ANY meeting between Sheffield Steelers and Nottingham Panthers is generally regarded by both sets of fans as the most important of the season. Even more so on Boxing Day.
But it is not just on the ice where everything matters.
For this weekend’s hosts, the Elite League encounter between the two rivals at the Sheffield Arena represents the biggest night of the year, with an expected 9,000-plus crowd.
Ahead of what will be the fourth league meeting between the two this season, Nottingham hold the slenderest of advantages, sitting one place and one point above Paul Thompson’s team.
And while the gaze of the spectators will be fixed on the all-important action on the ice in front of them, behind the scenes a team of 20 staff and around 100 volunteers will be working flat out to ensure that an event they have come to describe as “the show” runs like clockwork and remains trouble-free.
Steelers’ owner Tony Smith admits ice hockey is a “hard sell” in the UK, partly because it is still widely regarded as a minority sport.
But an increase in the number of import players this season to 13 – slammed by some for reducing opportunities for British players – has seen a widespread increase in quality throughout the league, laying the foundations for one of the most competitive seasons in the league’s 12-year history.
One of the immediate knock-on effects of the increase in quality has been an across-the-board rise in attendances.
“It’s very difficult (running a hockey club in the UK) in the sense that I feel the sport itself is one of the best-kept secrets in the country,” said Smith. “It is certainly one of the best-kept secrets in Sheffield.
“So, it can be difficult to try and market the product. It’s restrictive in that you need ice, it’s not like football which you can play in any park on a Saturday afternoon. It is a minority sport.
“For me, it is always a hard sell, but the thing I love about ice hockey is that once you’ve shown people what the game is all about and they’ve had a couple of visits to the Arena, they either love it or hate it.
“And what we are finding now is the vast majority of those people are sticking with it and our attendances are reflecting that, like crowds around the league are. I don’t think there is a single club in the league that is down in terms of crowds.
“Everyone is on the increase by about 15-20 per cent this year and that has to be down to the increased competitiveness of the league.”
While Smith will be keen for his players to ensure that it is their fans who go home enjoying bragging rights over their East Midlands counterparts this Saturday, he is just as keen to ensure the event is a resounding success off the ice.
“Sheffield Arena is a great place to play when it is full or there are 6,000-7,000 in there,” he added.
“It’s not such a great place when you’ve only got 3,000-4,000.
“We’re fortunate that our crowds are on the up and we have averaged 4,000-plus this year.
“But on Boxing Day we are hoping it will be a sell-out crowd of 9,300 – we’ve got just under a 1,000 left. We came close last year when we had over 8,500 on the day (Panthers won 4-0).
“It’s obviously important on the ice for us to win these games at this time of year in terms of bragging rights.
“But it is also a huge day for the business itself – the business model. We need the big days like Nottingham and the games like the one on Boxing Day to put money in the bank for us.”
One of the biggest selling points for ice hockey in the UK – at any level – is that it is something to be enjoyed by the whole family, a USP that Smith is understandably keen to promote.
“You can’t bring people in to watch paint dry, it just doesn’t work,” he said.
“We’ve worked hard in Sheffield to make it a show and that is what we call it now ‘The Show’ – rather than just ‘the game’.
“It starts from the moment people get to the Arena and we hope they go away having enjoyed the whole night, as opposed to just the hockey.
“If all you can offer is a game of hockey, you’re not going to retain all the first-timers – some people come for the extra razzamatazz we offer and they enjoy the night out in general, not just the game.
“Times are changing; we don’t just have hockey purists anymore, we’ve got people who want to come to the Arena and have a good night with the family.”