Sports Monday Column - Phil Harrison: Stingrays and Steelers help show TV audiences it is worth warming to ice hockey

THE desperately lamented disappearance of Strictly Come Dancing from the TV schedules recently, combined with a rare night out for my beloved wife, afforded me an even rarer luxury of being able to watch a couple of hours of sport on the television on a Saturday night.

Steelers action shot

After opting not to watch the nightmare that was the day two highlights from the fifth and final Ashes Test in Sydney, I settled for another sport close to my heart – ice hockey.

Premier Sports has made itself the ‘home’ of ice hockey for UK viewers and is now in its third season of broadcasting hundreds of hours from the world’s biggest league, the NHL.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

The less said about my own team New York Rangers at the moment the better, but the excellent coverage of the sport has increased in recent weeks after a deal to add regular coverage of the UK’s top-flight Elite League.

Up until this season, coverage of the league was provided by Sky Sports, although it left many ice hockey fans dismayed with the constant movement of the weekly highlights programme around its schedules.

At times it was shunted out of the way for other minority sports, including angling or the latest live crown green bowls spectacular.

In effect, it was very much the poor relation on Sky Sports, with only the play-off final between Nottingham Panthers and Belfast Giants being broadcast live last season.

There may well be good reasons why Sky never afforded the Elite League a regular weekly slot at a set time but, for now, it does seem to have found a more sympathetic home on Premier Sports.

So after my four-year-old son was safely packed off to bed, I settled down to watch Coventry Blaze play host to Hull Stingrays at the SkyDome Arena.

Admittedly, the production quality of the broadcast on Premier Sports from the SkyDome Arena was not the best (a few more lights and better sound quality please, chaps), but that did not detract from a pulsating end-to-end game between two teams with a lot of history (for two seasons Coventry owned Hull until they sold it to current proprietor Bobby McEwan last year).

In the end, it needed an overtime goal from the returning Matty Davies to seal the win for Hull who, after missing out on the play-offs last time around, are picking up some big scalps along the way – namely Coventry and defending champions Nottingham Panthers – as they mount a serious bid to make the post-season this time around.

For some, screening two teams in the bottom half of the 10-team league playing each other would not be the most obvious way of impressing non-believers to become interested in the sport.

But, as the previous week’s 3-2 win for Sheffield Steelers at Nottingham also proved, Hull v Coventry was a fine advert for the sport and, in particular, a league that is constantly striving to improve itself and widen its appeal.

There are many things that could still improve in the league – the standard of officiating, for example, is something which constantly rankles with players, coaches and fans on a nightly basis.

But the Elite League is a product that seems to be forever improving, the quality of all 10 teams increasing this season to help close the traditional gap between the haves and have-nots.

Clearly, the league will never rival its big-time NHL cousin for quality and while some dream of the sport growing to the kind of status it enjoyed many years ago, it is likely to remain a minority sport here.

But, like British Rail always use to claim, it is getting there.

THE clamour for wholesale changes in the England cricket team could prove too tempting to resist in the coming months after their humiliation Down Under was completed yesterday when Australia finalised a 5-0 Ashes whitewash in Sydney.

As often happens when such shocks occur in sport – as this undoubtedly is given England’s 3-0 triumph over the same opponents last summer – the well-worn phrase ‘well, they haven’t become a bad team overnight’ will be trotted out. Well, I’m afraid in this case they have and quite how the damage is repaired is not clear.

It doesn’t take a genius to work out that almost every England player – Durham’s tenacious Ben Stokes aside – has underperformed during the series.

The fact that you have to go back more than 20 Tests to find a match where England scored more than 400 runs tells a large part of the story.

Another embarrassing England collapse completed the humiliation for Alastair Cook’s team yesterday, their final dismal Test innings on the tour amounting to just 166 and lasting less than 32 overs.

The only bright spot to take from yesterday’s batting performance is that England actually scored at a decent rate, something which had – in total contrast to the Australians – eluded them all series.

Ever since the Ashes were handed back in such meagre fashion in Perth, there have been calls for both captain Cook and Flower to be sacked – the third day’s effort in Sydney will not have helped their cause.

Admittedly, it is easy to sit 12,000 miles or so away and criticise woeful performances, but time and again the heroes of last summer haven’t performed to the standards everybody knows they are capable of.

Cook, Kevin Pietersen, Ian Bell, Matt Prior, James Anderson, Graeme Swann …. the list goes on and on.

When times are hard, that is when a team’s senior players need to stand up and be counted. Not one of them has managed to do so.

It has taken a 22-year-old in all-rounder Stokes – his confrontation with Johnson in Adelaide a clear example of his willingness to take the fight to the opponents – to show them the way.

Worryingly, not one of his team-mates was able to respond to his battle cry.

AND ANOTHER THING

Unfortunately, my own team Derby County did not make it into the fourth-round draw in the FA Cup, boldly going down 2-0 at home to the mighty Chelsea.

Still, as Aston Villa manager Paul Lambert pointed out controversially last week, why should I or any other Derby supporter be bothered – the FA Cup, according to the Scot, is a competition his team “could do without”.

Well, he got his wish didn’t he?

Nigel Clough’s improving Sheffield United got one over on their Premier League hosts in the third round on Saturday with a fantastic 2-1 victory.

Lambert was lambasted by many people for his comments in the build-up to the game against the Blades, but he was making a valid point.

For many teams – particularly those scrapping for survival – the Cup holds little interest, given the riches now on offer in the English game’s top flight.

Ever since the European Cup took on its current form of the Champions League, the FA Cup has struggled to attract as much interest among clubs and their fans – a situation underscored by the lower attendances at most ties this weekend when compared to normal league games.