While its grass equivalent is a popular sport in the UK, ice hockey is often left on the outside looking in, which Guildford Flames head coach Paul Dixon wants to change.
As leagues like the NBA and NFL have successfully transitioned across the Atlantic, the popularity of the NHL in the UK is lagging behind as it finds Scandinavian markets more appealing and lucrative.
Dixon believes the NFL’s consistent trips to London are the reason why American football has blown up recently – and he feels the NHL should follow suit.
He said: “I imagine every hockey fan here follows the NHL quite closely, but why does the NFL have a bigger following?
“It’s because they have brought it over, year after year, and in some cases have had three or four matches a season.
“The last NHL game played at the O2 back in 2007 got over 15,000 to attend, so would I like to see it more often? Absolutely.
“Fans can then jump on that bandwagon and hopefully develop an interest in the best league in the world, which the NHL is.”
The importance of seeing the highest level in the UK cannot be understated according to Dixon, as he thinks it influences hordes of new fans to attend live games.
Dixon is aware of how crucial attendances are for the sport at this level and hopes that the Flames faithful will return when allowed to do so.
He said: “If people in the UK develop an interest, they might decide to go check out the domestic game and support their local club.
“We need fans through the door to support our staff as all the teams do in the Elite League.
“We’ve always had large numbers supporting the Flames and we have a very loyal fan base so it would be great to get them back in the building and supporting us.
“We’re fighting against a lot of major sports here in the UK to try and get on that ladder.
“You’d be surprised when you talk to people about the sport and they answer back saying ‘ice hockey? Here in England?’.
“Ice hockey is very diverse, but it’s not at the top of everybody’s list and we have to fight to get our coverage out there to market not just Guildford but the sport.
“The best form of advertising is TV, and I think we struggle to attract the big deals and rights.
“It’s the coverage that we need to try and get the sport out there and get to people who don’t even know about it.”
Dixon, who is the all-time leader for the Flames with 928 games played, conducts much of the team’s recruitment himself.
He looks at leagues – professional, amateur and university – across Europe and North America to find the right players for Guildford.
He added: “It’s important to recruit players that suit the style of play and philosophy that we have in Guildford week in and week out.
“It’s a hard job recruiting at the best of times but with everything going on, it’s going to be a hard task.
“We’re not alone – everybody is in that same bracket.”
The pandemic has drastically affected the Elite League and derailed the retention of talent, too.
The Flames understand the difficulty of the situation for players, but they are optimistic that domestic ice hockey will return soon.
Dixon said: “Rather than hold any player back, if they wanted to go then we released them from that contract.
“We have had some guys go to European leagues to play for now, and we were obliged to release them from contracts as our season is yet to start.
“Things are changing daily and hopefully they’ll have a vaccine – it’s not going to come out in the next few days, but it’s a start.
“Maybe into the new year we might start to see some light at the end of the tunnel.”
You can check out the Guildford Flames ice hockey team here.
Featured image credit: John Uwins.