I first got the ice hockey bug on a holiday to Canada. We were in Toronto visiting friends and the local team, Toronto Maple Leafs were heading for the NHL play-offs. We watched a game at our friend’s house and I fell in love immediately with the pace, the action and the atmosphere (of the game, not my friend’s house).
On the same trip, we travelled across Canada to Vancouver and one night, as we were heading back to our hotel, there were thousands of people on the streets and cars everywhere honking horns with people hanging out of windows. It felt like the kind of scene you’d only witness in a film and it took a while to work out what was happening. However, the Vancouver Canucks had just qualified for their first play-offs in a long time and Vancouver was very much in celebratory mood! So, ice hockey had just added another attraction in terms of the fans.
From that moment on it was something that I always intended to make more of an interest, but due to any number of reasons, didn’t really manage to fulfill. Despite being a major city, Leeds didn’t have an ice hockey team and having to follow the progress of the Leafs from afar, I didn’t want to do it again for an English team, so my ice hockey watching plans went on the back burner.
And then, in 2019 as a new ice rink was built in Leeds it was announced that we would have an ice hockey team; the Leeds Chiefs. However, Covid put pay to my hopes of attending games and while I might have fairly regularly driven past the rink, I never visited. In the meantime there was a change of ownership and the team were re-branded as Leeds Knights.
On Saturday evening, thanks to my wife buying me tickets as a birthday present, we attended our first ever ice hockey match; Leeds Knights versus Raiders IHC a team based in Romford in Essex. The whole family went along.
I think I’m probably too old to get overly excited by anything at all nowadays, but I was definitely looking forward to going to Planet Ice. Ice hockey is very much an all-action sport and so I knew we’d be sure to be entertained. Other than that, I didn’t really know what to expect, which I suppose is a good thing!
Having parked up, we made our way to the ice rink, which was only a few minute’s walk away. This being a fledgling sport in Leeds, there wasn’t an enormous queue like you might find at the neighbouring Elland Road stadium on a matchday, and so we were ushered in and pointed in the right direction for our seats within a couple of minutes. After a quick glance at the merchandise stall we made our way up the stairs and into the stand above the rink. I’ll buy a scarf or a puck next time though!
The players were already warming up as we sat down and again, this was very different to what I was used to at football. Only the goalkeeper (the net minder?) seemed to do any stretching at all and the rest of the squad just seemed to skate around at high speed or whack pucks towards the net! A much more dynamic way to get warm and it was something I watched in complete awe. I’ve always been fascinated by people who can skate or ski as they just seem to make it look so effortless and incredibly graceful. I’ve never skated before – I mean, if you can avoid car crash, you’ll just avoid it, right? – but have skied and I never felt like I had any control whatsoever. I make young Bambi look poised.
A word of warning if you’re planning on going to watch ice hockey and something we discovered within minutes of our arrival. Watching ice hockey is not a warm experience! Luckily we were aware of this and attended with several layers of clothing in place, but it was still oddly cold. Not oddly as in, where’s all that cold coming from, but as in it was only really certain parts of me that got cold. I mean, I suppose my toes would be obvious, but my knees? My knees were almost frozen – maybe some hastily improvised knee pads will be an option next time! I’d brought gloves, but my hands never got anywhere near cold enough to wear them, so it was rather strange indeed.
As the face-off/puck drop got closer the mood in the arena built. A countdown clock will automatically raise tension anyway, but when the lights dropped and the opposition emerged from their dressing room to line up, things were beginning to get exciting. I’d expected entrance music and a burst of Leeds Knights racing onto the ice, but instead the announcer gave each individual a build up and they came out alone. After this was done, another surprise, as the teams and fans stood for a burst of the national anthem, which I really wasn’t expecting. And then, the puck was dropped and away we went!
I won’t attempt a match report, given the sheer amount of action and my somewhat ‘relaxed’ grasp of the rules, but suffice to say the game was a real experience. The action itself was almost non stop and even when there were stoppages for various penalties the PA would play a burst of music, meaning the whole crowd were kept positive. Actually, not the whole crowd. We counted 16 Raiders supporters and broadly speaking, this wasn’t a positive night for them. Leeds Knights dominated the game and ran out convincing 7-3 winners, with well over 30 shots at goal. And if 30 odd shots isn’t a great advert for hockey, then I don’t really know what you want our of a sport!
Each period of play is 20 minutes long, followed by a 20 minute break. I didn’t understand the need for such a break until watching the sheer speed of the game. The six players from each side on the ice are frequently rotated and it’s only when you watch the intensity of what they do that you realise why. There’s literally no chance for a breather in ice hockey. I have to say that it all combines to make the game utterly gripping.
We went with our two kids, aged 15 and 12, and both really enjoyed themselves. From the drum-led chanting of Leeds Knights fans, through the adrenaline of the game itself to the frequent bursts of music during breaks, my two – usually found attached to some kind of mobile device – were totally involved. The atmosphere was really family friendly too and smiles were very much the order of the day. There was none of the anger, edge and foul language that I associate with football, where I feel like I’m having to protect my kids rather than just relax and enjoy the game.
I’d thoroughly recommend a trip to the ice hockey, if you have a local team. It’s still very much a niche sport in the UK, but I reckon if you go along you’ll be hooked pretty quickly. We’ll definitely be back to watch the Leeds Knights before the end of the season, hopefully more than once. The four of us thoroughly enjoyed what we encountered and felt absolutely welcome alongside punters who were obviously far more regular watchers than ourselves.
Let’s go Leeds Knights, let’s go!