There's Something About Bandy
Close your eyes (please don’t, you need to keep reading) and imagine a game born and bred from some of the most hostile winters imaginable, where players team up, strap ice skates onto their feet and fly across sheets of ice. These players battle to see who can score the most goals, using curved sticks to score. The sport that was flitting across your eyelids probably featured a bunch of Canadians (or possibly Canadiens) chasing a rubber disk around the ice, didn’t it? Well, check your winter sports bias at the door because I’m not talking about hockey. Hockey isn’t the only team sport to be played on skates and it’s not the oldest either. That distinction goes to a European sport named bandy, which was created about 100 years before Canada started to obsess over their national game. At its height, bandy ruled the sports landscape of northern Europe, before soccer or hockey were even considered “real” sports. To someone new to the game though, bandy would look an awful lot like the lovechild of those two exact sports. Played on a massive sheet of ice, (110y X 60y) each bandy team fields 11 players a side like in a traditional soccer match. Players skate around the ice trying to shoot a rubber ball into a net (which is between the sizes of the goals for soccer and hockey) past a goalie (who doesn’t even have a stick, which as a goalie, makes me very upset) for points. There are no on-the-fly line changes as with hockey so substitutions can only be made when the ball is dead. There is no open ice checking either in bandy, contact can only be made shoulder to shoulder, like in a soccer match. Offside also works the same way as with soccer, with an attacking player having to stay in front of the last defensive player until the ball is played towards them. Bandy is played with two 45-minute halves and the winner is decided after a full 90 minutes. People have been chasing a ball on ice since at least the 16th century in Europe. Dutch paintings from this time period showmen on skates whacking a ball around cheerfully as if there weren’t farms to tend or witches to burn back then. The first ironclad evidence of organized bandy comes not from the Nordic nations who are its modern caretakers, but from England. Of course, it was England, the sport is named bandy for god’s sake. Just imagine someone with an English accent saying “I’m playing a little bandy with my mates,” and it sounds downright pornographic. The Bury Fen Bandy Club first comes onto the sporting map in 1813, though in 1813, the club was bragging about being unbeaten in bandy (kinky) for a century. We can always count on
the English for their modesty. You probably noticed that a lot of the rules I mentioned above for bandy seemed exactly like soccer’s rules. Well... that’s because they are. The rules for the game that would be known as soccer (now known almost everywhere as football, but in this time football was really rugby… it’s confusing, I’ll cover this whole story later) were being created during a series of meetings spanning the 19th century. It was normal for English sporting clubs to have both a bandy team and soccer team, oftentimes with the same roster. Although the sport is older, the rules of bandy weren’t actually codified and agreed upon until 1882, seven years after ice hockey’s rules were set in place in Quebec and nearly 20 years after soccer and rugby were officially split apart. Now with set rules, Bandy decided to go on the road. Nordic nations took up the game with gusto. The sport grew wildly in countries like Sweden, Finland, Russia, and the Netherlands. But that barbaric North American ice sport would start to impede on bandy’s new turf almost as soon as it took off. Two factors led to the steady demise of bandy’s rule over winter; economics and hockey. Bandy required more than twice the amount of ice and a larger roster of players. It was cheaper for clubs to play hockey, especially when indoor rinks started to spread across the continent. Also, hockey was very easy to pick up for the average bandy player. Hockey wasn’t much different from its field cousin and if you were an ice skater, it essentially was the bandy they were already playing, but more physical. Plus, if you’re a goalie they gave you a stick so you can blast people’s shins apart when they get too close! On top all of that, ice hockey made it into the Olympics in the 1920s, which threw more development money into the pipeline. Through the first half of the 20th century, bandy fans became hockey fans and the game of bandy greatly diminished. However, two nations would march bravely forward hand in hand with their beloved bandy through the century. First, there’s Sweden, where a strong league persists to this day, sometimes hosting up to 20,000 fans at games. The Swedish league started in 1902 and a men’s champion has been crowned since 1907. Although it was first embraced by Sweden’s royal family, bandy quickly became a favorite sport of the working class, and the communities which supported the game the most in the 1920s and ’30s continue to do so to this day. Most bandy rinks remain outdoors and attendance can range widely depending on the time of year. Yes, even the Swedes can get sick of the cold. The true homeland of the sport for the past 100 years has been Russia. Russian bandy had slightly different rules than the sport as it was played in the Nordic nations before a final consolidation of the rules happened. The sport didn’t really get off the ground in Russia until the 1920’s what with all the revolutions and warfighting that took up the average Russian’s (or by this time Soviet’s) spare time. But as the USSR finally found its legs, the sport of bandy was held up as a showcase of Soviet ideals. It displayed teamwork, selflessness, and admiration for freezing your ass off, all qualities admired by the Russian people. If a sport being a proxy for the supposedly well-oiled machine of Soviet Communism sounds familiar, that’s because another sport did the same thing. You might think of Russia, and the defunct Soviet Union, as a hockey power, but that hockey tradition was created on the back of bandy. Much like the Red Army hockey team, the Soviets would dominate bandy on the world stage, winning all but three world championships they competed for until the dismantlement of the state in 1991. It would take the Russian bandy team eight years to
regroup and win another world title… which they then proceeded to so eleven more times to date. The Russian Bandy Super League is bandy’s best professional outlet. 14 teams compete in the league, which last season had teams ranging from Moscow to Khabarovsk, which is on China’s eastern border and spitting distance (that’s a geographic term) from Japan. Teams from the central and eastern portions of Russia litter the league, filling the niche of pro sports in smaller markets, much like the MLS in America. Bandy might be dwarfed by the pull and prestige of hockey’s KHL league, but it still has a passionate, loyal fan base. That’s the thing with bandy. Except for in its genesis, it hasn’t been the most popular sport in the land, but the people who first embraced it continue to love it. They pass this love & pride that they have in, what is at this point is a regional curiosity, down the generations. The towns that still gather to watch pro bandy, they aren’t mining towns or logging towns, they’re bandy towns. And that’s why bandy has lasted for nearly half a millennium. There are many ways to judge success and generally speaking, economic might is the most lauded. Bandy has been passed again and again by newer sports in terms of economics. But very few sports have proven the staying power of bandy. As long as there are Russians and it's cold enough to make ice, there will be bandy. And for bandy and the people that love it, that will always be enough. The same may not be said of the modern giants of the sporting world.