Difficult to believe it may be, but ice hockey has not always been a minority British sport carried on without most of the population knowing it exists. Although ice hockey is now dominated by Canada and the Nordic countries, that has not always been the case. In 1936, the British team was actually Olympic, European and World champion, and defeated the previous world champions, Canada, 2-1 – a victory impossible to imagine in 2016.
When the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) was formed in 1908, as the world governing body, Britain was a founding member. The first recorded game was held in 1900 and Oxford University beat Cambridge University 7-6.
Young people growing up in eastern Canada had an advantage (which they shared with the youngsters of, for example, Finland and parts of Norway and Sweden) in that for several months each year, ice was readily available out of doors. The UK needed large indoor arenas and these began to be built in the 1930s. At that time, most of the players were professionals from Canada and, between 1935 and 1954 (excluding the war years), matches in London, Nottingham, Brighton and in Scotland drew big crowds.
From 1954 onwards, the popularity of the sport fell and that, combined with rising wages, led to the British National League’s (formed in 1954 by a merger between the two existing leagues) collapse in 1960.
There were always enthusiasts to keep the idea of British ice hockey going and, in 1982, the British league started up again. This time there was a limit on imported professionals so that most players were homegrown. There were 60 teams at the beginning in 1982; today in England and Wales there are 370.
In 1996, a Superleague was formed, with no limit on the number of overseas players and, sadly, it proved too ambitious. The Superleague folded after only seven years. The English Premier League is still going and still staffed mostly by home-grown players. The men’s team is rated 25th in the world and competes in the second tier of the World Championships.