The Elite Ice Hockey League (EIHL), the top flight of Ice Hockey in the United Kingdom, is reeling this week after a major on ice controversy.
Milton Keynes Lightning Enforcer Matt Nickerson was banned 20 games by the Department of Player Safety following two incidents after the final buzzer away to Guildford Flames. The first incident was leaving the player’s bench after the game had ended to instigate a fight with an opposition player, despite the referees insisting he stop. For this he received a six game ban.
The second incident was much more serious. As he left the ice Nickerson punched a spectator in the face, whilst still wearing his gloves, who was standing close to the tunnel. For this unprovoked assault Nickerson was suspended fourteen games and was cut by the Lightning.
Video of the full incident, including the fan shouting something and then pulling his head back to allow the player to leave the ice.
This should be a closed and shut case. Player punched fan, player suspended and cut loose by his team.
This, ridiculously, has not been the case. Message boards and articles have been full of EIHL fans coming to the defence of Nickerson either explicitly or implicitly by suggesting the fan deserved it, or had it coming because he stood close to and shouted mean words at a professional athlete.
Professional sports is a high pressure environment and that can spill from the stands onto the arena. Many sports events will feature fans shouting abuse at players, this isn’t night and shouldn’t happen, but the way to change that is not to punch members of the public in the face.
People have correctly questioned why a fan was able to get so close to the player as he left the ice. What was security doing? These are fair questions to an extent, but even if the fan were to have completely blocked his path, the professional athlete and grown adult male should have at least tried to resolve that situation with committing an assault. To suggest the fan had it coming because he leant over a guardrail is nonsense.
Professional sports is a high pressure environment, but every single week you will observe athletes engage with fans and media with perfect civility even after a tough loss or game, without, and this is key, punching them in the face. It isn’t that difficult.
Guildford and the EIHL will need to look at how they handle arena security, to ensure fan safety from the types of thugs who feel it appropriate to physically assault people off the ice.
The fan who was punched should not come out of this badly, unless he said something racist, homophobic etc. The home club, Guildford, have and will continue to come under scrutiny, and the player is no longer in the league.
If the EIHL wants to preserve its family friendly image, the closeness of player and spectator should be maintained. But with two fans being assaulted in as many seasons by grown adult athletes, this is an ambition they will struggle to achieve.