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Scots are skating on thick ice . . .

THERE wasn't a pot of gold, or even a trophy of silver, at the end of the rainbow for the purple of Braehead Clan or the blue and yellow of Fife Flyers.

 Tristan Harper scores for Braehead Clan as his side come back to win 7-6 yesterday. Picture: algooldphoto.com
Tristan Harper scores for Braehead Clan as his side come back to win 7-6 yesterday. Picture: algooldphoto.com

Yet in a weekend which was characterised by a kaleidoscope of colour both on the ice as well as off it, the complexion of Scottish ice hockey is all the more brighter as a result of their successes and travails over the last 48 hours.

Some 20,000 hockey fans over two days, 24 goals, eight cheerleaders, four angry teams, two mass brawls, a square go involving a fully-grown man in a highland cow mascot outfit, and one man in a parrot costume having some sort of seizure to the sound of The Bird is the Word are just the rough figures which made this weekend add up to the best of the British ice hockey season calendar.

It was little surprise that those of a Clan and Flyers persuasion were both physically and emotionally drained by the time a weekend of the most gripping sport was brought to a close last night, with Sheffield Steelers eventually being crowned Elite Ice Hockey play-off champions after a 3-2 overtime win over league champions Belfast Giants.

This was the first season of the Elite League era to have at least one team bus, let alone two, travel from north of the border to Nottingham's National Ice Arena. It was a landmark moment given the pairing have only spent seven years in the league between them.

Braehead's ascent to becoming a last-four play-off team has been something which they have threatened for a number of years, with successive quarter-final exits costing more than one head coach their job at the Braehead Arena. Conversely, in Kirkcaldy, it has been a gradual progression for Todd Dutiaume, the Flyers coach, who has markedly improved his club's stock year on year, from bottom in their first season two years ago, to a quarter-final exit last time out, culminating in their eventual 1-0 defeat to Belfast on Saturday's play-off semi-final.

"The Elite League finals has always been the property of four or five teams," said the Canadian, whose Flyers strung together 13 wins from their last 16 games to make it to the last four. "This year us and Braehead upset that applecart, deservedly so. It has been a great experience and to be honest on Saturday morning I've not been that excited for a hockey game in a long time."

While Fife's inclusion in the final four was heralded as a success before a puck was scudded off someone's coupon in anger in Nottingham, the presence of the Braehead squad in the finals was accompanied by a heavy burden of expectation from a large travelling support yearning for success. In what is only their fourth year in existence, Clan have evolved into an organisation which is at last fulfilling its early potential. Attendances at the Braehead Arena have doubled in the last two years, with the average gate of around 3000 eclipsing that of some SPFL Premiership clubs. The fact that around two thirds of them were in attendance this weekend speaks volumes of their commitment to a team playing a so-called 'minority sport'.

On the ice, Braehead, under the guidance of head coach Ryan Finnerty, have shown a standard of hockey which has not been seen in Scotland for decades, albeit intermittently. Their inconsistency and inability to hold on to a lead was on show again here, firstly surrendering an early 1-0 lead in their semi-final with Sheffield to eventually lose 3-2, a match sparked into life by a 10-man bust up with not even a hint of a handbag. They then recovered in the third-place play-off with Fife yesterday from 4-0 down to go 6-4 up, only to blow their advantage to send the game to overtime, where Clan's Ed McGrane eventually put the game beyond the Flyers to win 7-6.

"It's been a long year and we've gone through a lot," said Finnerty, who pledged his future to Clan just two weeks ago with a one-year extension. "We've definitely started something here at Braehead. It would have been nice to get into the final and have a crack at the trophy but there's nothing we're going to hang our heads about. The guys should be proud of themselves in that dressing room and we'll build from here."

The contribution of the players is only part of the story from this extraordinary spectacle of sport. Even though only four teams contested the finals, support from all 10 league teams watched on intently from their own section of the arena, with each block of colour, from the green of Belfast through the red of the Cardiff Devils to the fluorescent tangerine of the jubilant Steelers, pledging their allegiance to any given team in any given game. It is an extraordinary sight - just imagine 3000 Dundee United fans sitting through an Aberdeen v Dundee cup tie, let alone celebrating with vigour a last-minute Scott Vernon winner.

Away from the two Scottish clubs who did make it, there was enough of a presence elsewhere to stir some national pride. Belfast veteran Colin Shields, a 34-year-old Glaswegian, netted for the Northern Irish side in last night's grand final, while Dan Bakala, the Dundee Stars' Canadian netminder, was named player of the year, netminder of the year and fans' favourite of the year.

It goes to show the future of Scottish ice hockey is bright, even if the present is Steelers orange.

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