Wednesday night saw the first leg of the EIHL Challenge Cup. The league leading Belfast Giants faced off against the third placed Nottingham Panthers in a match up that would decide the seasons first silverware and help define whether this years Giants will be a Grand Slam outfit or not. Similarly it will define whether the Panthers are having a nearly season or a successful one.
The game ended in a 5 – 1 win to the Panthers who took advantage of some unusually lapse Belfast defence. The Panthers will take that 4 goal lead into the second leg next week. But on a wider view the tie has highlighted the need to reform the Challenge Cup.
The match up though between two of the countries biggest teams has highlighted the Challenge Cup more than normal. The Challenge Cup has always seemingly failed to quite capture the ice hockey fans at larges imagination during the EIHL leading many neutrals to not really become excited about it as fans of other sports become of their cup competition. The switch to a 2 legged finals made by the EIHL has not really helped this much. The 2-legged finals do not give a chance for a rivalry atmosphere to build up in the arena, as the entire excitement has to be lifted venues half way through the tie and many fans cant or wont get to see both games. This is especially true if it is a one-side affair in the first leg.
The Cup has also struggled in recent years due to fixture congestion. Whether it is the clubs or the league is not clear but each year it seems nether realise that 4 teams will make the semi-final and 2 will make the final and this has led to the finals being played midweek or as a league game as well. This has had the effect of making the cup seem like more of an after thought.
It is a huge shame for a competition that unlike the playoffs is widely understood beyond the ice hockey community. With a lack of media interest that waned after BBC Sports’ Grandstand programme stop broadcasting the final once it switched from a one off game it is clear to see that improvements must come from the clubs and the league to regain its status as a premier competition instead of an after thought. Those improvements should be having a one off final on a dedicated weekend date. This would give fans an focus point for the final and something to look forward to and circle on the calendar like they do for the playoff weekend.
After all it is a competition that can provide an upset and which, like its soccer counterpart, the FA cup, can give the neutral an underdog to cheer on. It is also worth noting that the French ice hockey cup attracted a sell out crowd on neutral ice.
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