University Hockey Britain’s Surprising Secret

University sport is not exactly the first think you would think of when thinking of sport in the UK. That is even more true of university ice hockey.  However the UK does have a thriving university ice hockey programme and as we found out on Tuesday night the standard of play is actually quite high. Perhaps on a par with some teams in the National League if lacking the skill in depth.

Spearheaded by the British Universities Ice Hockey Association (BUIHA) there are 3 tiers to the university system with each tier having groups and a playoff to decide the champion and many universities field 2,3 or even 4 teams. In addition to the national championship the BUIHA runs 2 cup competitions, one in which teams are allowed to check and one where it isn’t.

The BUIHA is a model for inclusivity. Both male and females play along side each other and the standard of play ranges from good to perhaps less so. What this provides is an abundance of opportunities for players whether they are semi-professional such as Manchester Metrostars’ Ciaran Long who ice with the EPL’s Manchester Phoenix, beginners or those who played junior hockey before moving away to university. Universities ice hockey also provides opportunities were they may not otherwise be any. For example despite no longer having an ice rink both Southampton and Huddersfield have teams.

With this system in place it is therefore a shame that their enthusiasm is not met by enthusiasm from ice rinks, hockey clubs and local authorities. On Tuesday night the usually combined Manchester Metrostars were split up to represent their home university of the University of Manchester and the Manchester Metropolitan University. It was the first time the two universities have ever played each other and in another rarity the game was played at the Altrincham Ice Dome in Manchester. Ordinarily the Metrostars play and train at the Deeside Lesuire Centre in North Wales late at night.

It is a situation that is caused by the lack of ice time available at Altrincham and means there is usually no fans in attendance. Despite this a few hundred people mostly students turned out for the game. And they were in for a treat. A 15 goal thriller decided by a goal 3 minutes from time in the favour of the University of Manchester.

It is clear though that there could be an appetite for this level of hockey not only amongst students but also neutrals. In North America College sport is almost as big as their professional brethren and whilst in the UK it wouldn’t be as big the success of the national league says that there is a want for a cheap ticket entertaining sport.

If these university teams could get a bit of publicity and ice time for games to face off at reasonable time then the BUIHA could develop fans as well as players. The cheap price of tickets compared to Elite League and Premier League games would provide an introduction to UK ice hockey.

There are of course a number of reasons why universities can not get that ice time. Primarily there is a lack of ice in the UK. Ice rinks in Sheffield and Nottingham show that dual ice pads are a great way to improve participation in ice sports. Manchester is a perfect example of where the local authority has held up planning permission for a new ice rink. It seems so easy for a soccer team to build a stadium but to build a public use facility seems to be much harder.

It is not all down to the local authority though. Ice rink operators need to be onside too and there is no reason why they shouldn’t be. Traditional thinking by ice rink operators is that their profit is made from public skating however with concession sales especially from the students there is a benefit to them. There are also games most weeks so there is a guaranteed income.

There is as well a role for hockey clubs to play as well. It was disappointing to note that the Manchester Phoenix were not present with a table at the game in order to sell their games to any newbies in the crowd. However hockey clubs can play a deeper role from publicising games to offering coaching and equipment, which would end up benefiting the club in new fans and perhaps players.

It is frustrating that this element of British ice hockey is forgotten and yet it has so much it offer. If we are to increase participation in ice hockey then we should look to the BUIHA because they are doing more to increase and continue involvement in the sport than any professional governing body because it is providing opportunities to play.

Visit www.buiha.org.uk

Neil Tucker

Neil has written on ice hockey for many websites concentrating on British ice hockey mostly. Neil also covers ice hockey in other countries and organises his Blueliner Hockey Tour. A graduate of the Manchester Metropolitan University Neil turned his hand to hockey writing in 2009. As well as contributing on Blueliner Hockey Neil has contributed to Get Real Hockey and Slapshot Magasine.

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