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Tuesday, January 26, 2010

British Ice Hockey, the worlds biggest joke?

Perhaps that is a little harsh, while certainly far from perfect, there are some good things about ice hockey in the UK, I think. Even to say that the EIHL is the worlds biggest joke would be wrong, it would imply that it is actually doing something right at the moment.  For years the sport has seemed almost intent on its own self destruction, where a few people of power run things to meet their own self interest rather than the good of the sport as a whole.

Hockey in the UK has never been the most stable of sports, teams have always gone bust, but there have been times in recent years where teams and leagues have carried on regardless, knowing full well their business models were unsustainable.

In modern times there was the Superleague or ISL.  Things started off great, the level of hockey has never been so good, but sadly such levels were unsustainable for any team in this country.  The Sheffield Steelers went bust in 2000/1 by significantly overspending in order to bring home a Grand 200px-ISLlogoSlam.  Authorities noted how they had exceeded the wage cap that year, but they were not the only team and at least one other team reportedly breached the wage cap by even more.  Although all nine teams finished the season, two, the Cardiff Devils and Newcastle Jesters didn’t return the following year.  Prior to this Basingstoke had dropped out of the league to be replaced by London while Newcastle had been through a number of different incarnations since Sir John Hall got his hands on the old Durham Wasps and moved them up the road.

The league collapsed just two years later with neither Manchester or Ayr finishing the season, in fact they managed just 14 games between them. Of the other five teams, two had owners who were pulling out leaving just Sheffield, Nottingham and Belfast with top flight teams.  It should also be noted that another league, the BNL, ran during this time and faired little better, a merry-go-round of teams and too few having too much power and ultimately little but self interest at heart.

After much upheaval a new league was born, the EIHL containing eight teams including many familiar names such as the Cardiff Devils and Ba180px-EliteIceHockeyLeagueLogosingstoke Bison.  London and Manchester also had new teams in the form of the Racers and Phoenix respectively.  At first things seemed to be going in the right direction, lower wage caps, decrease in the number of imports and more home grown talent.  Manchester were forced to mothball operations and wait for a new rink after just one year, but with Newcastle and Edinburgh joining the following season things were on the up.  Sadly, though unsurprisingly the London Racers failed to finish the 2005/6 season.  Initially it was said to be down to not having a safe and suitable venue to play out of, though in reality the club had been supported financially by the league for some time and rink conditions seemed a convenient excuse to pull the plug.  The following year however the league continued to grow with the return of the Phoenix and the addition of the Hull Stingrays.  And so things remained for three seasons, had British hockey finally found a level at which it could be sustained?

Sadly the answer was no, with both the Basingstoke Bison and Manchester Phoenix dropping down to the EPL during the summer of 2009 for financial reasons.  Things actually came to a head in the latter part of the 2008/9 season with owners of Manchester, Edinburgh and Newcastle all voicing concerns about the direction of the league and whether it was a viable option for their clubs, while Basingstoke who had earlier in the year had ownership issues simply confirmed they could no longer sustain top level hockey in the town.

The league put in place measures to allow it to move forward that were acceptable to all but Manchester who dropped to the EPL, agreeing a wage cap and harsh penalties for those who broke it the following season.  Following a statement from Steelers owner Bob Phillips though it seems that the league decided to ditch such penalties, clearly some teams weren’t sticking to the rules and the future of the league looks in the balance.  Proof, of just how much of a joke and a sham the league and sport in this country has become. 

At one end we have the Nottingham Panthers with money to waste on spare imports sitting in the stands, while at the other end are Edinburgh and Newcastle. These two clubs were already spending less than the supposed wage cap, and are now icing benches so short they hardly have enough players to make a team.  So if both Edinburgh and Newcastle drop down next season where does that leave us, a six team league? No thanks, tried that and it gets boring and repetitive very quickly.  If that is where things go I could have been to my last hockey game in the UK.

The sport from the ground up needs a make over.  The junior ranks need to start producing a steady supply of talent before we can get too picky over import numbers or the quality will drop too far and I expect many current fans will leave the sport in significant numbers. Meanwhile the professional set ups need to stick to the rules they all agree to play by at the start of the year, not change them to suit those with the biggest voice at the table as the season goes on.  The solution, a proper governing body with power to actually take the game in the UK by the balls and make things happen rather than having an ‘old boys club’ controlling things at the top for their own self interest and no real plan or structure at the lower end to develop the talent for the future.

So come on Ice Hockey UK, grow a set and get your house in order before the sport in this country takes a giant leap backwards that will take a lot of hard work and time to repair.

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