malicious or unjustified. Publicity Officer Jamie Holland said, “Varsity rules said he shouldn’t play; it was simply a misunderstanding.” Although it was a shame that the highly talented men could not play, it has helped to address the need for clearer rules on the eligibility of players across the sport.

**Coventry win, but Warwick still score**

Despite Warwick’s devastating loss at the Varsity ice hockey, it appears that one lucky Warwick couple made the most of the second intermission.

According to an anonymous source, the students, who will remain unnamed, got some extra practice in the crease. Utilising an empty meeting room, the pair set about demonstrating to the Warwick team how it’s done by working particularly hard on basic shaft control.

Positioning, was, of course, integral to the exercise, with both fans trying various strategies. It was a welcome break for the lucky man, who had previously relied on solo efforts without the presence of a reliable teammate. However, it’s still unclear as to whether the practice session went well; let’s just hope he got more than two minutes in the box!

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