Monday, 22 December 2014

The Widnes Wild

It’s not often I get anything free from my publicity-shy, anonymous employer but at the weekend I had a new sporting experience at their expense when I took in a Widnes Wild ice hockey game.

I can’t really describe myself as an avid ice hockey fan. It’s a wonder I find time to eat and sleep (much less work for a living) considering all of the sport that I do watch, but ice hockey has never really been included alongside all of the football, rugby league, cricket and NFL that I regularly submerge myself in. At this time of year I even find myself watching darts. Who can resist the temptation to watch fat men throwing small arrows at a circular board while thousands of drunk onlookers shout ‘boring, boring table’ at each other? It’s a masterclass in witlessness but it’s also sport apparently. Not only that, but St.Helens is prominent in the darting world with at least three of the PDC’s top men either hailing from, living in or having once visited the old Woolworths in the town.

But I haven’t seen much ice hockey. It’s on Premier Sports to which I don’t yet subscribe despite their holding of the rights to NRL rugby league in Australia. One of the wonderful benefits of the end to Sky's monopoly on sports is that you have to have 17 different sports packages to be able to see all of the sport you want, meanwhile Sky steadfastly refuses to lower its monthly subscriptions despite the loss of content they have endured. Also, ice hockey is broadcast at times which are hardly suitable for the working man. Unlike the NFL which has games at either 6.00 or 9.25 on Sunday evenings, you’re looking at something around 1.00-1.30am before you get anything resembling live NHL ice hockey action on British television even if you have paid for that 17th subscription. The closest I have got to any kind of ice hockey-related activity is playing out my own version of the 2010 NHL season on the Nintendo Wii. That’s unless you count being in New York when it was hosting the Stanley Cup Finals earlier this year. In Madison Square Garden, which is not a garden and is not in Madison Square. And I never actually attended any of the games so it probably does not count in any case. We walked past the Garden one night and could hear music blaring from within which we assumed to be the pre-match entertainment and rituals, but getting in was never an option.

So anyway when the opportunity arose to see some real, live ice hockey I was uncharacteristically keen to respond to my employer. I say uncharacteristically because on the rare occasions that my employer emails me offering something for nothing I don’t get to the end of the second paragraph before the email gets deleted. I have no need in my life at this particular time for Indian head massage though I am sure it is every bit as relaxing and revitalising as is claimed. It’s just not for me, in the same way that Jeremy Clarkson isn’t. I’ve heard he is quite popular but I won’t have him on my telly. But ice hockey, well that sounded much more like my kind of thing. And Emma’s. She used to go to watch a team in Sheffield and since one of the games on offer through my employer was the Widnes Wild versus the Sheffield Senators it seemed like it was worth a go.

Whether it was or not is a matter for some debate. We arrived around half an hour before the start of the game to be looked at blankly by the two girls at the box office. I explained that I had come to pick up two tickets and that it had been arranged by my employer. Fortunately I had an email advising me that all I needed to do was explain this at the box office and present my staff card. Had I not kept the email I might very well have spent the rest of the evening trying to persuade the girls at the box office to let us in. Instead they just looked at each other before one of them muttered something to me about how nobody ever tells them anything. Then she issued what passes for a ticket and sent us through into the rink. The first thing that immediately strikes you is how cold it is, a fact which should have been and was obvious but even with my heavy coat on I could still feel the chill. To our left were a set of steps leading to the seating area which were clearly going to be inaccessible. We were advised by the man on the door that someone would be along in a moment with the key for the lift to take us up to the upper deck. At the time that seemed like a relief. None of the arena was visible from where we were by the door and the barrier stretched all around the playing area. It was not transparent plexiglass so you couldn’t see anything of the arena through it. After a few minutes wait the man on the door told us that someone was now at the lift waiting for us and we made our way around the arena to the lift. We were taken up one floor and led to our viewing area.

Which was a café bar. And all sense of relief turned to mild bewilderment. It had those plush comfy seats you find in hotel bars but mostly there were high stools and even higher tables. The kind that I spent 10 days moaning about in New York. There was no viewing area, as such, you just had to find a place to sit where you could see the action. Except there wasn’t anywhere fitting that description for someone of my height using a wheelchair. For reasons that would be exhaustively explained to me later on and which my brain has already dumped into the trash-can marked ‘not necessary to retain’ there is a barrier which has to be a certain minimum height. Like kids trying to get on the rides at Alton Towers. Speaking of whom, there was also a kids play area directly behind one of the two areas where it was possible to sit, in this case directly behind one of the goals. The other such area is along one side of the ice but that is interrupted by a wall, leaving you craning your neck around said wall whenever the puck goes up the other end of the ice. Predictably and despite the fact that there was a national league ice hockey game going on which some people had paid £6.00 to watch, the play area remained open for the kids throughout the night. When Emma went off to find someone to complain to, a man arrived to discuss our concerns and promptly and angrily chased all of the kids out of the building. They were running around in the open play area. Playing, you might say. The nerve.....

The man we found happened to be the same man with whom my employer liaises to get our staff free tickets for the games. He turned out to be a great bloke to be fair, who went a long way out of his way to try to help us. However at first he was confrontational and at one point I thought we were going to have to leave because he could not agree with us that this area was not suitable for disabled people to view ice hockey games or anything else held at the rink for that matter. He was a disabled person himself so perhaps should have known better, but nevertheless he claimed that I was the first disabled person to raise any concerns and that every single member of his sledge hockey team had tested it and declared the area fit for purpose. He must have some very tall sledge hockey team mates. Either that or their expectations are markedly lower than mine. As he sat in one of the comfy chairs next to me I knew very well that he could not see what was going on in the game while all the while he was arguing that there was nothing wrong with the view. By the end he was downsizing his claims by insisting that nobody said that the area was fully accessible and that actually it has no intention of being such. Rather, it aspires to be inclusive. All of which sounds like a vomit inducing, catch-all phrase for people who live under the noble but absurd misapprehension that disabled and able-bodied people can all live together in a fluffy world completely devoid of any bitterness and acrimony. Not if I have anything to do with it.

The outcome of what was becoming an increasingly circular discussion was that I felt that I should have been advised that the area was not fit for purpose before I travelled, but that there are plans to improve the facilities for disabled people in the future. They are going to introduce plexiglass to the upper deck viewing areas where there is currently only a thick, high barrier which should go some way to appeasing your average, angry disabled observer with an overwhelming desire to blog to all of his mates about the outrage of it all. I might be back to test that theory in the new year as our friend (his name is Matt, a former Paralympian sledge hockey player) showered us with freebies including season tickets for the rest of this season and a pledge that we could also go to any Sheffield Steeldogs (yes, really, Steeldogs) game if we just get in touch to let him know we are going. He gave us free tea, offered us free food which we declined, and regailed us with tales of his Paralympic career and titbits of information about the players in the Wild team. One works at the local Tesco and has played at the Elite League level but doesn’t want to travel any further than across the car park from his place of employment. Apparently he turned up one night at their training session with some extensive ice hockey kit and ran rings around his potential team-mates. When asked why he wasn't playing at a higher level he just pointed out that he worked at the Tesco over the road and said 'I play for you'. He's Czech or Polish or something. No doubt the Daily Mail will be furious to learn that he is taking the place in the team of a local Widnes lad. Another player is a plumber and others are electricians and builders. Only the referees get any financial reward which sounds a lot like the wheelchair basketball arrangements I remember from my former life.

I managed to repel several attempts by Matt to get me to go along to a sledge hockey session, by the way. Thursday nights are sledge hockey nights down at Widnes but I pointed out to him that you would have to be madder even than I am to get on the ice and have a go at that. He responded to this slur on his good name with another story, the one about how half his teeth came out when keeping goal in one fondly remembered game or other. If that doesn't put you off basketball stars then consider the fact that there is no classification system like in our namby-pamby game. Be prepared to be smashed into the ice by an array of seven foot ex-soldiers. Matt tried to argue that a classification system is not necessary and that moving the sledge around the ice quickly is down to core muscle strength and nothing to do with balance or anything like that. Which is, frankly, horse shit. Curling was of more interest to Emma, and I would be willing to have a go but due to a complex process which can also be found in that ‘not necessary to retain’ trash can (something about having to prepare the ice overnight) they can only offer the sessions on Friday mornings. Now we are left wondering whether a game of Curling is worth a day’s leave or flexi which, if it is anything like a night at the ice hockey, it won’t be. Besides, I have accepted my Paralympic failure. I’m not one of these biffs who is going to try every sport he can possibly get involved in before making his Paralympic debut in sausage eating at the age of 51. I’m over it, really.

The game itself, or the bits of it that I could see, was very entertaining. The Wild lost out 8-6 to the Senators in the end, with the last goal scored just a couple of minutes from the end as the frost-bite inducing possibility of an overtime period lingered. Emma pointed out that although it was entertaining, it was a pretty average standard even by comparison to the Elite League games that she has seen in the past. Nevertheless I’ll probably give it another go at the end of January by when Matt assures me that the plexiglass will be in place and I’ll be able to see a lot more of the skills of the shelf-stackers, electricians and plumbers of the Widnes Wild.

Until then I’ll stay in and watch the darts.

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