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Sellouts come as a surprise to most

European fans join the few but proud avid Brits awaiting this weekend's Kings-Ducks games.

September 29, 2007|Chuck Culpepper | Special to The Times

LONDON -- Some British mysteries just bamboozle the brain, from Stonehenge to Jack the Ripper to the chronic popularity of "Big Brother" to just who on David Beckham's green earth bought enough hockey tickets that London would sell out two NHL games in a hasty fortnight.

"Yeah, actually, it's amazing," said Marc Crawford, the Kings' coach.

"I don't know if Britain has fans or if they're ex-pats," said Brian Burke, the Ducks' general manager.

"Surprised and delighted," said Philip Beard, the CEO of the O2 Arena, who said a planned marketing campaign went merrily unused.

"I don't know," began Stewart Roberts, and there's a mark of untold mystery, for Roberts serves as chairman for the few, the proud, the Ice Hockey Journalists UK, which also has a secretary, a webmaster and a treasurer, which by definition means it has a treasury.

If he's not sure, then nobody can be.

"My guess," he continued, "to give you my opinion. . . "

Start by combing the green hills of England, Scotland, Ireland. Tucked in there amid the outnumbered rugby fans and the outnumbered cricket fans and the legions upon legions of keen-eyed soccer fans who can spot an opponent's handball infraction from a buzzard's distance, somewhere in there, yes, some people do report their own hockey fandom.

"A small fish in a big pond," one Ken Grierson put it.

They follow unembellished clubs such as the Coventry Blaze, the Basingstoke Bison and the Sheffield Steelers in the Elite Ice Hockey League, which Roberts rates on a level with the United States' East Coast Hockey League. They decry soccer's hegemony without risking deportation.

"Speaking biasedly, I cannot abide football," said Barry Smart, the chairman of the Basingstoke Bison fan club, referring to soccer, of course.

"Even if you gave me a free ticket, I wouldn't go" to see Coventry play soccer, said Grierson, who organizes away-game bus tours for Coventry Blaze fans.

They report eccentric experiences. "You stop at service stations on the motorway, and people are looking at you because you're wearing your top and they don't know what it is," Grierson said.

They read newspapers with frustration. Epitomizing their place in the margins, they might read a hockey score in the newspapers knowing full well the game went to overtime, but the newspaper will note only, say, "Coventry 3, Cardiff 2," because there's just not room to note the overtime what with all the soccer coverage.

They often know their athletes personally. If they're out shopping in Basingstoke, say, and they see a member of the Bison, they'll just have a chat, unlike in the Premier League where, "They're superstars, according to them," Smart said.

These hockey lovers of England might say wistful things, such as longings for trips to Toronto or, in the case of Roberts, the editor of the Ice Hockey Annual, "I often say I wish I'd been born in Canada."

They might have picked up the game because, as in Smart's case, "one of our relations was a backup netminder," or they wandered in from a nearby Glasgow hotel, in Grierson's case. In teenaged days, in Roberts' case, they might have followed the Brighton Tigers, a claim few can make.

They might tell you, "It took me two or three games," Smart said, "because it's obviously a bit confusing when you see guy skating around and a minute-and-a-half later they all jump off and change lines."

Yet they're "very avid," said the O2's Beard, and although the EIHL has a full slate this weekend, Smart said some Bison followers vacuumed up tickets to the Kings-Ducks games. Smart himself will not attend -- the Bison have a home duel with Sheffield -- but Bison club secretary Kerri Murphy will.

"I'm afraid our gate will be a little bit down this weekend," he said.

Of the two crowds of 17,500 each at O2, Roberts reckons these British hockey die-hards will make up about 10%.

From there to the North Americans, whom Roberts figures account for about 40%. Crawford said his brother's coming, so there's one. NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman arrived Friday and said he had already talked to some Southern Californians, so there you have a few more.

Trickles of Kings and Ducks fans have come to London in recent days and have marched through the O2 arena, which houses so many good, varied restaurants that you could live in it full-time without risking malnutrition -- a sports-arena rarity.

Some inveterate Kings fans such as David and Linda Baltazar of Downey, who rapidly signed on last spring after the announcement of the game, on Friday witnessed the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace and filed into the O2 for a party Friday night -- all part of a whirlwind, five-day London trip. The Baltazars also reported that the Kings tour group they joined on the club website had fallen victim to some savage infiltration from Ducks fans.

The hodgepodge thickens when considering that an estimated 200,000 Canadians reside in the multicultural United Kingdom.

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