Ice hockey’s big weekend stays in Nottingham: good news, but…

The announcement this week that the National Ice Centre in Nottingham is to host ice hockey’s Elite League play-off finals for the next five years should be given a cautious welcome.

It’s a wonderful venue, with a 6,500-capacity main ice pad, excellent facilities and easy access to the city centre restaurants and bars. It’s also fairly central for fans travelling from various corners of the UK.

Indeed, the end-of-season weekend provides a superb climax to the season, as supporters of all the Elite League clubs get together to see Saturday’s semi-finals and Sunday’s final.

So now we know the finals will be here for another five years – great news, right? Well, yes – it’s a superb venue in an ideal location. In fact, it’s good news to know the league plans to be around for another five years, such is the precarious state of British ice hockey, as we’ve discussed before.

But, there’s a problem with the NIC as a venue for the finals: it’s not neutral. Back in the days of the British League (the 1980s and into the ’90s),  the finals weekend was at Wembley Arena – not ideal geographically, and (in those days) lacking the kind of city centre facilities which Nottingham offers – but in London (easy for national media) and neutral.

The fact that the league had a serious sponsorship deal from Heineken and live terrestrial TV coverage on BBC’s Grandstand didn’t hurt either.  But the point was that playing at Wembley was special – it only happened once a year, and nobody had a home advantage.

The NIC, for all its attributes, is home to Nottingham Panthers. When they don’t qualify for the final four, it’s no problem; but when they do – as last weekend – it’s a clear advantage to have thousands more fans behind you.

Let’s declare an interest here – Weltch Media is based in Cardiff and we have a long-held affection for Cardiff Devils – who lost in Sunday’s final.  But we’re not complaining – all the teams agree to the venue; and Panthers deserved their win.

But a one-off final game really should be at a neutral venue – not just to be fair to all the teams, but to be seen to be fair. The play-off finals provide a rare showcase for British ice hockey – with live TV coverage (albeit Sky Sports 4, rather than BBC 1 and 2 in the old days).

If any newcomers to the sport were actually watching on Sunday, they must have been puzzled that the all-important final was being played in one of the finalists’ own arenas. It doesn’t give the impression of a serious professional sport.

But, what are the options? Without a big cash injection, there is no way Britain’s ice hockey authorities or its largely autonomous leagues could rent a neutral arena and create an ice pad.

So, let’s be grateful our sport has such a venue as the NIC; but let’s not complain too much when the mainstream media and general sporting public don’t take us as seriously as we’d like.

Weltch Media provides expert and affordable communications services for ice hockey and all sports. For information, see our website.

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