Covid-19 has forced professional ice hockey out of sight in Scotland – and out of mind.
But Dundee Stars head coach and general manager, Omar Pacha, believes the sport has the potential to explode into the national consciousness once restrictions are lifted.
The Stars were effectively mothballed as an on-ice operation in September when the top ice hockey league in the UK, the Elite Ice Hockey League (EIHL), opted to suspend the 2020/21 season.
The Scottish National League (SNL) – home to the Dundee Tigers and Dundee Comets – announced on November 18 that it had followed suit.
While hockey players up and down the country have been left holding their skates, Pacha and the Stars’ commercial manager, Michael Ward, have been plotting an off-ice strategy to grow their club.
And the former believes their ambition should extend many hundreds of miles beyond the walls of Dundee Ice Arena.
“From what I’ve seen in Scotland, it is a no-brainer that hockey can be the number two sport in the country behind football,” said Pacha.
“The most direct competition, to an extent, is probably lower league football and also rugby.
“I think there are ways for all three sports to grow together.
“We’re a sport that isn’t necessarily so different to other popular sports in Scotland, but we offer a different spectator experience altogether.
“If you come to a hockey game in Dundee, we’re privileged to be based in a facility that’s warm and has a friendly vibe – I think we’re the only sport in Dundee that can offer that!”
Anyone who has shivered their way through a mid-winter football fixture at Tannadice, Dens Park or McDiarmid Park will know only too well the attraction of “the great indoors” by the time 90 minutes has passed.
Still, the emotional connection fans feel to their football clubs is powerful.
That’s something many hockey fans in Dundee also feel towards the Stars – and Pacha believes even more fans can be converted.
“We all know that football is the number one sport and we’ll probably never get there,” said the Quebec native.
“But if you look at sports markets around the world, there are usually two or three sports that dominate rather than just one.
“As hockey, we are in a place where we have the potential to make ourselves a beast of a sport in Scotland as a whole.
“It needs to come from clubs to grow that awareness. We all need to spread the message that we are a professional sport and, as a club, we are playing at the highest level in the UK.
“We are already the number two sport in Dundee – and we still think there’s room for growth in this city.
“All it takes is to get people through the doors because, as an experience, what we’re offering is unique.”
The circumstances Pacha finds himself operating in this winter are one-of-a-kind too.
New signings have been shelved, star players have moved on, the locker room has fallen silent.
Watching the hockey season being cross checked by the Covid-19 pandemic has had its dark moments.
But the relentlessly positive 34-year-old is only interested in tending the light at the end of the tunnel.
“It’s been disappointing not having hockey,” conceded Pacha.
“But on the business side, our organisation keeps growing and growing.
“During the regular season, you don’t really have time to look at your whole business, so this has really been an opportunity for everybody at the club to take a step back, to analyse our business and plot how we want it to move forward in the future.
“We’ve been able to take the blinders off and I think we have found areas we can tweak.
“It’s no secret that in the last few years we’ve grown the attendance by about 43%. Sponsorship has increased by a great percentage in the last few years too.
“We’ve taken steps we’re really happy with – but as a club we want to grow even faster.
“Right now, it’s difficult financially. We have great support from our fans and great support from our sponsors.
“We’ve launched schemes like our legends shirts and our gold membership club, which are a great source of income to keep the club going on a day-to-day basis, we’re also working closely with the Government, and there are other things on the business side that will enable us to hopefully start the new season on a positive note.
“Overall, that means growing our club. We believe we can not only be the biggest club in Scotland in an ice hockey sense, but one of the best professional sporting clubs in Scotland.
“We’re considered a major sport in Dundee. Now we want ice hockey to be considered a major sport in Scotland.”
Four-figure crowds have become a regular occurrence at Dundee Ice Arena in recent years.
On occasion, the place has been packed to the rafters.
For Pacha, that’s an example of why ice hockey can no longer be left out of discussions surrounding financial support for sport from the Scottish Government – and it’s not a message the Stars chief is shy about delivering.
“It has been really tough time for many, many people,” said Pacha.
“I’m really, really proud of our fans and sponsors, who have stuck by us.
“And we’re really hoping the Government can give us a hand as well because hockey gets downplayed at times, which is completely stupid, in my opinion.
“We’re the number one professional indoor sport in all of the UK.
“I think sometimes people in high positions are a bit naïve in forgetting that.
“Especially in Dundee, we’re a positive influence for the city and sometimes people in authority take us for granted.
“People take the fact that we were visiting thousands of kids for granted or people didn’t realise we brought a lot of business to the city of Dundee, with visitors to the small businesses around the rink and businesses in the city centre.
“It’s my job to reiterate that – it’s my job to bother everybody with it!
“Obviously there is passion from me – and from the club – for hockey but the passion is not delusional.
“When I came here three years ago maybe it was a bit delusional to think in that way but it has now been proven that we can have sell-outs, it has been proven that we can be on the back page of a newspaper, it has been proven that we can have a TV game that is broadcast live to over 150,000 people across the UK.
“It is possible to grow this sport. It’s just about having the belief that it doesn’t only have to be about football in the UK.”