Fife Flyers: Restrictions on crowds ease but still some potholes in the road back
Another hurdle was cleared today in Scottish ice hockey’s bid to return to action after an 18-month absence.
The Scottish Government’s update on plans to ease restrictions on indoor gatherings allowed them to look ahead with confidence - but the devil remains in the detail, and there, things are not quite so clear.
Fife Flyers’ stance on their return was based on the premise that all restrictions were lifted ahead of the puck dropping as scheduled on September 25-26.
Attendances were previously capped at 400, making it simply uneconomic for the club to plan any return.
The new ceiling of 2000 works - but with some lingering unknowns. Consider them some potential potholes on the road.
Flyers’ rink has the capacity to squeeze in close to 3000 people, and the ‘house full’ signs have been used for the biggest games.
But, the reality is crowds in recent seasons have tailed off badly to anywhere between 1000 and 1500; a shadow of what the club has hosted and, many would argue, should host.
The drift away from fans matched the decline in the entertainment factor and the team’s poor performances.
But, Flyers retain the potential to pack ‘em in every night. It has a huge catchment area and a dormant support which links generations of families.
And that is where they may face some headaches.
The 2000 limit will be enforce for a limited period, but the Scottish Government has yet to define that timescale.
Applications need to go to the local authority, who, it is assumed, would want to be satisfied with how crowds will be safely managed on entry and exit.
But, is Fife Council able to turn around a licence on a weekly basis?
And does the club have the ability and personnel off the ice to ensure such applications are lodged promptly and correctly?
Indeed, whose job would that be, and when do they trigger that application?
A winning Fife team playing fast, attractive ice hockey will bring the fans back in a heartbeat - and in big numbers.
If the club creates that buzz on and off the ice - and that’s the whole point of match night - then it will need more than 2000 accessible seats rinkside.
So, where does that leave the huge walk-up support which makes up the bulk of most attendances?
The other unknown factor is a large travelling support.
We know Glasgow Clan fans will turn out in huge number for those first derby games of the 2021-22 season.
Ditto Dundee Stars, but what about an EIHL team on a double header north?
If they come several hundred strong then they have to be factored in, and if an application isn’t sorted in time, that could see them left outside, which would be embarrassing, or, inside at the expense of Fife fans which would probably melt the club’s social media channels.
The issue may well be redundant if the 2000-limit is abolished before September comes around, but caution has been the watchword of the Scottish Government’s approach to the pandemic for the past 18 months.
The club cannot assume it will simply disappear.
I suspect it, and the council, will want to be satisfied the team and the rink’s plans are robust to ensure everyone attending does so as safely as possible.
Perhaps the big opportunity right now for Flyers is to tie every single update, every signing and every announcement into a strong message to get a season ticket to guarantee your seat.
It’s a message to fans, hearts, minds, and wallets - done correctly, pitched perfectly, it could be key to filling those seats after a lengthy break during which time people’s habits have changed fundamentally.
Paint a compelling picture of what the match night will look like, feel like and sound like - the one thing every hockey fan has missed more than anything else - and offer them a way to ensure they don’t miss a single moment of the action.
While the team building goes on as scheduled, the work off the ice is more important than ever.
It also needs to be more co-ordinated than ever, more structured than ever with a clarity of message that filters across every aspect of the team’s organisation
The work the club does between now and the puck dropping is essential to a successful, safe start up - and a long-awaited return rinkside.