Coventry Blaze player in action
Wikimedia Commons/ Cardiff Potter

All worship McNulty: A night with the Blaze

As someone who had never witnessed a game of ice hockey live, I was intrigued as I walked into Planet Ice Coventry, where the Coventry Blaze (who wore dark navy jerseys with light blue and white stripes) would face off on the ice against the visiting Devils from Cardiff (whose red, white and green jerseys were more Christmassy than their team name). This was a bitterly cold day in which the contest on the ice could have just as easily taken place outdoors.

I took my seat just in time for the pre-match presentation, in which a shining spotlight tracked a skater moving across the ice, before the lights turned off as the teams were introduced. The Devils received a muted if not friendly welcome, before the arena roared in appreciation for the Blaze, who entered the ice to the sound of an air-raid siren which transitioned into energizing hardstyle. The choice of an air-raid siren struck me as slightly insensitive given Coventry’s history, but who was I as an ice hockey novice to question the traditions of the team. Finally, the national anthem sounded before the game was ready to begin.

Clearly the Blaze’s recent struggles for form hadn’t put off those in attendance, as they got behind the team from the first whistle

After a mere thirteen seconds of play a two-minute penalty was given for high sticks, a start which mirrored the physicality with which the whole game was to be played. There were regular violent collisions and falls on the ice, as the physical nature of the game was immediately made clear. I felt compelled to rewire my football-obsessed brain as challenges that would surely be given as fouls in football were waved off by the skating referee team.

During the first few minutes of play, I was shocked by the frequency of the rolling substitutions, as it seemed as if every few possessions the majority of the players would switch with someone on the bench. I assumed that wass because of the high-intensity nature of the sport, and also because the Blaze were playing on back-to-back nights, a concept alien to most UK sports. In the first period, the Cardiff Devils twice believed they had scored only to be denied by the referee’s whistle, following which the arena announcer decided to have a bit of fun with the sound effects and taunt the Devils, much to the delight of the Blaze fans. Those fans (a large proportion of whom were sporting Blaze jerseys with their favourite player on the back) got involved with intermittent chants, all of which were quite easy to understand and learn.

The first of three periods ended scoreless, despite a number of ‘power plays’ where one team has a player suspended, and I will have to defer to a lady on the sidelines who described the ice hockey on display as ‘rubbish’

Nevertheless, I still found it an engaging 20 minutes, perhaps due to my limited experiences with the sport. During the intermission the ice was cleaned using a machine and there was a skating performance on the ice. I took the opportunity the interval provided to make my way around the arena and see what it had to offer. The food on offer didn’t look too shabby, yet with my student budget in mind I reluctantly decided to forego it. The vast array of merchandise available, including snazzy hats and signed jerseys, also failed to get me to part with my money.

Instead, I purchased a match program from one of the vendors, which gave some interesting insights into the players and teams. For example, I learned that Coventry’s Canadian number 27, Ian McNulty, (who would later play a prominent role) used to be a ‘hate figure’ for Blaze fans during his time with the Guildford Flames. Also included in the program was an emotional tribute to Nottingham Panthers player Adam Johnson, who tragically died this season while playing in a match against Sheffield. This led to minutes of silence being held throughout the country and was a reminder that although violence is often glorified in sport, it can often have lethal consequences. I later noticed that his name had been hung up on a banner beneath the scoreboard.

Speaking of heartfelt gestures, I was also touched by what happened when the Ian McNulty opened the scoring with a powerful finish a mere 17 seconds into the second period. As had been mentioned before kick-off, fans were encouraged to bring teddy bears to the game, and, upon the first goal being scored, play was paused and these teddies were chucked onto the ice (with remarkable accuracy), so they could be collected by staff. They would then be donated as Christmas gifts to local children living in poverty, who might not otherwise receive a present. One of the loudest cheers of the night was also emitted by the crowd after it was announced a local business had donated £1,000 to the cause. After all the toys were collected, play was resumed and a few minutes later a funny situation ensued as two players played what look like an elaborate version of cat-and-mouse behind the goal.

Ask a casual sports fan what they know about ice hockey and one of the first things they will mention is the frequent fights that take place

On the whole, this second period seemed to be a lot more combative and the fans got some MMA chucked in with their ice hockey ticket for good measure. They were treated to the first proper fight of the evening midway through the second period, as two players came to blows near the Blaze net and had to be separated by the referees. Although some of them had concerning violent tendencies, the skill level of many players was evident. This was no NHL, but the way the players were able to ping the puck behind the goal and the satisfying sight of the puck flying through the air and being caught were certainly impressive.

The two coaches had possibly gone over attack strategies during the break, as two further goals were notched up during the second period. Sadly for home fans, both were for the Devils, as they turned the tables by taking a 2-1 lead going into the final twenty minutes. The second and final break featured a competition where fans could throw pucks they had bought onto the ice and win a prize if it landed in the middle or if their puck was picked up by the rubbish-removal company which sponsored the segment.

Despite the sport’s relatively low profile in the UK, the Blaze have clearly managed to extract every available pound from commercial partners in the local area, evidenced by the jerseys which were covered in a multitude of sponsors, on the back and front

I had to stifle a laugh after every penalty was announced, as even the sin-bin area had not managed to escape the hands of sponsorship.

The remixes of famous hits, which keep the energy up, soon subsided as the final period started. It felt blasphemous to even think it, but I was secretly hoping that the fans’ dream of a Blaze equaliser would be quashed, as I had to get back to make dinner and write an essay, and thus did not particularly want overtime to take place.

For vast swathes of the period, it seemed my wish would be granted.

There was a lot of huffing and puffing on the Blaze’s part, yet it seemed they would not be able to blow down the house that was the Devils’ net. As the clock ticked down, the team descended into all-out-attack mode and brought off their goaltender in place of another outfielder, while there was also a rather entertaining moment as a player found himself without a stick and had to defend with nothing but his bare hands.

But finally, in a moment of high drama, Blaze efforts payed off as that man Ian McNulty got another goal with just ninety seconds left. With no more scores in the final seconds, we were headed to overtime, which mercifully would last just five minutes.

The overtime was played with just three outfield players on each team, rather than the usual five. This meant there was a lot more space available to the players and the play felt more tentative, with less physical duels. There were a few decent opportunities for goals, yet none went in, meaning a shootout – consisting of five penalties for each team, where the player dribbles towards the goal rather than shooting from a static position – would take place.

The first Blaze penalty was dispatched with confidence past the keeper, while the Devils’ player missed their first attempt amid a chorus of boos. In the next round both teams’ players missed, with the Devils player’s strategy of moving languidly, backfiring. Coventry’s third attempt squeezed past the keeper and was followed by yet another Devils miss.

This meant that Ian McNulty would have the chance to hand his team the shootout victory and, as had been made apparent throughout the game, he doesn’t miss. Setting the Blaze community alight with an assured finish, it was Coventry that took the hard-fought win.

As McNulty was handed the Man of the Match award and his teammates knelt in front of the opposition they had just vanquished in a ritualistic manner, the Blaze fans headed out into the icy night with a smile on their faces, as did I, having had a thoroughly enjoyable experience at the ice hockey.


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