Two gentlemen who work for the Manchester Phoenix were kind enough to answer our questions about hockey across the pond. Pete Hagan is the team's jack of all trades. He's not only the Phoenix’s game announcer; he is involved with the Phoenix's community foundation, media properties and is the head coach of the sledge hockey team. Ben Knight hosts the team's official podcast. Below are their answers to our questions.
Has hockey in Great Britain generated more interest in recent years, or is it still the same?
Pete - I think it has gotten a little more interest, especially at the moment with the GB Squad advancing to the final Olympic Qualifying round, and with a few players playing abroad......however it's still seen as a minority sport in the medias eyes, and until that changes here it will always be hard to get noticed above other sports. But that's down to the governing body, clubs and fans to spread the word...so hopefully it won't be long until the sport gathers more momentum.
Ben - Ice hockey in GB gathers reasonable crowds in the EIHL and the numbers seem to be slightly on the increase in the EPL. The game seems to pop-up in British popular culture with slightly greater frequency now than five years ago or so but, despite some renewed interest from the BBC and the EIHL show on Sky Sports, it is still the poor relation to football, rugby, cricket etc. Nevertheless, fan media and resourceful clubs in the two top leagues are improving the presence of the game in the public psyche.
What do they think hockey can do to gather a bigger following in Great Britain?
Pete - More media coverage would be great to expose the sport to new fans, most people who come are hooked...its just getting them into a rink to see. Still that stereotype of guys beating the hell out of each other, which as we know can happen, but the game is so much more than that...it's just getting people to realise it. Think it's a view held by non-fans and media alike, which can stop any coverage being taken seriously.....although its getting better, we have a few people who have helped us get a media presence in print, radio and TV (TV is the hardest) so we work hard to get the game and the Phoenix out there.
Ben - In reality, advertising is the answer to gaining popularity. Sadly, that is an expensive business. Sponsors still dig deep in troubling financial times but this cannot be expected to pay for the number of billboards, public transport adverts and online adverts the sport needs to really swell its numbers. Free airtime is gained by being well-connected with local and national media and by sharing club-produced media with local radio, for example. I was staggered that no clubs tried to do promotions with local cinemas when Goon was released last year. That was a missed opportunity to my mind.
How do you get into hockey?
Pete - Funny enough through Football (its not soccer lol). The local team were playing Newcastle on a Saturday and the Manchester hockey team (the Manchester Storm) was playing the Newcastle team on the Sunday, which was my birthday as well. I called my Uncle, who lives in Newcastle and bragged how Manchester was so good we would destroy them at Football and at this ice hockey stuff too! The football team lost 5-0 and the Manchester Storm blew a 5-3 lead at the end of the 2nd period and lost 6-5.......needless to say I avoided my Uncles phone calls for a while! Was hooked on the party atmosphere at the hockey game and kept going back.....then started playing.....then coaching and so on!
Ben - I was aware of ice hockey years ago. I lived quite near the rink in Peterborough. That said, it wasn't until years later that I went to a Nottingham Panthers v Sheffield Steelers Boxing Day game with my family and a mate of mine that I really got into the game. I had lived all over the place (including Paris) and had not been anywhere for long enough to start following a local team. That was until I moved to Manchester in 2003. When Phoenix resumed playing operations, I was there. I was a fan, then a steward, then an unofficial podcaster and then became official off-ice staff, running the Official Phoenix Podcast, five years ago.
Who is your favorite current Phoenix player?
Pete - Can I have an easy question? Lol...we have a great squad this year, both on and off the ice, so a real tough one. I'd probably go for Joachim Flaten, one of our import players from Norway. He never gives up or has a shift off, his work in the corners to battle for the puck, his strength at protecting the puck and he can score too.....and a genuinely class guy of the ice too. But that could be said for all our guys this year....if you asked me the question tomorrow it could change.
Ben - That's tricky! I interview these guys every week! I love the heart with which James Neil (a young, Brit D-man) plays. He is so committed and gets really emotionally involved in the game. When he makes a blunder, nobody is a harsher critic than himself. James Archer (British forward) is another who plays with soul. He is a talented lad too. He is a good play-maker but is good in front of the net too. He's a good interviewee, just to add to that!
Who is your favorite all-time Phoenix player?
Pete - Again that's a tough one as we have had so many good players, both on the ice and off ice. I think I'd have to go for....Tony Hand, he just keep going and going and matching the best in the league. He's been there, seen it and done it in the British game and despite that is still hungry for more. He's an inspiration to any player and his eye for a pass is second to none! The other thing that amazes me is his personality, so easy to get on with and eager to help with promoting the sport. All I will say is don't get in his way on game nights.....or risk a Tony Hand Death Stare!
Ben - Jaakko Hagelberg (Finnish forward) played for Phoenix in the 09/10 season. He produced 83 points and 151 PIMs but the thing about him was that he was a one-man hockey team. He flew around like a madman and always seemed to boost morale on the bench. He was damned rough at times but had some impressive stick skills too. He was a joy to watch. Was he the most technically able Phoenix player? Absolutely not, but that's not always what watching this game is about.
What is your favorite Phoenix related memory?
Pete - Has to be the Title win a few seasons ago....culmination of several seasons work and a lot of hard work by players, staff, volunteers and fans. Not ashamed to admit, was a little teary eyed for a day or two after. The last game of the season to win, the on ice presentations and then the partying after....great time and something I hope we can repeat in the not too distant future.
Ben - Obviously, winning the league title was a big deal. That goes without saying. Broadcasting the live show from the playoffs about a week later was a blast. We do the show from a pub so that helps! I think my favourite Phoenix-related moment was probably winning Luke Stauffacher's game worn shirt at the playoffs in 2008. He was another one-man team. A nutter on the ice. Loved him dearly.
Which team do you see as the Phoenix's biggest rival?
Pete - Think that depends on what type of rival....in terms of trying to win the league, usually Guildford...although Basingstoke are tough this year and looking as a favourite. But for intensity and feel good factor for a win...Sheffield Steeldogs! The proximity of the clubs, the players who have played for both teams and that leads me to the biggest reason...Andre Payette! An enforcer who has played for the Phoenix for a season and the player/coach of Sheffield. He is one of those players who is loved by his team and hated by everyone else! So 2 different rivals for 2 different reasons.
Ben - For titles, it is getting harder to say. The EPL is tight. Basingstoke Bison and Guildford Flames are tough opponents for the top spot right now. For rivalry in the old-school-hockey sense, it is the Sheffield Steeldogs. No question. They are the most proximate team. They play the roughest game. They are Yorkshire and we are Lancashire - go look up some 15th century history to see why that matters! Oh, and half of their team are ex-Phoenix players. Grrrr!
Do you follow any NHL team? NHL players?
Pete - I'm only telling if you don't laugh....I'm a Toronto Maple Leafs fan as I have family in Canada, so yeah not a glory hunter for sure! No specific players I follow as such now, obviously the Leaf players, but used to love watching Mats Sundin...pure class and Steve Thomas, gritty winger who played his best when the game was on the line...oh and was born in Stockport, so the Manchester connection there too.
Ben - Not so far this season! Joking aside, I don't have satellite/cable and so my opportunities are limited. Whilst I don't follow a particular team in North America, I do watch games whenever I get the chance. I do try to watch the Oilers every now and again. They were the team that picked Tony Hand in the 12th round draft in 1986. He was the first Brit to be drafted. Ever.
I suppose I will have to start watching the Coyotes now, of course! Paul Bissonnette certainly drew some attention on and off the ice when he was over here, playing for Cardiff during the lockout. I'll be keeping an eye on his antics.
Man U or Man City? (Only one right answer to this question)
Pete - How can there be only one answer when it's not even a question! Lol not really in to football, got too soft now, players are prima donnas most of the time, only a handful of real tough players, but follow Manchester United. If they win, great....if they lose, oh well...it's not hockey!
Ben - I always joke that, because I can see Old Trafford from my house and have actually been there, I could never be a United supporter. Truth is, I am neither. I know. Heresy. I've never truly seen the attraction in this "foot-soccer-ball" thing that everyone goes on about.