EIHL play-off finals: A hockey weekend like no other

Fife Flyers fans at 2018 play-offs (Pic: Richard Davies)
Fife Flyers fans at 2018 play-offs (Pic: Richard Davies)

‘’Let’s be pesky again’ yelled Josh Scoon as the team gathered in the tunnel, ready to hit the ice for their warm-up.

The cramped area just adjacent to the ice pad filled up as, one by one, as the players made the long walk from the dressing-room round the corridor which loops its way along the vast basement of the Nottingham arena.

Fife Flyers equipement manager Ian 'Horse' Kelly at work behind the scenes (Pic: Richard Davies)

Fife Flyers equipement manager Ian 'Horse' Kelly at work behind the scenes (Pic: Richard Davies)

With camera crews following in their trail, they waited on netminder Andy Iles to lead them on to the ice.

Three, maybe four steps from the green-lit tunnel to the glare of the spotlights and a newly cut ice pad.

Behind the scenes on semi-final day is the calm before the storm.

Players warm up, benches are filled with equipment as the backroom team go about their duties, and officials give final briefings on what is planned. Hanging around is what also happens – killing time until showtime.

Fife Flyers fans at 2018 play-offs (Pic: Richard Davies)

Fife Flyers fans at 2018 play-offs (Pic: Richard Davies)

The corridor is home to the media, on and off ice officials, event managers, and even a laundry. Every room filled with people here to work.

Behind the curtains, chairs are stacked up, stock for vending machines sit behind locked areas –at £2.50 for a bottle of juice, it’s no wonder there’s a padlock on the gate, joked one – and the players loosen up, knocking a football among half a dozen of them.

In the concourse, the fans pour through the doors, all sporting club colours from purple to black and gold, to orange and gold white and blue.

Cheerleaders add to the spectacle, and the arrival of mascots sparks choruses of noise which rise to the roof of the entrance to the arena.

Fife Flyers' Chad Smith leaves the ice at 2018 play-offs (Pic: Richard Davies)

Fife Flyers' Chad Smith leaves the ice at 2018 play-offs (Pic: Richard Davies)

Four floors up, folk on the walkway look down on the ever changing kaleidoscope of colours as face-off approaches.

As the arena fills, so the atmosphere builds.

No-one even notices that the ‘’international superstar’’ the EIHL promised isn’t even in the country, let alone the building.

A wave of social media negativity, some of it completely over the top, which followed the announcement of Cameron Cheers - ‘’spreading cheer since 1997’’ as a dad-dancing, cheerleading You Tube sensation (aren’t they all?) From Stateside - saw him ‘’stood down.’’

Fife Flyers prepare to hit the ice at the 2018 play-offs (Pic: Richard Davies)

Fife Flyers prepare to hit the ice at the 2018 play-offs (Pic: Richard Davies)

It’s hard to say if he was missed. The arena rocked with noise all; weekend. It’s genuinely hard to see how one man, however exuberant and larger than life, could have commanded any visibility in such a huge arena, or made any more impact than the mascots who suited up and had the place dancing and clapping.

He would have been outshone completely by the fans in fancy dress – Nottngham’s contingent alone included a bunch of oompa loompas from Willy Wonka sitting along from Buzz and Woody from Toy Story.

And play-off weekends are all about the fans.

Whether your team makes it or not, the weekend is two days of hockey wrapped around a never ending party where hockey talk over a beer goes on long into the wee sma’ hours.

At Bunkers Hill, Legends and a host of pubs across the city, hockey fans took over. At some places there were as many outside as there were at the bar.

The fact up to a dozen different teams can congregate in one city and celebrate their sport is what makes it special.

Fife Flyers at the t 2018 play-offs (Pic: Richard Davies)

Fife Flyers at the t 2018 play-offs (Pic: Richard Davies)

Wembley may be this competition’s spiritual home -its Heineken era remembered fondly by many even if their memories of those great nights remain somewhat hazy – but Nottingham has its own, special vibe and is a perfect setting. It’s hard to think of a better location.

The city is welcoming, the bars buzz with noise, and wherever you choose to eat, you end up talking hockey with someone, trading rumours, analysing the season just ended and looking ahead to next season.

Immersing yourself in the play-off weekend is something every hockey fan should do.

For every fan who parties into the night and struggles to stay awake as 8000 folk scream themselves hoarse, there are families who have a very different weekend, but still share the same thrill of seeing their team on the biggest stage.

And the difference between glory and despair is tiny.

The dramatic overtime goal which propelled Steelers into the final saw the puck stop barely two inches across the line.

It lay there as Steelers players swarmed in celebration on the plexi, and Panthers could only stand and watch, their season over.

The size of a puck was the gap between Corey Neilson signing off as head coach after more than decade as a finalist and wrapping his era in the bronze game on Sunday.

The picture of Steelers’ coach Paul Thomson consoling him will surely be the enduring image of this weekend. Coaching camaraderie amid a moment of triumph and despair.

A moment every coach, player and fan will recognise as the heart of ice hockey.