The fast and the fearless

Christian 'Chico' Cole, 19, gets ready with the rest of the team in The Devils' dressing room
Christian 'Chico' Cole, 19, gets ready with the rest of the team in The Devils' dressing room

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Ice hockey players love to get their skates on and head out on to the rink. Rachel Jones looks at the appeal of this all-action sport

With skating so swift it could break speed limits on some Portsmouth roads, vigorous tackling and the odd fist fight, ice hockey isn’t for the timid and cautious.

The Devils team in training with team manager Paul Fitzpatrick

The Devils team in training with team manager Paul Fitzpatrick

Only the fast and fearless can cut it on the ice in this electrifying game that gets crowds buzzing and leaves players bruised.

So it’s no wonder Solent and Gosport Devils are giving themselves big thumps on their padded backs during an impressive season.

The Devils, the only team in this area, have been winning game after game and are set for English National League south division two glory.

That means next season they’ll move to south division one, which will be a whole new ball – or puck – game.

As the team warms up at Gosport Ice Rink, dressed in the enormous padded kits that are appropriate for a larger-than-life sport, head coach and player Will Francis explains what winning the league means.

‘We’re delighted, ecstatic. It’s great for us and great for the sport in this region, because we’re the ones who really promote it in this area.’

The Devils are our sole hopefuls. The nearest teams are on the Isle of Wight and in Basingstoke, but there is a big ice hockey scene in Gosport, focusing on the town’s ice rink where the Devils practice and play.

‘We have about 200 spectators at a home game. There’s a lot of local support,’ says team manager Paul Fitzpatrick.

‘It’s buzzing, it really is. That’s great for us and quite intimidating for the competition.

‘We also have quite a few supporters following us everywhere. Some games we have more supporters than the home side. We’ve got the biggest following in south two by a country mile.’

Moving up to the next division will mean twice the number of games next season, no small order considering the players have full-time jobs.

And while they’re celebrating now, the team thought they had big problems recently when it looked like the rink might have to close. A new owner has come forward and the Solent and Gosport Ice Hockey Club has been saved.

‘If it had closed, we would have disbanded, there wouldn’t be a club, it’s as straightforward as that,’ says Paul.

‘Nothing else would have been practical. It was a worrying time for all of us. This is our second home really.’

The team are also looking out for sponsors as an increasing amount of games and practise time is going to mean more expense for members of the club.

Right now the league win is in the bag, but they’re not resting on their laurels for the next few games. As their skates scrape and cut the ice and the sound slices the air, they’re treating Thursday night practice as serious business. And in a sport where players skate at speeds topping 20mph and chase and shoot a puck that can reach speeds of 100mph, it makes for an impressive sight.

‘I think people love it because it’s got pace and there’s plenty of action,’ says Will. ‘It’s the electrifying speed of the game, the contact. People like to see a fight too, it’s part of the game.’

As well as fast-placed pay, tackling to take possession of the puck and goal scoring, ice hockey is well known for its punch-ups – behaviour that would get players disqualified in most sports.

It’s tempting to believe that the fights are part of the game’s theatricals, the sort of thing that gets the crowd going. An example might be the Devils playing What’s New Pussycat for the arrival of the Wightlink Tigers from the Isle of Wight.

But Will says: ‘It’s not staged, it gets pretty heated and rivalries are carried from game to game.’

The Devils have recently recruited a ‘fighter’ – a player who makes a valuable contribution to the game but has a dual role as the man who will step up for a scrap and take one for the team.

Not surprisingly, ice hockey at higher levels has been criticised for its flying fists culture. But its defenders say that the fights, which should only take place when players have put down their hockey sticks and temporarily abandoned the game, help to prevent rough play.

Players have the option of walking away and there’s a strange unwritten etiquette surrounding the fighting. For example, players must stop if they fall to the floor.

‘It’s in the spirit of the team and game,’ says Will. ‘Fighting is about players being passionate about the sport and standing up for each other. But there are a lot of no nos. You musn’t raise your stick to someone, you have to drop your sticks and take your gloves off before squaring up and having a go.’

Solent and Gosport Ice Hockey Club has several junior teams and to be good at a competitive level a player needs to start early. But parents are assured that no fighting is allowed in junior practise or games.

And Paul is keen to get across that the sport isn’t all about brawling. ‘It’s a skilful game and everyone has worked really hard to get where we are. The team have become much more disciplined,’ he explains.

‘It’s a very tactical sport, very much about player positioning,’ adds Will. ‘And players obviously need excellent stick handling skills and must be great on the ice, they need a lot of flexibility and manoeuvrability, as well as good hand eye co-ordination.’

Players range from their teens to 30s and are either studying or have jobs. Kris Abbott, 29, is a bricklayer and started playing ice hockey in the under-10s. He says the team are determined to keep up the momentum. ‘A lot of us older boys have got families and work,’ says the Gosport father-of-two. ‘It’s going to be a big commitment but there’s no point in working hard for four years and then not putting in the effort. We’re like a family and nobody wants to let the team down.’

Team members also have to worry about injuries. There have been broken arms and lost teeth from pucks in the face.

But the padded kits keep injuries to a minimum. This means it’s not the most accessible of sports, however, since a kit costs about £1,500. But the club can lend a youngster the gear until they decide that they want to stick with the sport.

Paul and Will say the players in all teams get the benefit of an exciting sport and a great sense of camaraderie.

And for the local supporters, it’s a chance to be part of the atmosphere of a thrilling game that’s full of theatrical rivalry and very real aggression.

But it’s also a deadly serious sport and the Devils are looking to the future with an icy determination.