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Thursday, August 12, 2010

The state of British ice hockey

Yet another off season, and yet another summer of discontent. I went to my first ice hockey game almost 20 years ago and it seems hardly a summer goes by without at least one team going bust or having to take a step down a league or two in order to keep going.

This summer we have had the Sheffield Steelers operating company go bust, though the team is still going and just this week Hull Stingrays have announced they will not be competing in the 2010/11 EIHL season.  Some will point to a 10 import, fully professional league being unsustainable, and maybe they are right, but it doesn’t explain why teams have been going to the wall for years, even when teams were semi-professional at best with 3 or 4 imports or why teams from lower leagues struggle to keep afloat. So where are things going wrong?

For me it is down to the fundamentals. The governing body, Ice Hockey UK seems to have no real power with leagues being run by the owners of teams rather than an independent body and the structure of the sport is top down, with the top level league seen as leading the way rather than building from the ground up, with strong foundations.

To build long term sustainability, better coaching and development of players is required. So often you here people complain teams in the top leagues aren’t giving local talent a chance. Well if the local talent was good enough surely it would get a chance. If imports are really more expensive than local players, surely clubs would jump at the chance to sign a local of equal talent as an import. But the problem is there aren’t enough British players good enough to play at the top level.  This leads to another issue.

People seem to think that the way to keep costs down is to limit the number of imports, but given the scarce supply of quality British players, the artificial demand for British players created by import limits must be leading to them being paid above their market value. After all if they were that badly paid for players of their level, surely more would be playing abroad for better pay. I don’t pretend to know what any player is paid, but surely its simple supply and demand. If we are to have a professional league in this country, players need to be there because they are good enough, not because of where they were born and trained. With an import limit, all teams will have a set number of decent foreign players, however the teams with the money will then have a couple of extra decent British players. Once these Brits are taken, the other teams don’t have an option of evening things up with the near limitless supply of foreign talent, instead they have to make do with players who are average at best, just because of their nationality. If you want to control spending, put a limit on what can be spent, not what it can be spent on.

There is no reason the EIHL can’t survive as a professional league, teams such as Coventry and Nottingham have shown that it is possible to have well run competitive and (apparently) financially stable teams at that level. With the right people in charge, surely other teams can be just as successful. The EIHL isn’t perfect, but the last few years have seen some of the most competitive hockey since I’ve been watching, with all teams capable of winning on any given night (certainly not something that happened when I started watching in the early 90s).

Its below this level where the real work needs to be done, with the sport as a whole investing in quality coaching that will bring through more British players capable of playing at a higher level. Perhaps then import levels can be looked at, but until there is genuine competition for places between British players, it seems a pointless exercise in guaranteeing mediocrity.

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