An EIHL Team in London? Unlikely.

http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/6/6e/London_Thames_Sunset_panorama_-_Feb_2008.jpg/1920px-London_Thames_Sunset_panorama_-_Feb_2008.jpg

As a hockey fan and a Londoner, it would be remarkably easy for me to proffer that London is the ‘domino standing between the current state of the EIHL and it blooming into a nationally and internationally revered sporting league’.

However, a statement along those lines would be arrogant, rooted in idealism and ill-informed. Instead I would prefer to say that an EIHL team in London is a hazy dream, one that grows fainter with every failed attempt and false materialisation, but one that I hope is never eternally extinguished.

Having an elite-level ice hockey team in the capital would undoubtedly raise the profile of the sport in our country and provide a platform for reaching a new global audience. Links and partnerships with the NHL would inevitably follow, with those from across the Atlantic using the new team as a spring-board for their own product.

This is all of course assuming that those running the sport in the UK become open to embracing the 21st century, but these are all simple economic facets that with London’s population, prestige, media-centric nature and attraction, are beyond dispute.

Something that isn’t however, is whether that dream will ever be a viable possibility, considering any potential franchise would most likely face financial losses totalling millions, a fickle fan-base distracted by a myriad of already established top-level sporting teams and history up against it at every step. Beyond that, I have to wonder, no matter how harsh it may seem, whether London even deserves another chance?

If at first you don’t succeed, try, try and try again?

The first place we must look is the dusty pages of history and, you guessed it, the previous attempts at establishing top-flight hockey in London are in the main, soul-destroying tales of woe. In total, 15 non-recreational teams have been set up in London (you’ll notice I’m excluding the Romford Raiders here, because although I do have a soft spot for them, they were forced into relocating from Essex to the Capital’s Lee Valley following the closure of their home rink) and a mere four appear to have survived, all of whom play their hockey in the lowly NIHL or EPL.

Continuing the brief history lesson, if we actually look beyond the late 90’s/early 00’s the only taste of top-level ice hockey in London came from the Richmond Flyers, members of the British Hockey League way back in 1987. From there it all went distinctly south and we touch upon the stories that are responsible for my own pessimistic view of hockey taking root in London; those of the London Knights and London Racers.

The Knights’ spell was akin to a gaping chasm that despite the stoic efforts of a minimal but fiercely loyal fan-base, inhaled money by the day and eventually folded in 2003. When we consider they were under the ownership of the Anschutz Entertainment Group, who own the current Stanley Cup Champion LA Kings and a raft of other top-level sports franchises, it really does put into perspective that their demise was one of location (Docklands) and definitely not a reflection on how the organisation was run during their relatively brief existence. From a personal perspective, the memory of this team trying and failing so close to my home is a bitter pill.

The Racers were the last top-flight team in London and although since making an inspirational comeback at a lower level, they only lasted two seasons in their original spell and low attendances were undoubtedly responsible for their own contribution to this sporting tragedy.

There’s no place like home, there’s no place like home

You may wonder how stepping grimly over the hollow shells and grisly remains of once proud top-level teams, I can possibly make the picture seem any more hopeless… it turns out pretty easily: there’s nowhere in London for an EIHL team to play.

Although it may sound strange, none of the few ice rinks in the capital are equipped to handle the capacity a top-flight team would need to become a viable business venture and even though new stadiums have been constructed across recent years – in the form of the New Wembley and Olympic Stadium – neither feature an ice-plant and both are seen as central entertainment hubs.

This means straight from the off, any owner of the potential EIHL franchise looking at those venues would face huge financial outlay for the conversion and the tricky task of finding a regular spot between concerts, shows and an increasing number of NFL games.

For me, simple financial logic represents the vital difficulty any ice hockey venture in London would face: the realisation that their franchise is essentially guaranteed to hemorrhage money for the first few years of its existence, and any future turnaround in fortune would be predicated on building support in a barren landscape.

There will be those who correctly point out that increasing globalisation of London’s population means the city is now home to far more Canadians, Americans and Scandinavians than fourteen years ago, creating a substantial base of fans aside from Londoners themselves. Whilst this is true, I would suggest considering whether – with the team needing to attract 12 – 15,000* people a game in their first year to be economically sound – this one positive factor outweighs the many risks?

*An exaggeration, a team would realistically only need 5-6,000, but the point stands – London isn’t cheap!

Dwarfed by giants

If an EIHL franchise were ever to decide upon settling in London, they would also be faced by one other inevitable problem. Currently, London is home to 6 Premier League Football Clubs, top-class rugby and cricket teams, as well as a number of iconic annual sporting events such as Wimbledon.

Even some of these sports struggle for attendances when one of the bigger football clubs are playing at home and these are the sports Londoners have grown-up with, activities that are very much ingrained in our culture. Deciding on a night to best attract fans to an ice hockey game becomes an impossible task, particularly when we also add in the sheer volume of attractions and events, away from sport, a city like London has to offer people.

Whilst I have no doubt that hockey fans (or night owls for those dedicated to the NHL) in the UK are incredibly faithful to the sport, perhaps it is our small numbers in the bigger picture that make us so? Not to mention, in a culture that I’m not ashamed to admit is incredibly fickle, surely a team building from scratch would never be able to compete for titles or the best players, and the winning element which would encourage curious souls wouldn’t come into play for quite some time.

There are no Londoners

I’ve read many articles pondering this subject but to date, most have barely scratched the surface of what will be the point I leave you with, a socio-geographic one (apologies if even the word has you falling asleep).

The simple fact is like many huge cities, London is easily separated into diverse geographic sections and so those who live in East London do not consider themselves mere Londoners, instead they are East Londoners – a place with its own traditions, linguistic features, history and so very different to anywhere else in the capital.

Where this comes into play is when we think about having a ‘London’ franchise in the EIHL; there can be no London teams because with each point of the compass being so socially distant and dead-set on remaining so, Londoners will never rally under the same banner.

We support teams from our area because they embody our traditions and represent us; never have I seen this attitude of identity more strongly than in London and though it may seem childish from the outside, most sporting rivalries in the city are built on these divides and nothing gives the fans of London football teams more joy than beating other London teams. This then leads to the inherently tough questions of where to base an EIHL franchise in the city and how to keep them from being directly associated with the community that surrounds them? Answer to the latter: Impossible.

An EIHL team in London is certainly a hazy dream that grows fainter with every failed attempt and false materialisation, but should the time ever be right to try again, I’ll be there supporting with every ounce of spirit I have.

Though it pains me to say, when I look at the incredible fan-bases and rivalries like Fife Flyers/Edinburgh Capitals or Nottingham Panthers/Sheffield Steelers, events that have those from across the pond relishing the atmosphere from afar – my head overrules my heart and says ice hockey just doesn’t belong in London, it deserves far better.

Follow Sam on Twitter, and while you’re at it follow Ice Nation UK for all the best hockey talk!

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