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May, 2012:

Ch-Ch-Ch-Changes

In this “age of pay someone to do your assignment austerity” companies as small as your corner shop and as vast the largest of multinational corporations are taking the time to reassess their business structures, find new ways to cut costs and develop new strategies to increase the value of their product. Such assessments have not escaped the Elite League offices. Who, in their wisdom, last night published a press release that laid out their plans to restructure the league and cup competitions as well as increase the import levels back to the previous seasons total of 11.

The Elite League has come in for a lot of abuse over the years due to a lackadaisical approach in the cutting of their cloth. Fans of Basingstoke, Manchester and Newcastle have watched on helplessly as their teams have struggled to, firstly, compete in the league with any great success while the “have’s” battle for the top prizes, and secondly they have equally struggled to manage costs as they continued to scratch around looking to improve the product, pushing the boundaries in a pack trying to “keep up with the Jones’”.

From this I initially applaud those at the EIHL for recognising that something needed to be done. With many teams still struggling to compete on and off the ice recognition of this is needed to sustain any sort of a league. Lessons are to be learned from the final failures of the Ice Hockey Super League and changes to be made accordingly. It’s just unfortunate that a few of these changes don’t appear, from this initial press release, to be the correct changes.

We are all aware that the premium commodity in a league beset by import limits is the fabled “import-standard British player”. The ability to place a high level British player on a top line, or a top level defensive pairing is one that, more often than not, allow you to mount a significant charge for silverware. The option it gives you in recruiting your import players and building a team around a strong British core puts such players, thin on the ground as they are, at the forefront in the chase for their services.

There can be little surprise, therefore, that the likes of Robert Dowd, Rob Farmer, and Ben O’Connor have decided to use their abilities as a means to travel. Having through their careers witnessed North American after North American travel to the shores of the UK using their hockey talent as a passport to experience the world, players of the ability of Robert Dowd cannot be derided in any fashion for wanting to try such a thing for himself. Consistently out scoring and out performing a large number of his peers, Dowd’s ability was always going to flag him up to foreign climbs. The offer of an experience in a different league, the diversity of the game on offer as well as, probably, a favourable wage package in comparison to the relatively cash-strapped EIHL, is not something that is easily turned down.

This, unfortunately, leaves the Elite League with a problem. The loss of such players creates a talent gap that devalues the on-ice product and lessens the standard of the league. The response of the league has been to bring the import levels back to an upper limit of 11 on the ice per team. This is returning to the level of 2 seasons ago and is another osculation on the import levels, the 4th in as many seasons.

Import levels are regarded as a “touchy subject” in UK hockey. The EIHL was seen initially as an attempt to step away from the ISL model, a league which saw most teams dominated by all-import teams. Stifling development of local talent and creating a large gap between the games top level and that of the tiers below. Optimism grew that the new EIHL structure would be a depature from those days and the dawn of a league that could be sustained by local talent and peppered with high level imports.

It does appear, however that opinions on how the EIHL should have proceeded vary greatly between those in the upper echelons and those just below. One thing that became immediately apparent was that the standard of the on-ice product took a considerable dip. The introduction of local talent, the likes of which had been nigh-on ignored on the whole in the ISL days, provided the stark reality of the challenge at hand. But one that many fans were unwilling to follow.

Sport is, in general purposes, an entertainment medium. To reduce the standard of the entertainment will result in a reduction of your audience. And as this began to happen those at the top levels began to make changes to counteract it, while those without such means struggled further to get numbers through the gate while they found it difficult to compete. Thus the model has struggled with this trade off.

It is often misunderstood, in my opinion, as a means to once again stifle the development of the local game, bringing in foreign talent, restricting the opportunities for those who have worked hard through the ENL and EPL for a chance in the EIHL. I don’t agree with that. The trade-off is on a basis of the product presented. Those players who deserve their places in EIHL teams will get them. The introduction of another import will bring the standard of the product up and subsequently improve the development standard at the level.

Further argument has been made that the introduction of another import will increase costs. The “haves” will afford the import, while the “have-nots” will find it difficult to retain such a player and subsequently allow the gap in competition to continue. To an extent there is a point here, however the premium player in the league has become the luxury of a top level British player. The competition for places and to become such a talent have allowed various players like Dowd, Craig Peacock and David Phillips to compete well both domestically and on an international level. They now can demand the higher cuts and some have chosen to move overseas. It could be argued that the breakthrough of players like these show that the EIHL model has succeeded in nurturing and developing talent by surrounding them with high standard players.

The return to 11 imports will obviously have its detractors, most likely from the lower placed EIHL teams and those in the EPL. But if a pseudo-two tier structure of development is to be achieved and the product to be maintained, to dilute the EIHL further with British talent that, while fair in the EPL, may (and in the past have) struggled to push on in the EIHL, will devalue the product as well as negating that “next level” the players attempt to reach. The re-introduction of the import should not be seen as an obstacle to those looking to find their place in the higher seats. It should be seen as a challenge!

The Elite League press release also laid out changes to the Challenge Cup, Playoff and League Structure. The re-seeding of the playoff competitors brought forth by the qualification of Hull this season to the final four. It brought forth vitriolic abuse form many in Belfast who believed their rightful place was to take on the lowest seed in the competition, fundamentally misunderstanding the bracket structure of qualification that had been in place for the previous 6 seasons. Hulls place in the competition was rightfully earned and as such their place was to face the same opponents that would have been faced should the Steelers have qualified. To “re-seed” at that stage would have punished the Hull Stingrays for their achievement. To introduce this re-seeding will appease those who believe in an NHL type approach, however the NHL is a totally different ship where qualification for the playoffs is not based on a level “play everyone an equal amount of times” system. Which leads me to the league restructuring proposed in the EIHL’s Press Release.

The EIHL intend to divide the league into two five-team conferences. Teams within these conferences will take compete against each other 4 times at home and 4 times away. There will also be further “cross conference” games, 2 home and 2 away. There will be conference winners and the ultimate league title will still be decided by the total points haul at the end of the season.

It’s difficult to know where to start in this proposal. Ultimately it leads itself, through the last point, to a total devaluation of the league title. The trophy, that is considered by 99% of those in the UK game to be the most prestigious, will be decided on an uneven playing field. To compete for silverware equally against 9 other teams when facing 4 of them 8 times each, but only facing the other five teams 4 times in a season and thus to continue to use the “total points haul” as a means to decide a champion is nothing short of ill-considered farce.

Yes we all understand the reasons why this is being attempted. Austerity. Reducing travel costs in an attempt to help sustain the league finances across those teams who have struggled. The PR also mentions an attempt to “nurture and develop rivalries between local teams”, a complete misnomer. Playing such teams twice more in a season will not do anything that hasn’t already had the seed of rivalry planted. To try and suggest such a thing is required is to firstly recognise that character is missing from the league (it is) but use it to distract from the real issue.

The further problem to the league is how these conferences are structured. It is impossible to evenly balance out the conferences in a way that will allow “local rivalries” to be “developed” while also retaining level competition AND reducing travel costs. For example, to create a conference that incorporates all the Scottish teams, which it must do to keep with the remit they are portraying, and A.N.Other will weight it heavily to one or two teams in that conference. The key teams in these decisions are Braehead, Belfast and Hull.

Two examples give similar outputs.

Example 1.

Conference A: Belfast, Braehead, Dundee, Edinburgh, Fife

Conference B: Sheffield, Nottingham, Cardiff, Coventry, Hull

The most likely outcome to this would be a Belfast league title. The biggest fish in the weakest of ponds. Their only real challenger will be Braehead, but the other 3 teams would be an expected 48 points. Meanwhile Conference B becomes a comeptitve conference, scrapping for points while Belfast run away with the title. Devaluing the title and demoralising theose leading Conference B who haven’t been given a chance on a level playing field.

Example 2.

Conference A: Hull, Braehead, Dundee, Edinburgh, Fife

Conference B: Sheffield, Nottingham, Cardiff, Coventry, Belfast.

The most likely outcome here is a league title to Braehead who would dominate in their conference pulling 90% of the 64 points on offer in that conference.

Meanwhile conference B is again highly competitive but with the stark reality that while they scrap for points, Braehead are picking them up easily in the other conference.

The token 2 home and away cross conference games would not give “title rivals” enough chance to stifle their cross conference opponents march.

The EIHL should be applauded for their recognition of a problem, but this plan is in too much haste. Travel is a major cost and to reduce it as best as is possible is something that needs controlled. There does need to be some form of a trade off to allow financial stability, however that trade off should not be sporting fairness. This proposal will do little to sustain the league, especially if some teams are persistently dominating their conference. Competition may develop between certain teams but the stark reality is the bigger picture. The reason the season is played out. The quest for the title to be awarded to the best team in the league as displayed on an even playing surface.

The EIHL over the years have been renowned for proposals that have never seen the light of day. The one-off Challenge Cup final, The Hockeyfest season-opener.

I pray this conference proposal is another example to add to that list.

Patrick Smyth

Let

“Hockey is a physical sport” a line used time and time and time again by both its promoters and its detractors. Be it by those defending an action on the ice or by those who feel there just isn’t enough action. But needless to say in a sport with such physical contact there are always going to be conversation inducing incidents.

In the last couple of weeks such incidents have dominated forums, press releases and blogs concerning my own team, the Belfast Giants. It was only a matter of weeks ago that a much watched hit between Benoit Doucet and Sam Zajac in Braehead took over pages and pages of debate across the league, many initially calling for a ban for the Belfast Giants forward. Subsequent slow motions and assessments caused opinions to change, to an extent, and the league itself saw fit not to impose a ban, but to expunge the penalty awarded by referee Moray Hanson on Doucet at the time from the Canadians disciplinary record.

As such a lot of talk about “retribution” circled last weekends return game between the two sides, but the outcome was one no one wanted.

I am not going into too much depth on the rights and wrongs of what took place other than to say my sympathies do fall with the linesmen who, despite undertaking what I see as correct initial action, due to Zajac being flat out on the ice from a Ryan Crane hit and Doucet moving toward him in that position, they became embroiled in an unfortunate sequences of events which has now led to the end of Doucet’s season through injury. There was no malice in the events and the loss of Doucet is certainly frustrating, but to point fingers at the linesmen who, in their correct initial actions, were doing a thankless job, is to ignore what can certainly also be deemed a “grey area”.

I am sorry for Doucet’s injury. And certainly wish him a speedy recovery. He has been an excellent servant to the Giants in his all too brief period in our shirt.

Since the incident the shouts have been about “let them fight” and “Linesmen never let the players do what is an important part of the game”. This has led to me thinking about the initial statement of this blog.

“Hockey is a physical sport”

Is it? Or is it a “Skilled sport with physical tactics”. No doubt folk will claim there is no difference but in my opinion there is. And it’s this difference that polarises the approach to the sport, not just by fans but by many in the wider media.

I make, nor have ever made, no bones about what I prefer in the sport. The beauty of a tic-tac-toe play, watching an offensive d-man picking a pin point pass to perfectly placed one-timer from an advancing forward, that perfectly timed poke-check when it looks like the breakaway forward is destined to score. But this isn’t to say I don’t appreciate the physicality employed in the sport. I adore a brilliantly executed hip check. Taking out a forward mid-ice because his head is down, perfect example of how physical tactics are part and parcel of the game.

And yes, fighting is certainly part of those tactics, but I do have issues in its application. There is a distinct difference between “Fighting for the Game” and “Fighting for the Grandstand”, examples of both have been seen at the Odyssey over the years gone by.

Physicality in the game is a tactic of intimidation. Putting the skilful players on their toes, looking over their shoulders and keeping out of the way of someone they feel may hurt or, worse, injure them.

The need to pay attention to the intimidation, and not to the game objective, goal scoring.

The fighting I wholly prefer in the game is that which spawns from the ongoing action of the match. The kick back from a skilful forward tired of being picked on. The enforcer sent on to change momentum and show support for his team mates is something that seems to have been lost in recent years from the Elite League. The arrival of the so-called “Sherriff” Sean McMorrow was a sad turn down the road of ‘fighting for fighting sake’.

The repetitive articles in the paper ‘calling out’ forthcoming opposition tough guys like Voth and Knight got tiresome. The grandstanding like David Haye in order to goad a fight became nothing but tiresome. In this there was no real tactic. The player didn’t have that in him. Empty threats of player intimidation in the press were never fulfilled. It was lost on me what he brought to the game outside of a “fight a night” promise, further ammunition to the anti-hockey elements of the media and beyond who saw us not as sportsfans, but as those who wave foam fingers at WWE style ‘Sports Entertainment’.

This caused immense amounts of frustration to those of us who had seen the job of an enforcer/fighter/tough guy taken to it’s zenith on Odyssey ice by the likes of Paxton Schulte and Paul Kruse. Two players who could intimidate the opposition, put pucks in the net and also stick up for their team mates when they needed to. But if I was to name one of the toughest players to wear the Giants shirt, Paul Ferone would be among Kruse and Schulte without a doubt.

A player who demonstrated that sometimes size doesn’t matter. He’d throw in a late hit, a slash behind the play and agitate like few others, but would also surprise, that when the gloves hit the floor he’d probably be one of the favourites to take the tilt. Fist waving furiously he knew that his actions needed backing up, and he had that ability.

An element of physical play that over the seasons have been sparse from the Giants line up. Pat Bateman and more recently Daryl Lloyd have displayed elements that bring both energy to the team and entertainment to the crowd. While Adam Keefe this season has also proven that you don’t need a ‘fight a night’ to please the crowd with physical play.

So from that we come to those in the stands, and the entertainment that the physical tactics of the game bring. I’m not so naive as to believe fighting has little role in the sport, its need is palpable when the conditions are correct and few things bring the crowd to their feet more readily than a punch up. But in a game dominated by persistent physical play the crowd can be taken and kept on the edge of their seat, waiting for the moment when one of the teams crack and lash out. And even if they don’t a feisty game can leave the punters happy, provided of course those tactics brought the win.

Can fighting be used as a “bums on seats” means? Most certainly, but can it keep them there? Slapshot is a great film, but is it really a means to educate the running of a hockey club? Not really. In my opinion the bums return to the seats due to success. While the fights may be the opening of the door, the skill and success of the game should be the means to hold that door ajar.

No doubt I’ll be taken as a ‘hockey snob’ and not for the first time. I don’t profess to be any authority in the sport, and not least the physical tactics of it. For that I bow to those who have experienced it first hand, or someone like Vic Silverwood in Cardiff who has studied it in depth. Nor do I claim to hide behind the defence of ‘It’s my opinion and I’m sticking to it’; I am certainly open to the debate on the forums or twitter.

The subject is such a widely written about one I feel I can’t do it any real justice in this modest blog.

I do feel however that sometimes the physicality aspect of the game is misunderstood to *be* the game.

And while it has its role within the plexi-glass walls, it is but a means to the objective.

Putting a vulcanised rubber disc through a rectangle of metal and ice, by fair means or, sometimes, foul.

Twitter: @patricksmyth

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