Prancing on ice


I spent last night at a big sporting event, supporting a team of red devils who came from two goals down to win 4-2 with a sparkling performance in the last thirty minutes of the game. Nothing odd in that – after all, I’ve been supporting Manchester United for years. But yesterday the green grassy carpet of the Theatre of Dreams was replaced by freezing glassy ice for the NHL clash between the New Jersey Devils and the Dallas Stars.

Given that it was end-to-end stuff, and the match was only finally settled with sixteen seconds to go, I really couldn’t complain about my introduction to major league sport American-style. But I couldn’t help but compare and contrast the big American sporting showpieces with the less glitzy but still highly-charged British football occasions. Particular observations are as follows:

• The city of Newark pledged $210 million to get the Devils to move a few miles down the road to this purpose-built venue, in a bid to regenerate the area. Nevertheless, the 17,625-seater stadium couldn’t have been more than half full. Interestingly the official attendance was placed at well over 13,000, so the new stadium counting systems can’t quite be working yet. The city paid for the stadium, yet nobody goes. Ring any bells, Manchester City fans?

• With low crowds and little gathering of crowds in pubs and bars in the run-up to the game, singing and chanting a la English football is practically non-existent. The team rely on a Hammond-esque organ and organist to whip the crowd into anything above a whimper. The home supporters reserve their one catchy chant to bait local rivals the New York Rangers, with a witty (if close to the bone, for America) “Rangers suck, Devils swallow.”

• Half time or interval entertainment is universally derided the world over, clearly. Four contestants last night were asked to stand on the half way line and put a puck through a tiny hole in the goal. Every single one was booed off the rink for their abject failures.

• You can have periods during an ice hockey match when, due to penalties, one side will be playing with three outfield players to their opponents five. It’s the equivalent of United being forced to play a full strength Liverpool for a short time without John O’Shea, Darren Fletcher, Louis Saha and Mickey Silvestre. Actually, come to think about it…

• As well as being able to drink at your seats, you can purchase all manner of paraphernalia on the squeaky-clean inner concourses of the stadium. I swear though that for as long as I follow competitive sport in stadiums around the world, I will never again be greeted with the retail opportunity that I witnessed last night. I mean, I have no problem with cigars, it’s just that I don’t know if seeing old men roll them on their legs and offer them for sale should necessarily be part of the big sporting occasion, that’s all.

• Everything is so clean. I know this is a new stadium, but my sense is that it’s the same in stadiums all over. For a start, every man seems to urinate in receptacles that were designed for, well, urinating in. That CAN’T be right, can it??

You can’t help but admire ice hockey and its players though. They play with a puck that flies at around 100mph, they get battered into the barriers on a regular basis, and they’re always seconds away from a serious injury. It may not quite match the intensity of a clash of the ‘soccer’ titans, but I’d definitely go back again. Just don’t make me take the half-time shot, OK?

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