The icemen cometh

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The 73rd Ice Hockey World Championships begin in Switzerland today. Here Esquire's sports columnist, Bill Borrows, explains why it's the only American sport he has any time for.

I watched the first quarter of this year’s Super Bowl - predictably promoted as “the most watched sports event in the US” - and was utterly unmoved. I’ve been to a baseball game and a NASCAR event in the States. They all go to prove one thing: when the Yanks get their hands on a sport - and they invent very few of them - all they do is hand the participants a helmet and then ruin it.

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 The participants will be wearing helmets in the 73rd Ice Hockey World Championships in Switzerland this month but, let’s be honest, they’ll need them. Furthermore, the game was invented in Canada and had nothing to do with the Americans at all. But we are where we are and the sport is revered throughout the United States and, as I thought about moving across the pond, this would have been my chosen sport. 

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 I went to a game once in Manchester. That is Manchester, England and not Manchester, New Hampshire. The Manchester Storm were playing the Sheffield Steelers at the MEN Arena (then known as the Nynex) in the late Nineties and I have to say, as a spectacle, it passed muster. It almost involved me passing blood.

 Satisfyingly, the game followed the basic blueprint provided by Association Football. Two goals, defensive and goal-scoring players, players employed in a midfield role, keepers, sensible scoring. So that was a good start. The addition of frequent bouts of closing time violence by large men armed with sticks, and referees who would not intervene until a combatant was down was also an interesting development. It was, of course, all show. Or so I thought.

 The Manchester Storm and Sheffield Steelers had, in a relatively short time, worked-up a bitter enmity. Consequently, the players were, in the argot of professional sportsmen everywhere, “up for it”. Something I suddenly realised towards the end of the game. 

From the sin bin, behind the safety of the Perspex surrounding the rink, the Steelers had taken to squirting liquid from their water bottles at the young home supporters sat within firing distance. I watched this happen a couple of times - thinking it might be part of the ritual associated with the game - and then I saw two of them laugh as they splashed a little kid who started crying and went running for his dad.

Now, I’d be lying if I said that drink had not been taken but, fortunately, I was armed with a fresh pint of the stuff they attempt to pass off as lager in modern sporting venues. I leaned over the Perspex and threw the drink all over the assembled Steelers. What happened next can only be described as merry fucking hell.

There was a pause as they assessed the situation and then, as one, they attempted to climb the wall. As that proved too difficult, they tried to barge past several officials and through the doors whilst waving their sticks at me in a manner I can only describe as medieval. Still wearing skates, they were having problems negotiating the carpet but as they got nearer it became apparent that I might be about to die.

This was all being relayed on the video-screen cube thing that they have at most ice hockey games. The faces of all the kids around us (I was with my ex-girlfriend) were fixed in a kind of car-crash horror, adults were shielding their little ones and then two huge Mancunian bouncers asked me to leave the premises just as the first Steeler had managed to get the Perspex door open. 

 Adopting the style made famous by Richard Pryor - simultaneously struggling whilst communicating by stage whisper that the last thing the bouncers wanted to be doing was let me at the heavily-armed lunatics I was in the process of baiting - I was dragged up the stairs as several dozen people applauded and cheered. I still don’t know who won but if I had to choose an American sport to follow it would be ice hockey every time. The 2009 IIHF World Championships run from April 24 to May 10, 2009 in Switzerland

Here's a gratuitous clip of what to expect (no promises):