NHL by the banks of The Thames?
Sportsworld's Brendan Connor experiences the NHL's London experiment.
Last Modified: 02 Oct 2007 16:32 GMT

Some go to London to see the Queen, these fans went to see the Kings [GALLO/GETTY] 

When one comes to London, one expects to see certain things.
Among them, most would list Big Ben, Buckingham Palace, the Tower of London, double-decker buses and so on.
But the sight of hulking ice hockey players hurtling around on frozen ice, is not what one expects.
However, for a weekend, London's 02 arena was turned into a hockey-mad venue, full of vocal fans, and the high-speed, high impact action of the North American based National Hockey League.

The NHL has taken its show on the road before, but only for pre-season or "warm up" games, this time, Los Angeles and Anaheim played two real games, with points in the table on offer.

The Anaheim Ducks from California are the reigning NHL champions, the holders of the Stanley Cup.

The Stanley Cup returns home

The trophy was actually manufactured in London over a century ago, and donated by the then Governor-General of Canada, Lord Stanley, to be given to the top team in the Canadian game of ice hockey.

London's O2 Arena was transformed for
the NHL match [GALLO/GETTY]
It has since become the holy grail for hockey players from Canada, the United States as well as players who’ve entered the NHL from countries such as; Russia, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Finland and Sweden.

The NHL coaches, managers and the players involved in this experiment in London are in agreement, it was a unique opportunity and a good idea.
"I think it's a chance for us to display our great game on a big international stage, in a country where we’re not often seen or followed. 

"It's a chance to grow the game, showcase it for potential new fans and markets, and when the NHL asks you to be part of that…you go,"  said Brian Burke, the General Manager of the Anaheim Ducks.

"Our game is so great to see live. The speed, the physicality, the passing and strategy and individual skills. People who casually see it while spinning the TV dial and catching the odd highlight have no idea. 

"They have to see it live, enjoy the whole ambience of an NHL arena, and the intensity of the game.  Once they see it, they’re usually hooked," said Rob Niedermayer, the veteran forward with the Ducks.

Spreading the message

Chris Pronger (top) hits the wall after
some attention from Dustin Brown

The NHL's top man is the Commissioner, Gary Bettman, who made the trip over from New York to wave the flag and trumpet the game. 

"While London and the UK may not be our strongest foreign markets,  it has allowed us to dip a toe in the water here,  show our game to some potentially new fans who might be curious, and to allow the many North Americans living here to come and quench their thirst for a sport they may be missing. 

"As well, the proximity to several hockey playing countries in this part of the world, allows them to join us for the weekend. 

"We could control the environment and the presentation and the experience for people seeing the NHL for the first time."

Bettman points out that British fans told him they were particularly enthused because these games counted in the standings, and that can matter a lot later in the season.

"You just have to look at the final season- standings for the last few years and you'll see that teams sometimes miss the playoffs by a point or two. So I need not emphasize how important these games are."

The colour of match day

George Parros (l) and  Lubomir Visnovsky
sort out their differences in typical ice
hockey fashion [GALLO/GETTY]

On game day, there was a sea of colour as fans emerged from the North Greenwich tube station and streamed across the plaza in front of the O2 Arena fully decked out in their hockey jerseys of choice. 

Many wore the colours and sweaters of current and past NHL teams, claiming new or longtime allegiances.
"I spent a couple of years in Toronto, and became a devout fan of the Maple Leafs and their long suffering drought," claimed a North London lad, sporting the blue and white of Toronto’s team, which has not won the Stanley Cup since 1967.
"We’re big fans so we flew over for the games, and a bit of a holiday and London sightseeing," said a couple from California, one wearing an Anaheim Ducks jersey, the other that of the Los Angeles Kings.

Inside, fans also lined up to have photos taken with the famous Stanley Cup, and to snap up souvenir T-shirts and hats.
As for the game, after a 16-minute delay where the 02 Arena lighting system failed, and the lights over the ice surface had to be re-booted,  the Ducks and Kings put on a typical early season display, with plenty of speed hitting and goal production, and with LA winning the Saturday game 4-1.

Winning over the locals

On the way out, many fans claimed they’d loved the experience.
"Fabulous. Enjoyed the whole thing from start to finish," said a man sporting a Nottingham Panthers sweater.
"Great pace, wonderful skill-level, fan friendly, and safe atmosphere for the family. Just a great time."
"I like the hitting and the punch-ups," said a lad who claims he supports a team called the Belfast Giants.
"It's turned me into a fan," said another woman.
"I might be staying up late a lot this winter to catch some of the games from Canada and America on the telly (sic)."

In the second match of the weekend the Ducks turned the tables on the Kings to post their own 4-1 victory.

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