View from the Inside – Graham BellPosted: 27/06/2011
Since I started watching hockey in Basingstoke in late 2005, many things have changed around the rink. Players have come and gone, the opponents have changed and the product on the ice had changed up and down in quality.
Another thing that has changed in my time is something you now see every week. No matter where you sit in the rink, it’s easy to spot. If you look up above Bavy’s kingdom in the DJ box you’ll see a camera and more often than not a slightly bearded face with a microphone in hand.
That man is Graham Bell, voice of Bison TV. The Reading born commentator is the face and voice of arguably one of the best highlights and dvd packages in British hockey. Known for his enthusiastic style on the mic along with a healthy sprinkling of hockey’s regular clichés, Bell also commentates for Ice Media Productions match dvds at the EPL Playoff weekend. Bell also presents Bison events held in the bar such as season ticket nights as well as running the live blog from some away games.
Graham took some time out to speak to Banners On The Wall about how he got to where he is today, his thoughts on British hockey and the fashion question that has plagued Basingstoke hockey since the team joined the EPL.
We’ll start off with something easy; how did you discover ice hockey, what made you stay and did you every consider gracing the ice yourself?
I’m what I like to call a Superleague baby. Thursday nights meant only one thing – Sky Sports and live British Ice Hockey. After much begging, my parents finally took us to the Hive (yes, being brought up near Bracknell did have its consequences!).
It was 1996, Mark Bernard was still a Bee, Bavy was merely a young hyperactive DJ and over 2,000 would packed into that humble little place. And I loved it. Television doesn’t really sell hockey, watching it live does. And from that moment onwards I was hooked.
When I learnt to drive – going to more games became easier. Rushing home from work on a Sunday to go to the Hive and watch the Bees in action – I couldn’t have thought of anything better.
Simple reason for me not playing – we couldn’t afford it as a family. At that point I was still deemed good enough at Cricket to warrant county trials and years of football refereeing followed as an earner.
That’s a reason I have a lot of respect for the guys who do play – they are doing something I am incapable of doing. Everyone could score a football goal, everyone could score a rugby try and everyone could take a wicket in cricket. What the hockey player do is such a specialist skill – hence my admiration for them!
You were a final year student at Winchester University when you started doing Bison TV. How did that partnership come about?
The move to Winchester was great for me. It found me the journalism bug that has become my career. When in my third year, I become the Sports Editor for the online paper. Our leaders took us to do highlights for local football teams, in my wisdom, I realised filming Winchester City lose again wouldn’t be a good way to get viewers.
A quick chat with John Teacey and we were away. James Edwards did all the filming and I did all the talking. It was a great challenge – even more so once the Swede who can’t be mentioned left and the team struggled. Luckily, Eric Braff, Kevin Reiter and Jeremy Cornish continued to support us and got us through the season.
The first year in the EPL and I hadn’t planned to be involved. However, when the opportunity presented itself for another team from the uni to come in – I was personally pleased. Some slight changes in style and the opportunity to commentate came along and since then – we haven’t looked back!
Just touching on the commentary, you get very involved in the commentary and are very high energy; was that a style you consciously developed or has it come over time?
It’s a mixture really. When I started, I was conscious that I talk far, far, far too fast. Slowly but surely, I realised that being more hyper actually worked. It’s all about telling a story when people are watching the highlights online. Sometimes – you can’t see what is actually going on and in high-speed moments, it’s important to get as much information to the viewers as possible.
Also, I do get excited when the Bison score and frustrated when we concede. You can tell that in the ‘big’ games – each goal we score that really, really matters, I go a little bit over the top.
Whether people like that style is another question – some love it and some hate it. One thing you can guarantee – it is me and you know how I’m feeling.
Take us through your average game day
The average game day actually begins the night before with the drawing up of my stats sheet and a run through of the opposition names and numbers. Once that’s done – it’s all about protecting the voice. Unfortunately – I have a pretty weak voice ( amazing I know) so it needs protecting.
The actual game day involves either a day of work or drinking a lot of water and vocalzones. Then it’s about getting to the rink, watching through the warm-ups to get the lines for the game and pick up on little traits players have (when you can’t see a number – sometimes how a player shoots or passes can be the only thing to go on).
One pre match ritual though – when Dario G comes on, I have to drum the hook bit. If I don’t – I usually have an awful game!
That first season was the Bison’s last in the EIHL with 27 consecutive losses. What was that like to cover having to try to sound enthusiastic even though most were resigned to the team losing every week?
It was a different experience – to put it politely. You had to go into each game believing the team could win. Obviously the injury to Kevin (Reiter) was another key turning point for the side and after that, it was pretty much hell for leather.
When Eric (Braff) took over, he actually was playing .500 hockey until Kevin’s injury. Eric was also a great interview to have because he was just so honest about the situation. Continually asking him who was going to sign and him dodging it became a bit of a running joke.
James (the other producer at the time) loved it and that’s what drove us on. We sat in Costa Coffee on the day the players were told that Planet Ice were taking over with John Neville telling us to get lost, we had to find out what was going on. To be fair, the guys were open and honest with us about the situation.
But as they always say, from small acorns, big trees grow and I think the club needed that season to re-find itself.
So that obviously changed the dynamic on a personal level, as a hockey fan how did you feel about the Bison dropping to the EPL?
Personally, I loved it. I have very little taste for the Elite League and I knew that the EPL would work in Basingstoke.
When the Bison were in the Elite, they were the south’s team. If you supported Bracknell, Slough, Guildford etc. you looked at the Bison’s results and occasionally went to watch them play (especially when your team were away from home)
With the move to the EPL, the fan level has remained, but the fan base is different. It’s a Basingstoke team. It’s a team for the town to support – it’s not anyone’s second club. Sure some fans have departed, which is always disappointing. But the new fans are passionate for the club and the team.
Some can’t see past the EPL being the ‘second division’. For me, it’s the top division of British Ice Hockey. It’s the top division for British players to play in and develop their skills. This season, Conor Standing will be playing up for the Bison – a Basingstoke boy. Could you really see that happen in the Elite League? No, it’s ship in a Canuck, hope he’s good and, if not, ship him off at the end of the season, or before that. He won’t care (as we saw from some in the final EIHL season). It’s now about developing British talent and watching guys grow before your eyes. Not getting exciting on a sixth-rate Canadian who can’t skate, can’t shoot and can’t be bothered.
There’s obviously a few teams all very close to each other but who is the Bison’s biggest local rival for you?
It’s a weird one – the obvious one for locality is Bracknell. But if you go for history it’s the Flames. And there have been some barnstormers with the Phoenix over the years.
For me – it’s the Jets. It’s a real passionate rivalry between the sides. Obviously there is the off ice history involving the Jets and some of out sides players. For me – it’s their supporters. They just wind me up with their big, high and mighty thought about what they are. If Zoran pulled out – they wouldn’t have a team to support. Yet they ride his coat tails and swim along as happy as Larry.
It’s a club that lacks respect within certain quarters which automatically makes it a personal rivalry for me. Whether every other fan may disagree (I reckon most would plump for Flames), for me it is and always will be the Jets.
You talked about the EPL being the top place for players to develop their skills, with that in mind which one player really stands out to you?
Looking at players in the EPL, it would be very easy to go with a top points scorer or a kid who comes in, makes an impact and moves on. One player who has played his whole career in the EPL is Sam Oakford who, for me, is the ultimate stay at home d-man.
There’s nothing flash about Oakie. He won’t be a player that fans, I feel, truly get but take him away and a team’s complexion completely changes.
I saw him develop from his time in a cage at Bracknell, looking a rough diamond in the Bees defence. Slowly but surely, the guy has developed into, I feel, one of the top five d-men in the EPL. He’s only 21, a uni kid but the experience he has in the EPL is massive and for me stands out as why the EPL is a top breeding ground for young British talent.
So Oakford is your man of the future, who was your EPL 1st all star team for last season?
Netminder – Ben Bowns. Single handedly kept the Steeldogs biting
Defence men – Paddy Ward, Mindy Kieras
Forwards – Marcus Kristofferson, Viktor Kubenko, Matt Towe
How did the job commentating on the EPL Playoffs come about?
It’s almost like my payment for all the work I do for the Bison. The head honchos at Ice Media Productions offered me the chance to commentate at the finals weekend and I gratefully took it with both hands! Sure it means I have to be clear-headed all weekend but knowing that somewhere, a club full of fans will watch the DVD and see the game through my eyes excites me. It’s about bringing the big game into their home and it’s a privilege to do.
Hopefully one day it will lead to something more. That’s the dream really – to step onwards and upwards with the commentary. I certainly enjoy it and hopefully the audiences at home enjoy it too!
As of yet, the Bison are yet to make the Coventry weekend. How do you approach those games where you have no vested interest when normally you have a side you actively want to win?
It’s easier than you think. You just have to sound excited for both teams on the ice. The big game atmosphere does help and the adrenaline soon takes over. You just have to remember it’s your job. You can offer opinions on all the players the same, you can excite yourself with every goal but more importantly, you can just enjoy the hockey and try to share that with everyone else.
When the Bison make Coventry – I don’t think I would be able to commentate. Far too much nerves and excitement probably detracts from my role as an impartial DVD commentator.
When you’re not around Bisonland, what is it you do?
Currently am working for a video news wire called ‘Omnisport’ that’s based in Feltham. Basically involves creating Sports News that goes out in a variety of video formats around the world. Any Bloomberg fans at weekends may have heard my voice occasionally crop up on there. But it’s a million miles away from the glory days at ITN and Setanta Sports News. One day I’ll be back there, you can guarantee that!
If you could change 3 things to improve the overall game experience (rules, league structure, facilities etc.) what would it be?
Wow – tough question this one.
1. Invest in officials and officials training. We face a huge problem is hockey soon with the number and quality of referees. Make the pay worthy of the role and encourage retiring pros to take it up. And then give them the support base to build upon their skills. I would love to see some of the current EPL players now being given the backing, financially and mentoring to don the stripes!
2. One national body to run all the sport – I don’t care who it is so long as they are the ONE group in charge. All officials must be neutral and have no vested interest apart from the betterment of the sport.
3. Bring back The building up of rivalries. It’s almost a forbidden thing these days to run your mouth about something. I keep saying that if a coach said ‘we want vengeance, we want victory and we will fight to the death to prove it’ – people will turn up. They might not know hockey but the word death should encourage everyone to turn up. Any coach who ever says a derogatory word about another team should be commended so long as it’s smart in helping to build crowds. Just an opinion – one people won’t like. But I bet if Mo said ‘we are gonna teach them punks a lesson in Bison hockey’ – the gate would greatly increase!
And the killer question to finish it all off: How do you explain the white jeans?
It’s all one of the wags fault! She shall remain nameless but following an in-depth conversation about the virtues of Wig Wam Bam becoming Wiggy’s goal song and the unveiling of the official video online, it was decided that if I was going to dance the dance – it had to be all the way! Luckily, Primark had equator size jeans, Bavy had the music and the rest as they say is history.