SUN Hockey Pool

British fans relish chance to see NHLers

Anaheim Ducks' Matt Beleskey joined the Coventry Blaze of the U.K.'s Elite Ice Hockey League two...

Anaheim Ducks' Matt Beleskey joined the Coventry Blaze of the U.K.'s Elite Ice Hockey League two weeks ago. (QMI AGENCY)

DAVE FULLER, SPECIAL TO QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 5:28 PM ET

EDINBURGH, SCOTLAND - Matt Beleskey is barely 30 seconds into his first shift and already an Edinburgh Capitals fan is on his case.

"Hey, Beleskey," the supporter shouts from his centre-ice seat at Scotland's ancient Murrayfield Ice Rink. "Is this your dream come true? You play for the worst team in the NHL!"

The Anaheim Ducks left winger can't hear him -- he's too focused. The 24-year-old from Windsor, Ont., joined the Coventry Blaze of the U.K.'s Elite Ice Hockey League two weeks ago and, like Sunday's seven-hour bus ride to Edinburgh from Coventry, nothing's easy here.

The game ends with Coventry winning 1-0, but Blaze defenceman Mike Schutte from Burlington, Ont., is selected player of the match. Beleskey leaves the rink without a point, knowing he nearly cost his new team after taking a slashing penalty with 3:20 left.

"This was my third game, and I finally felt like I was getting my legs under me again," the lockout refugee said. "I'm not used to 25 minutes of ice time. More like 10-12 minutes (in Anaheim). The rinks are bigger, too. It's a lot of skating."

Beleskey's not complaining. He's lucky to be here. More and more agents have been contacting Elite league teams, hoping to procure a spot for their clients. But there are only 10 teams, and import restrictions. Never mind the expense.

"Agents are calling us and we're right at the bottom of the ladder," Edinburgh Caps co-owner Scott Neil, a member of the British Ice Hockey Hall of Fame, said. "It's not a salary thing. The issue is whether the player can get insurance coverage."

The Caps -- stuck with a crappy 3,500-seat rink because the British economy tanked, scuttling plans for a new arena in Edinburgh -- are already cash-starved, hardly able to afford the $4,000 to $30,000 a month it would cost to insure an NHLer.

"We have room for one more import -- we'd like to have one (NHLer) on our team. It would give our team a tremendous boost, even if it's for the short term," Neil said. "We'd have to work out something with our local partners (sponsors). But, it's expensive and what happens if the lockout ends a week after the player gets here?"

While pleased to have Beleskey on his squad, Coventry coach Paul Thompson says one NHLer is his limit.

"It has been fantastic for the league," said Thompson, a former British National team coach. "For our game against Nottingham last week -- with Matt on our team -- we drew our second largest crowd ever."

Unfortunately, the Coventry rink can accommodate only 3,000 fans, standing room included -- hence Thompson's reluctance for another NHLer.

While many NHL fans living in Canada and the U.S. probably wouldn't know Beleskey if they ran over him with their car, he fits the Elite league profile.

"The reason I took him is he's hungry, he's young and he doesn't make a lot of money in the NHL," Thompson said. "He's serious about playing here and fit in right away. He's a little behind us in his fitness but he's catching up.

"He's a bit of a dream come true for some of our fans, who otherwise might never have the opportunity to watch an NHL player in action."

Longtime Edinburgh fan Bryan Allan, on the other hand, has seen a handful of NHLers play in the U.K. -- from Theo Fleury who spent a season with the Belfast Giants to the late Wade Belak, who toiled for Edinburgh during the 2004 lockout.

"It's rubbish, this standoff," Allen said of the latest work stoppage. "It's millionaires fighting millionaires over millions -- it's pure greed.

"If they all came here, played in a rink like this one, maybe they'd realize what hockey is all about. And appreciate how good they've got it (in the NHL)."

Like Allen, Edinburgh fan John Yeoman hopes to see more locked-out players join the league. He has been a hockey fan for 14 years, smitten "after watching my first Mighty Ducks movie when I was a kid," he said.

"It's probably good for this league, but I'd rather have the NHL playing," Yeoman said. "I watch a lot of their games on the Internet and what's happening isn't good for the game.

"It's damaging their reputation."

Yeomen's pal, Ryan Dooley, agreed, though he could hardly wait for next week's Caps game against the Nottingham Panthers.

"I'm a Carolina Hurricanes fan and Anthony Stewart is playing for the Panthers!" Dooley said before grabbing the soccer-ball-sized drum he brought to the game and leading another cheer in support of his beloved Capitals.

Meanwhile, across the Atlantic Ocean, the NHL lockout beat goes on and on.

COVENTRY TRAVELS IN STYLE

It's a seven-hour drive to Edinburgh from Coventry, England -- and that's one-way. But itinerant pro hockey defenceman Mike Schutte is quick to accentuate the positive.

"We get to use Aston Villa's bus," said the 33-year-old from Burlington, Ont., one of a handful of Canadians toiling for the Coventry Blaze of the U.K.'s Elite Ice Hockey League. "I think it's because we share a sponsor with the (English Premier) football team. This bus has 10 TVs, satellite, Wi-Fi, PS3s, even a walk-in kitchen."

Not all Elite league teams are as fortunate, including the Blaze's opponent on this Sunday, the Edinburgh Capitals, who troll Eastern Europe for most of their import talent, knowing they can't afford to load up on Canadians with larger contract needs.

"Our players can make up to 500 (pounds, about $800) a week," says Capitals co-owner Scott Neil, whose team draws about 2,000 fans a game to Murrayfield Ice Rink. The place seats 3,500 but also is 73 years old and on life support.

Ten teams, representing "four nations" compete in the league, with the others based in Belfast, Cardiff, Sheffield, Nottingham, Braehead, Dundee, Fife and Hull.

Schutte, who has played for a handful of AHL teams and several European clubs, says signing with Coventry was the best career move he has made in a while.

"I was thinking about retirement after last season (in Italy) but decided to sign here for one final year," he said after earning player of the match honours Sunday in a 1-0 win over Edinburgh at Murrayfield.

"Now I'm thinking of playing two or three more. We've got a great, talented group of guys on the team and I think we can win the championship."

Coventry's Shea Guthrie of Carleton Place, Ont., is fifth in league scoring, while teammates Greg and Brad Leeb of Red Deer, Alta., have a touch of NHL experience. Other Canadians on the team include Russ Cowley and Mike Bayrack of Edmonton, Dustin Cameron of Saskatoon and Gerome Giudice of Acton, Ont.

Then there's Matt Beleskey, a left winger from the Anaheim Ducks, who signed on two weeks ago.

"I'm on the side of the players (in their NHL labour dispute) but it's great having Matt on board with us," Schutte said. "Having these players come over is awesome for the sport, and as a player you always want to play against the best."

Like the seven-hour drive from Coventry to Edinburgh, Schutte intends to enjoy the ride.

 

 


Videos

Photos