An outbreak of NHL-itis ...

Laurie Boschman'Doug Smail''Fife Flyers ''Both former NHL players
Laurie Boschman'Doug Smail''Fife Flyers ''Both former NHL players
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Allan Crow on the arrival of the stars from ‘The Show’

Nottingham were first to claim their own star from ‘The Show’ with the signing of Anthony Stewart, ex-Florida, Atlanta and Carolina player now living in a £97 a night Nottingham hotel next to the town bus station, close to Hooters bar, and skating in a league he’s probably never heard of.

Then came Sheffield who unveiled Tom Sestito, and then Braehead with Drew Miller, a Stanley-Cup winning skater out of Detroit.

The NHL lock-out means a lot of players are kicking their heels across the pond, so you can see the attraction for British team owners who fancy owning one for a short while. A bit like getting a collectors’ edition of a Tamagochi toy...

It stands to reason these guys will be faster, sharper and better than anything we have seen thus far - after all, they play at a much. much higher level.

The theory then goes they will attract media interest, bring fans old and new to the rink, and we’ll all live happily ever after. I’m far from convinced.

I’ve spent 26 years watching, reporting on and being involved in this sport, but I don’t follow the NHL so the individual names meant nothing to me.

It doesn’t mean I can’t get excited about seeing them skate - but as a neutral with zip interest in the sport, would I give up XFactor, Strictly and my M&S meal for two for a tenner to go watch a sport which doesn’t ordinarily figure on my radar? Hmmm...

For a star signing to work beyond the converted, he has to to be a household name. When Hibs brought George Best to Edinbugh I went just to see the legend in action. Unfit, out of shape and over the hill, he still made some passes that were worth the admission cost alone.

But ice hockey doesn’t have a Best - someone with instant global recognition, someone you turn your kids and say ‘‘we gotta see this guy...’’

As the New York Times reported on Stewart’s signing: ‘’(He is the) the only player so far to sign with the Elite League, a league so obscure in this soccer, cricket and rugby-preferring nation that many Britons do not even know it exists.’’

In that one sentence they say more about this sport than any club PR does in an entire season.

So the challenge facing clubs gripped by this fevered outbreak of NHL-itis is how to bridge that gap and successfully cash in on their big name signings.

Increased media interest, albeit short-term? Possibly. Some PR buzz? Yup - but there has to be more than that if this current flirtation with ‘The Show’ is to have any real impact on the sport this side of the pond.

Knowing club owners, far too many will just spot a passing bandwagon and hop on faster than a player jumping off the bench. They are programmed to think short-term and self-interest, and if their rivals bag a Stanley Cup winner you can bet they are out there sniffing for someone with more rings than fingers. Only then will they worry about who pays the bills that incurs ...

The fans on forums predicting mass arrivals of curious punters are, I fear, going to be sorely disappointed.

And if you are going to flock rinkside don’t expect to go ‘’ooh’’ and ‘’aah’’ in wonder and astonishment the moment they have the puck taped to the end of their stick.

The game over here is very different, the imports over here have very different roles

When Doug Smail became the very first player to move direct from the NHL to the UK when he joined Fife Flyers in 1993 he said it’d take time to gel - and it did.

The ‘wow’ factor was the fact he was here - but here as part of the team, not a ‘keep yourself in shape, bud’ deal mid-season.

He impressed all with his down to earth attitude and acceptance that, over here, there were no bag carriers, there were no practice rinks, and the fans all spoke a weird dialect called ‘Fife’ - but it took him time to get the meter of the game, took him time to forge a stunning line with his foil Mark Morrison and a young Kirkcaldy lad called Steven King.

And while those adjustments were being made, both he and Mo were in meetings with directors keen to know why the team wasn’t winning now that the NHLer was in town; more suits failing to grasp the very basics of sport and the way teams take time to gel, even ones with an NHLer in the room.

Smail’s time here is remembered fondly because of the man rather than what he won - a Scottish Cup medal - but of course his class shone out; no more so than the night he spotted a player on a breakaway, scorched down the ice like a 747 coming into land, ripped the puck off his stuck and went back up the ice in the time it took the opposition player to swing his stick and line up a shot. The look of disbelief as he stared at the ice trying to figure out where the puck had gone was something to behold...

Smail also set a short-handed goalscoring record that will never be seriously challenged let alone broken, and be brought over his buddy, Laurie Boschman, for a brief and rollicking wee stint during which time his rag dolling of poor Ross Lambert still brings folk up here out in smiles.

If fans get to see the NHL best of their new stars - and I hope they do - then I am sure owners will hail the moves a success.

My fear is the signings will potentially skew the league (or a part of it), they’ll all be off the moment the lock-out ends, and, more importantly, good players who signed in good faith for 2012-13 will now find themselves riding the pine.

And when they have gone I suspect the New York Times’ summation of the EIHL will still stand true.

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