Ice hockey returned to the United Kingdom on Saturday after an eight-month hiatus, with the Swindon Wildcats securing an 8-6 win over the Milton Keynes Lightning. In the weekend’s other game, the Sheffield Steeldogs earned an emphatic 5-1 win over Swindon in Yorkshire.
With no competitive ice hockey played in the UK since early March, the National Ice Hockey League’s (NIHL) return represents a significant milestone in the sport’s journey to resumption.
With fans unable attend matches in person, the Steeldogs, Lightning, and Wildcats are participating in the NIHL Streaming Series, with each game broadcast online.
The opening weekend of action proved a hit, with The Yorkshire Post reporting that 2,800 streaming tickets were sold by Swindon and Sheffield.
There were plenty of positives to take from the NIHL’s return
Ali Cree, the owner of the Sheffield Steeldogs, admitted that clubs faced a “learning curve” regarding the production of webcasts, but stressed there were reasons to be optimistic about the NIHL’s return.
“On the ice, I thought our guys were phenomenal, particularly with just four practice sessions under their belts, and I was really impressed with Saturday’s game too,” Cree said.
“All three teams are going to have a debrief on Monday and we’ll share things – good and bad – and listen to all the feedback. But there have certainly been plenty of positives.”
The response to the weekend’s fixtures has been encouraging, with the quality of ice hockey on show bolstered by a number of late signings from top-flight clubs.
Among the Elite Ice Hockey League (EIHL) players on show were Coventry Blaze duo David Clements and Ross Venus, both of whom turned out for the MK Lightning. Ben Davies, Ben Lake and Matthew Myers were also among the pool of top-flight players who took to the ice in the NIHL.
Venus registered a goal and two assists in Milton Keynes’ high-scoring defeat on Saturday, with Myers contributing four assists and a goal for the travelling Wildcats.
Fire up the Zamboni, hockey is coming home
Despite the lack of fan interaction, the games were played at a high intensity, with traditional in-game music and announcements retained.
There is, however, a long way to go until ice hockey is restored to its pre-pandemic standing in the UK. EIHL bosses have repeatedly poured cold water on the prospect of holding fixtures behind-closed-doors, with financial barriers remaining in place for clubs in the top-flight.
That aside, there are reasons to be cheerful about the return of ice hockey. The Wildcats, Steeldogs, and Lightning have shown that there is a path – albeit a precarious one – to the game’s revival in Britain.
It remains to be seen whether the Streaming Series will be enough to revitalise the sport, but the English Ice Hockey Association will be pleased with the strides they have made.
Fire up the Zamboni, hockey is coming home.