The stuff basically grabs your senses and slams them against the wall from the moment you step foot in the Braehead Arena. The entrance to the home of the Braehead Clan, Scotland’s leading hockey team – the country’s other three clubs occupy the lower reaches of the Elite League – is tucked away somewhere between McDonalds and KFC in the Braehead shopping centre. However, it becomes remarkably conspicuous in the event of a match.
For one thing there was a large queue of supporters snaking away as far as the escalators for the visit of the Fife Flyers on Saturday night; replete in jerseys, scarves, flags and over-sized foam fingers. It is a sight with which few Scottish football supporters would be familiar. Given ice hockey is an American import you are actively encouraged to make a night of it, with the doors open a full two hours before a match starts to allow fans to congregate between the bar and merchandise stands.
Among the more common items – jerseys, scarves, pucks and baby-grows – there is also the chance to acquire a hockey stick which has been damaged in action for a tenner. It was tempting to tell a younger fan that this could be fixed for a fraction of that price, although the somewhat curt response was to direct one of the broken pieces into an area which compelled you to lay face-down on the ice.
The clamour only intensified inside the arena. The PA system blared out a plethora of recognisable, if not exactly contemporary, songs while the team’s resident cheerleaders – known as the Braehearts – gyrated adroitly in a corner of the arena. It was an enjoyable facet of the evening.
Despite the match starting with the usual face off, it was hard not to become fixated on the crowd. Chants reverberated around the stands throughout the match, many of which came with accompanying dance routines. For those more accustomed to, or perhaps even weary of, the monotonous chanting or sporadic tirades from the stands at the fitba’, it was a novel change of pace.
The only lull came midway through the first period when the Flyers’ goal frame had to be welded back together – Garret Zemlak, their goalkeeper had been barged into it twice – yet ennui was avoided with a well-orchestrated Mexican wave.
Supporters arrive at hockey games intent on enjoying themselves, and more tellingly are willing to give themselves over to the occasion. The action on the ice was doubtlessly important to the Renfrewshire club and the competition is far from frivolous, yet there would seem to be a greater importance placed on ensuring those who turn up want to come back. The revelry was likely stoked by the result – it finished 10-1 to Braehead – yet the club are careful of how they market their sport.
There is an acute acknowledgement that trying to compete with football, rugby or even tennis is a mismatched contest as hockey is a relatively new arrival to this country. There is also the small fact that a previous Scottish club, the Scottish Eagles, had to be wound up in 2002 due to financial issues. It is perhaps for this reason that sponsors are named and thanked effusively throughout matches, while their brand can be attached to anything from a jersey to a player’s front teeth. Admittedly that deal is unlikely to last too long, though.
Braehead officials have also gone to schools and universities to help foster interest in the sport, while they maintain the blithe ambience at home matches with events such as the upcoming ‘Teddy Toss’ in which fans will be asked to throw a stuffed toy on to the ice following the first goal, with those then gathered and donated to charity.
Players are also made readily available to fans, whether at arranged events or at the unofficial Clan team headquarters at the nearby Snobar at Xscape. The prospect of hanging out with a few hulking hockey players – there are three Scots on the team roster – may seem disconcerting initially, yet they appear dedicated enough. From personal experience, a couple of their Canadian players were invited by their team-mates for an early morning bevy a few weeks ago. While the muffled response through the window was not entirely acquiescent there was immediate encouragement from the query as to where he would prefer to have his stick lodged. He duly left. You could understand why.
Which touches upon a pertinent point. While fans are encouraged to enjoy themselves a degree of violence seems almost de rigeur on the ice. Hockey is a fast, full-contact sport and the sight of a player colliding with a perimeter wall is not a rare sight. It is also quite amusing. Some infractions are discouraged, though – a wayward pass leading to an icing is punished by an airing of Vanilla Ice’s seminal work “Ice Ice Baby”, while “slashing” results in two-minutes in the penalty box. Committing that crime behind the arena afterwards would bring a stern reprimand from the ‘polis’.
Yet ice hockey is not merely about knocking lumps out of each other. Braehead’s third goal on Saturday was a result of some impressive individual skill from Canadian Jade Galbraith, who evaded two Fife defenders before lobbing a shot into the roof of the busy away net. It was then sullied somewhat by another airing of Vanilla Ice.
With the Clydesdale Bank Premier League returning this weekend after the international break, the focus will return inevitably to a title race which already appears decided and a tax case which, well, doesn’t. It is heartening to know that there is always a decent alternative.