Standing in the Way – Swindon Wildcats 2014/15

Swindon Wildcats

Home rink: The Link Centre

2013/14 league position: 5th, playoff semi finalists

Tickets: Link

Team preview by Ben Callaghan of On The Prowl

In his 7th season in charge, Ryan Aldridge will look to take the Swindon Wildcats to their first silverware in his tenure as head coach. (c) 5 Hole Photography

In his 7th season in charge, Ryan Aldridge will look to take the Swindon Wildcats to their first silverware in his tenure as head coach.
(c) 5 Hole Photography

Last Season In A Nutshell

Last Season was a rollercoaster for the fans of the Swindon Wildcats, out went Perkkiö, Melichar, Murdy and Swindlehurst to name a few and in came Lyle, Silvander, Pekkarinen & Symonds. Whilst Silvander never lasted long, Swindon made the mid-season signings of Aaron Nell, Ryan Watt, Lee Richardson and Jan Kostal. The 4 lifted the Wildcats significantly from a rough start and in typical Wildcats fashion, the period after Christmas saw them become one of the most in form sides in the EPL and a real threat to the other sides. Stevie Lyle was leading the way as we raced into the final stages of the season when 3 consecutive shut-outs were the start of a 7 game winning run we had going into the playoffs. MK Lightning awaited in the quarter finals and despite going to Coventry with a 1 goal deficit, the Wildcats regrouped and a last minute penalty shot by Jan Kostal saw the Wildcats take up a place for the final 4 weekend in Coventry.

The semi-final opponents were the league winners, Manchester Phoenix, an end-to-end affair saw the Wildcats head into the final period with a slight advantage before the Phoenix pulled the game level and took it into overtime. A questionable call in the extra period saw Aku Pekkarinen head to the penalty box and this allowed Frantisek Bakrlik to fire a rocket past Stevie Lyle, and shatter the dreams of all the red and white faithful as well as the players themselves.

It was a rollercoaster of a season for the Wildcats, one I really enjoyed watching and seeing the team develop into the team they were at the end of the season was a pleasure. The memories will not be forgotten and the hurt will remain the same as well. Here is hoping 2014-2015 will be the season we all want it to be.

The Returnee

Over the summer we’ve kept hold of the majority of our squad and some very good players have been re-signed which will be key for the upcoming campaign and to keep that locker room mentality will be key. There a numerous names I could say for this part of the post, Alex Symonds, Aaron Nell, Stevie Lyle, Henri Sandvik… the list is endless. For me though, the biggest re-sign was made before the last season was over. Jan Kostal is back for the Wildcats and it really is huge. When he arrived in Swindon his main objective was to just put the puck in the net. He bought so much more to the side than we expected and he is arguably the player who’s made the biggest impact on the team that Ryan Aldridge has ever signed.

You could see the professionalism that Jan bought to the side on his opening training session, having come in that day and train with such enthusiasm was incredible. The opening game away in Slough he had a hand in all of our 4 goals and a 4 point night led him on his way. He really is the ultimate professional and to bring that into the roster when we did last season was instrumental in our strong season. To have him back in Swindon, not only as an import, but also as an assistant coach is a brilliant piece of business from the Wildcats management. If Jan is anywhere near as good next year as he was last season, we’ve got a very strong import and big fan favourite back on board.

The New Boy

There is a small amount of choice for my ‘new boy’ with only 3 brand new faces joining the Wildcats (Tomasz Malasinski, Callum Buglass and Kenton Smith). For me though, the player I think will have a tremendous impact on the team this year is our new Canadian D man. Kenton Smith joins us from Braehead in the EIHL and brings years worth of experience to the blue-line in both EIHL hockey and hockey in North America. To replace Aku Pekkarinen is going to be tough, as the Finn was a great find last year by Aldridge and shone throughout the 2013-2014 EPL season. Kenton will be a more than adequate replacement in my opinion. I think this signing has slipped under the radar a little, he’ll bring everything we need to the point and should chip in with a fair amount of points along the way too.

He’s no stranger to some of our players either having played with Stevie Lyle, Alex Symonds and Adam Harding in the past. I’m sure they were consulted about Kenton and I’m sure he’ll be a success in Swindon colours.

I’ve always been a fan of having D men who can contribute offensively as well as understanding their main role is to keep the puck away from the net. I have the faith that Kenton will do this well and any successes we’re to have this year, Kenton Smith will be key to it all. He’s a massive pick up for us and hopefully he’ll hit the ground running when we get underway.

How We’ll Do

This is usually a fairly straightforward one for Wildcats fans to consider, it’s a well known ‘joke’ we look good on paper, struggle for consistency in the opening few months, pick up after Christmas, have a good run into the playoffs and then fall at the last few hurdles. The fact is we’ve been improving our roster over the last few seasons and keeping the nucleus together now is key to whatever we do in the 2014-2015 campaign. Whilst I still maintain we’re a forward short at the moment we have a brilliant mix of youth and experience with players like Betteridge, Buglass & Taylor able to learn from Kostal, Smith and Richardson. The league is no doubt stronger this year than last but the Wildcats are the same (bar that 10th forward). A Höög-less Wildcats is a different Wildcats but that’s not to say it’s a worse Wildcats.

I think the aim this season needs to be the top 4. The trio of Guildford, Manchester and Telford are the early favourites to be a clear top 3 but I see no reason as to why we cant compete with the 4th place slot with the likes of Basingstoke and Milton Keynes. With Brits like Symonds, Lyle and Nell we have game-winners in the Brits as well as game-winners in the imports. If we can start as well as we ended the last season I wouldn’t be too shocked to see us have a strong cup run either. I think the key to the new cup this year will be netminding and with Stevie Lyle between the pipes we’ve got a good a chance as anyone of getting the all-important victories we’ll need. With it being his swansong season as well there will be no-one wanting a trophy more than Stevie.

It’ll be an entertaining season, a heart-wrenching season, a frustrating season, an incredible season. Every season is, for every team. Its why we watch the sport but when the Swindon Wildcats step out on the ice for the first time this season, the ending is in their hands and what will be will be, lets enjoy our hockey!

In his final season before retirement, Stevie Lyle (centre) will try to lead the Swindon Wildcats to glory but they will have to do it without fan favourite Jonas Höög. (c) 5 Hole Photography

In his final season before retirement, Stevie Lyle (centre) will try to lead the Swindon Wildcats to glory but they will have to do it without fan favourite Jonas Höög.
(c) 5 Hole Photography

The BOTW take:

Seeing as how Ben’s apparently made all the jokes I could make about Swindon before I’ve even started, I’m almost not sure what to say…almost. He’s right though; the jokes that people make about the Wildcats have almost crossed the line from humour and stereotype into accuracy. It happened last season as well where they started off sluggishly then picked up when Aaron Nell returned from Sheffield and went back to his free scoring ways. They overcame the MK Lighting in an enthralling playoff quarter final which they won in the last minute of the second leg with a penalty shot (is there any more last minute than that?) before outplaying Manchester for large chunks of the semi final and falling at the final hurdle…on a powerplay…in overtime. (Just to maintain, soft it might have seemed but it was holding by the rule book.)

With the about to swansong Stevie Lyle in net, Kenton Smith alongside Alex Symonds on defence, a possible top line of Nell, Kostal and Malasinski with the returning Henri Sadvik bolstering the second line alongside Lee Richardson looks a formidable top end of the roster but I never think the issue with Swindon is the quality of their top end players so much as their game plan.

What arguably cost the Wildcats a place in the playoff final last season was they over played their top end players to the point of exhaustion. The gap between the top guys and the depth was too big and coach Ryan Aldridge understandably wants his top guys on the ice for the big plays but be it game 1 of the season or game 60, you need the depth of your roster to carry you through. Manchester won a league title off of it, Basingstoke won two trophies off of it, Swindon didn’t have it last season. It’s all well and good having a team of good players but what you do with them matters as well. There has to be a plan B when plan A doesn’t work. With an EPL that now has even more power players than the 13/14 campaign, there are questions to be asked as to how the Wildcats would approach it and tackle it.

That said the recruiting challenges faced by Aldridge have provided some interesting answers. The loss of fan favourite Jonas Höög has been countered with Polish international Tomasz Malasinski whose record in a league a step above the EPL is established. The retention of the promising Ollie Betteridge and Adam Harding on two way contracts with Nottingham and Cardiff respectively and the addition to the highly touted Callum Buglass, also on a two way with the Devils shows not only an answer to the depth issue but also a willingness of Swindon to develop youngsters for a higher tier albeit someone else’s. Keeping established EPL veterans like Symonds, Richardson and the ever present Shane Moore speaks of a roster that is well rounded not just one full of youthful energy and naïve hope.

The addition of Smith especially is the Wildcats benefitting off of a player wanting to be close to home in the same way as Lyle and good on them for doing it. Smith is an upgrade on Pekkarinen for my money.

This is a much more solid looking Swindon roster than last season’s effort. The core of last season’s group has been kept together and they will be hungry to avenge recent heartbreaking ends to the last 2 campaigns. It looks decent though there are some question marks that still hang over it. As Ben mentioned, despite announcing the roster is complete there is only 9 forwards announced. Whilst the aforementioned Smith is a great addition to the lineup, is that defence good enough to provide the requisite support Lyle needs still?

The team looks alright but given the way the league has gone and recruitment elsewhere, sadly I think Swindon’s fortunes don’t rise above 5th again. The chance for the trophy to send the finest British netminder of his generation off into the sunset lies in the cup or the playoffs for Swindon rather than the league title.

Building the Herd – Joe Greener

#97 Joe Greener

Position: Forward

Born: Basingstoke, Hampshire

Announced as signed: Bison website, 14th August

(c) 5 Hole Photography

(c) 5 Hole Photography

With the season nearly upon us and Banners On The Wall gearing up for the new campaign, coach Doug Sheppard is putting the finishing touches to the Bison roster with the announcement that Joe Greener returns to the Herd for 2014/15 as player/assistant coach.

Greener, 27 returns for his 3rd season in Bison colours after an impressive 2013/14 campaign where he scored 24 goals and 41 assists for 65 points in 52 games during the regular season as well as a goal and an assist in the playoffs and 5 assists in 4 games during the later stages of the EPL cup.

Greener started his hockey in the Bison junior system and made guest appearances in the BNL for the Herd before an impressive 2001/02 for the Bison under 19s where he scored 12 goals and 18 points in 15 games saw him drafted into the Herd’s BNL squad for 2002/03. Greener dressed for 31 games scoring 3 goals and 2 assists as the Bison finished 4th in their final season in the BNL.

Whilst the Bison moved on to be one of the founder members of the Elite League, Greener moved across the Atlantic Ocean to further his hockey skills by joining the Soo Indians organisation. Starting in 2003/04 with their team in the Mid West Elite Hockey League, one of the best youth leagues in the US, Joe scored an impressive 56 points in 70 games. He found his way into Indians team in the North American Hockey League (NAHL), but his season was a short one, 3 regular season games and 4 playoff appearances as well as appearing for GB under 18s.

2005/06 saw Joe move from Soo to Cleveland to play for the Barons and an 18 point campaign in 57 games before a two year stint in Traverse City with the North Stars. Joe played 103 games across the two seasons scoring 48 points to finish off his junior hockey career.

After finishing with the North Stars, Joe returned back to Britain and signed with Bracknell in the EPL for 2008/09, quickly establishing himself as one of the best young prospects in the league with 51 points in 45 games. After one season at The Hive, Joe moved across Berkshire to sign with Slough where he spent the next 3 campaigns, 2 of them as captain. In 157 games for the Jets, Greener scored 218 points as well as capturing 2 playoff titles in 2010 and 2012 and the EPL cup in 2011 where the Jets beat the Bison in the final.

When Doug Sheppard left the Jets to return to Basingstoke, he convinced Greener to return as well as the Bison re-tooled their lineup and made the club’s first real charge at EPL silverware in 2012/13. Greener’s season was hampered slightly by injury as he finished with 49 points in 46 games and the Bison fell agonisingly short of all the trophies before this past campaign with the double, Greener’s first as Sheppard’s assistant coach.

So the rumours and wishful thinking of our friends in Berkshire were unfounded and Joe Greener remains a Bison for another season. The Bison’s top scoring British player and 2nd in the club’s scoring charts to Tomas Karpov will have been high on Doug Sheppard’s list of people he wanted to return. Greener has his detractors, mainly those who do not like his style of play rather than a lack of appreciation for his talents (including this blog and many others initially admitting that they didn’t know how to cheer for him after booing him for three years in Slough) but there’s one thing people should be in agreement over; Joe Greener is a top quality British talent in the EPL.

At the end of 2012/13, there were some who were critical of the season past, many forgetting or seemingly unaware of the injury that Joe played with for large chunks of the season. In spite of that, he went over a point per game so his return was expected.

2013/14, aside from having him fit most of the year saw Joe like everyone else benefit from the chemistry in the camp. The combination of Greener, Chinn and Long after Ciaran joined from Slough never got the headlines of the MKM line but was equally as potent and added a much grittier edge that some teams in the EPL lacked in their top 6. All three men are more than happy playing the body as well as well and the combination just made sense. Long and Greener both possess excellent and accurate shots and Chinny is just Chinny. The passes go where he wants them to go.

Greener himself as an individual player is one of the EPL’s premier power forwards. He can score, he can hit, he can fight when needed, he’s never afraid to get right into the face of a netminder and take the requisite hacks and whacks that come with that. Like Ciaran Long, Greener shines in big games and has an almost uncanny ability to be in the right place at the right time; just ask Swindon.

The assistant coach tag is always an interesting one. At 27, you could question why he would want the responsibility when you could just be playing in what many would call his prime years. It’s a two way process though, learning to coach at this stage is never a bad skill to have for Greener and when you consider who the head coach is, it makes sense in many ways. Though they play different roles, you can see Greener and Sheppard are very similar people; focussed and passionate about their hockey though neither are particularly what you would call extroverted off the ice (though compared to Aaron Connolly, who is?). Aside from having one of your best players in that position of responsibility, someone who is like minded helps as well.

Ultimately and despite the hopes of the Bracknell press and fans, the Bison have re-signed a player who is more than established at this level. Greener now has 3 playoff titles and 2 EPL cups at 27. That’s 5 trophies in the EPL in 6 seasons; that dear reader is not a coincidence. He rejoins a team that can and should contend again this season and whilst some may occasionally not like how he goes about it, you can’t argue that it isn’t successful. (I wonder how often that phrase will be used this upcoming season.)

Welcome back, Joe and if someone skates into you during a warm up again just think happy thoughts.

Building the Herd – Stuart Mogg

#94 Stuart Mogg

Position: Forward

Born: Basingstoke, Hampshire

Announced as signed: Bison website, 31st July

(c) 5 Hole Photography

(c) 5 Hole Photography

Having not expected any news until the now cancelled shirt launch night next Wednesday, the Bison fans were surprised with at least one bit of good news by Doug Sheppard that Stuart Mogg is returning to the Herd for 2014/15. Speaking briefly to Banners On The Wall, Mogg said “Last season was such an honour. The team, fans and staff were incredible and I cant wait to get started again this season, and hope to make a bigger impact than last season.

Mogg, 20 started his hockey in the Basingstoke junior system playing under 16s in 2007/08 where he scored 7 points in 16 games. Mogg played 3 years of under 16s till the end of the 2009/10 season totalling 49 games and 58 points. 2009/10 also saw Mogg’s debut and single season for the Bison under 18s where he scored 6 points in 13 games.

2010/11 saw a change of scene for Mogg as he moved across to the Hanger to join the Jets organisation. Mogg spent 2 seasons at Slough playing for nearly every team going across the club from under 18 to both levels of NIHL South including 1 point in 3 games with the EPL side. Mogg totalled 30 games and 75 points at under 18 and 54 games and 41 points at ENL level.

After passing the point where his junior career in Britain was done, Mogg took the chance to move to Canada to play for the North York, Ontario based Toronto Attack of the Greater Metro Junior A Hockey League. Mogg, who scored a goal in the Attack’s first ever home game against the Toronto Moose, played 23 games for in the GMHL before heading back to Britain. Mogg then guested for the Bison for the rest of the season as well as playing 5 games and scoring 7 points for the Buffalo in NIHL 2 South before being added to the Bison roster full time for 2013/14. As part of the Youth Brigade/White Line, Mogg was used sparingly at times but was regularly given a chance to impress either as a unit or given the chance to step up higher up the order when an injury occurred. Mogg scored his first EPL for the Bison away at the Skydome when the Bison routed the MK Lightning 6-2 in February. His first home marker came on the 1st March in a home game against Slough, literally beating the buzzer as he fired past Andrej Vasiljevic as the Bison won 6-2. Mogg’s final totals for the season were 3 goals and 2 assists for 5 points in 50 games and 2 PIMs. Mogg also made 1 appearance in the NIHL South 2 for the Buffalo.

Stuart’s efforts across the season saw Doug Sheppard create a new award of Most Improved Player at the end of season’s awards night. Stuart also represented GB Universities at the Universade in Trentino scoring GB’s first goal of the tournament and was part of the Southampton Spitfires university team that won the recent BUIH nationals.

The first winner of the award is going to go to a guy that I actually told wasn’t good enough to play in the EPL a couple of years ago but he’s definitely proved me wrong. He’s worked hard and he honestly is like a sponge. He’ll just listen to whatever anyone has to say and take it on.” Doug Sheppard, Bison 2013/14 awards night

Stuart Mogg, along with the rest of the 4th line of youngsters the Bison played last season always kind of got that “good on you lad” pat on the head treatment at times last season. The local lads that we hoped would get that bit of extra ice time and had to wait till the game was over as a contest before they did. The thing with Mogg was that actually he’d come into the side with a bit more experience that the other members of the line and many had forgotten that. Whilst Ingoldsby had been playing in Guildford’s juniors and Wynn had been playing u18s in Basingstoke and sitting on the Bison bench as we agonisingly waited for him to score, Mogg was out playing. Before coming to the Bison, Moggy had over 50 games of NIHL/ENL experience as well as ice time in Canada. Now whilst the GMHL isn’t the highest of standards in the grander scheme of Canadian junior hockey, it’s a higher standard than under 18s hockey here. Mogg, as the more natural centre of the three however had to bide his time a bit. His game wasn’t the gung ho, hit everything that moved style of Ingoldsby nor the finesse skilled winger that Wynn is but he bided his time and proved more than capable when called upon.

He’s got good hands, reads the game relatively well and you could see the confidence grow as the season went on. He felt like he was playing well, like he deserved the ice time and with that came the scoring chances. There was a moment when earlier in the season that Mogg and Melachrino were sprung two on one and with Mogg on the puck, the entire crowd screamed pass at him (he did, and Melachrino score) but as the fans got more used to his style of play and Mogg came along, the crowd started encouraging him more to shoot. His goal at home against Slough was just reward for his tenacity on the night and was almost something of a metaphor for his season; noticed at times but always there, always trying and when given the chance, he does the business.

Doug Sheppard is, despite the club’s upcoming podcast interview with him, not a particularly vocal man so for him to stand in front of the players and fans and say he had painted Stuart Mogg wrong is a big thing. Moggy, as he said above, wants to make a bigger impact. The coach is giving him the chance and alongside his childhood friend Dan Weller-Evans, I hope that he takes the chance to do so.

Welcome back, Moggy; I’ll let the guys make the funky pigeon jokes.

Additional: In amongst the release on Stuart’s re-signing was the news that ADD Recycling have pulled out as the lead sponsor of the Basingstoke Bison. The comment from the club to BOTW on the matter was “It’s business as usual, we’ll have more news in the coming weeks. There is no doubt about our participation in the coming season.”

Building the Herd – Dan Weller-Evans

#93 Dan Weller-Evans

Position: Netminder

Born: Basingstoke, Hampshire (though he’s Welsh if you ask him)

Announced as signed:

With the Bison roster firmly taking shape, coach Doug Sheppard announced that the role of backup netminder would be filled by former Bison junior player, Dan Weller-Evans.

Taking time out of revising for his upcoming police exams, the 20 year old backstop spoke to Banners On The Wall;

Firstly Dan, welcome back to Basingstoke

Thank you! I’m excited to be back!

You were already announced as having re-signed for the Isle of Wight, what led to your move to Basingstoke?

Yeah I was getting ready for another year on the island with the Raiders but after speaking to Doug and there being a possibility of playing for the team I supported as a kid, it was a no brainer for me to come home. I had 4 amazing years on the island and I always said I would only ever leave on my own accord to play for the Bison.

You were a Bison junior before having your first crack at senior hockey on the Isle of Wight, what led to that move to Ryde?

I started ice hockey at U18s level so I was a bit of a late starter but Basingstoke was an A League junior club and to be honest I don’t think I was good enough to play there at that time. So I went to play on the island as the starter for their U18 side for a year and it did me the world of good. Playing every minute of every game was something I really needed to catch up. With regards to senior hockey I think I was just in the right place at the right time. I was the U18 goalie and when Toby Cooley retired a week into the season I was able to get the opportunity to back up Matty Colclough. That did me the world of good and I learnt a lot! I never thought I was going to remain in the side for the rest of the season but I worked hard and earned my spot on the team.

What’s Jeremy Cornish like as a coach?

He’s a great coach! He has always been good to me and that includes this move to Basingstoke. He is a coach who will run through a wall for the guys on his team and he expects everyone else to do the same. He builds teams with good chemistry and I think that is a huge factor in why the Raiders are successful and are in the hunt for trophies every year in NIHL1! I certainly had a blast in my 4 seasons with the team. He is someone you can come to with anything at any time and he will do his best to help you. He always gave me feedback on my play and what I could do to improve and he is the same with every guy on the team. We did lots of video sessions and he would constantly pause and tell guys what they are doing well and also what they need to do better. I would recommend anyone to go and play for him if they get the chance because you will improve as a hockey player and I think that shows by the amount of Raiders players that have made the step up to higher leagues. But also, you’ll have a lot of fun!

You’ve long been a watcher and admirer of Dean Skinns, what’s it going to be like playing with him?

Yeah I’ve known Dean since I was 5 years old, we grew up next door to one another! I used to go with his dad Tony to watch every Saturday night growing up. He gave me my first set of goalie equipment, sorted me out with my first roller hockey team and also my first chance in ice hockey. So it’s going to be great to have the chance to play with him and more importantly learn from him. He has ‘been there and done it’ in the EPL and it’s a great opportunity for me to learn from him.

Critics will ask how a 4 season NIHL backup is going to be able to step into an EPL game if Dean gets injured. Do you think you’re prepared for the rigours of playing at that higher level if the moment comes?

This is actually something I have thought a lot about since signing for the team. All I can do is work hard each practise and warm up and maybe game and hopefully prove them wrong. An annoying habit I’ve had in the last couple of seasons is having that couple of bad games that really ruin your stats for the year but it’s something I think I can eliminate from my game by working on my mental toughness. The role of a backup goalie is to win games for the team should something happen to the starter and I did that on the Island, I had 1 loss in all games played whilst I was there and I will be aiming to do the same for the Bison if and when called upon should anything happen to Dean. If I don’t get to play many games then I will be doing my bit on the bench for the guys. I get into the game even if I’m on the bench so I’m sure you will hear me at some point!

Jordan Lawday is going to be a 3rd netminder from the Bison. How would you describe his game?

Jordy is a young up and coming goalie who has come on a long way since I last saw him play. He moves very well and has impressed me in the last few skates we’ve had. Hopefully I can pass on a few things to him throughout the year but he is definitely one to watch for the future if he continues to work hard. He has a couple of years of junior hockey left so he has lots of time.

Any final message for the Bison fans?

It’s an honour to be home and to have the chance to play in front of the Bison fans. You guys are the loudest fans I have ever heard in my experience of playing/watching ice hockey and I know it’ll be the same this year. So I look forward to meeting those of you

who I haven’t met before and to seeing lots of familiar faces too. I hope you’re all having a fantastic summer and I will see you all in September if not before! Lets Go Bison!!

Dan played 2 seasons of under 18 hockey in Basingstoke having transferred from roller hockey before his move to the Isle of Wight for the 2010/11 season. In 16 under 18 contests, Dan posted a 3.40 goals against average and a .921 save percentage as well as making 6 appearances in NIHL 2 for the Wightlink Tigers and 1 on ice appearance for the Raiders.

Since 2011/12, the season a certain Joe Rand arrived on the island, Dan has been the regular backup playing behind Matty Colclough and Liam McAllister respectively. In that time despite seeing minimal ice time, the Raiders have been one of the most competitive sides in NIHL 1 South regularly being in the hunt for all the trophies. The 2013/14 campaign saw Dan make his most on ice appearances in a season with 7 posting a .885 save percentage and a 4.41 GAA.

I suppose I probably need to do a bit of a disclosure thing here; Dan’s a mate of mine. I first met Dan whilst he was playing under 18s and was a steward on match nights during the EIHL days. He was a tall, thin lad with a florescent vest over his gear and would disappear off to put the net back on the moorings after an ice cut. He was a nice lad. When I was told of Toby Cooley’s retirement and Dan’s promotion to the Raiders’ bench, I was pleased for him. It was a chance for him to get some training time at a higher level and he’s been there ever since. I’d chat to Dan when he made rare appearances at Bison games and when I’d make rare appearances at Raiders games, my love of Isle of Wight hockey being no secret here. For a joke, a friend of mine bought me a game worn jersey of Dan’s in the blind auction at the end of a season and I’ve never told him how much she paid as it would embarrass him and probably not in a good way.

My friendship with Dan to one side, the signing of Weller-Evans sends a clear signal; Dean Skinns is going to be playing a lot of minutes again this season. Skinns played like a man possessed all last season, thoroughly silencing all critics and putting himself in the upper echelon of EPL netminders. Sheppard has no reason to deviate from this model and with Connor Standing now being announced as the new starting netminder for the Solent Devils was not going to be looking for a 1a/1b netminding scenario but a clear number 1 and a clear number 2.

There are obvious questions with the signing of a backup who has seen minimal game time from a league below. Weller-Evans has started few games though he has one 60 minute shutout to his credit, a cup away game at Streatham. He has seen more ice time at senior hockey than Standing albeit at a lower level. Weller-Evans likely won’t push Skinns in terms of a fear of stealing the starting role like Skinns did from Annetts and Skinns had stolen from him by Colclough in recent memory but what he does offer is a capable option should the need arise in a game situation. This is not a netminder going in cold to facing senior players of quality.

The analyst in me sees this signing for what it is; it’s the backup who will hopefully get a chance at a bit of ice time over the season.

The Anthony Russell sitting in front of his computer writing this is just pleased that the young man who grew up a Bison fan gets to put on that jersey not as a fan, not as a junior but as a Bison.

Welcome home, Splinter and well done. Grant King will shortly be your new best friend.

Building the Herd – Ciaran Long

#89 Ciaran Long

Position: Forward

Born: Birmingham, England

Announced as signed: Basingstoke Gazette, 10th July

(c) 5 Hole Photography

(c) 5 Hole Photography

Having completed the blueline section of the roster last week, Doug Sheppard returned this week with another big signing with the news that Ciaran Long has put pen to paper to return for 2014/15.

Long, who will turn 24 at the start of the season will amazingly be entering his 9th full EPL season after starting his senior career with Swindon. Long made a solitary EPL appearance for the Wildcats in 2005/06 whilst staring at u16 and u19 level at The Link before being a more permanent fixture in senior hockey in 2006/07 where he scored 1 goal and 2 assists in 31 contests.

2007/08 saw another season of EPL play and this time 9 points as Ciaran scored 8 goals and 1 assist alongside a barnstorming season at under 18 level with an outstanding 36 points and 100 PIMs in 10 games. 2008/09 proved to be Ciaran’s breakout year in Swindon as he firmly established himself as a player to watch with a 32 point season that put the eyes of EPL coaches firmly on him.

Since that season, Long has bounced around the EPL somewhat. 2009/10 saw him depart The Link for Slough where he had a 40 point season and picked up a playoff winners medal. This caught the attentions of then Bison coach Steve Moria who lured Ciaran from Berkshire to Hampshire for the 2010/11 campaign. Long became a firm fan favourite in Basingstoke as he tallied 30 points in 39 games for the Bison. He also near single handedly dragged the Bison through their playoff quarter final encounter with Milton Keynes but the Bison fell agonisingly short.

After that season, Long was tempted up the M1 and signed on for Tony Hand and the Manchester Phoenix. Again, Ciaran became a firm favourite with the fans and had a solid 2011/12 where he scored 19 goals and 31 points which earned him a return for 2012/13. The season started well enough for Long if a little light on scoring and just after the half way point and for no reason that’s ever been that well explained to me, Long left for Slough where he quickly ratcheted up his scoring prowess with 25 points in 21 games for the Jets.

Long re-signed with the Jets to begin 2013/14 but, as many did, fell victim to the perilous financial situation and was told to seek an alternative club. With Joe Miller having agreed to move to Telford under their new ownership, Doug Sheppard moved quickly to secure Long’s services and the forward was unveiled at the Booster Club’s Christmas quiz night having been “disguised” in a Santa Claus outfit.

Long proved a vital addition to the Bison, adding scoring and depth performing in all situations and proving a vital addition to the top line at the end of the season as he linked up with Andy Melachrino and Tomas Karpov following the season ending injury to Michael Wales. Combining his totals at Slough and Basingstoke for the season, Ciaran had 60 points in 54 games. The season was rounded off with a superb solo goal in the playoff final to level the scores just seconds after Manchester had scored a goal on a powerplay on a penalty to Ciaran.

Ciaran has also represented GB at under 18 level 5 times with 11 points and the under 20s 12 times for 12 points.

Sport sometimes throws up moments worthy of an Oscar winning classic. The goal, the save, that one moment of drama that feels like it should be on the big screen. Then there are moments like 500 odd Manchester fans chanting “Phoenix reject” at Ciaran Long only to watch moments later as he robs the man at the blueline, skates in and slots the puck past Stephen Fone. I’m not sure if that’s comedy or tragedy.

The Bison arguably profited more from Slough’s demise than any other EPL side. Whilst Peterborough inherited Slava Koulikov and his vast network of contacts and a few players, the Bison signed Michael Wales then Ciaran Long and secured two of three trophies. Long’s signing as well was perfectly timed. With Joe Miller’s notice period nearing its end before he moved to Shropshire, the Bison needed someone to fill his role in the top 6 and on the powerplay and most importantly, fill the lost points. Long was the ideal candidate. He immediately made an impact on a line with Joe Greener and Nicky Chinn a second line that had a mix of everything as well as an in form Chinn feeding passes to the right places. When Wales broke his ankle, Long was placed with Karpov and Melachrino who were so full of confidence they nearly floated away at times. Long has always played with an edge so was able to fill the hole left by Muzzy. Ciaran didn’t stand and screen the netminder as much as Wales did but was a viable attacking threat from all angles.

His combined totals for last season make Long a point per game player and with the return of so many of his team mates from last season, given him a foundation of playing alongside people he has had success with can only bode well. Joe Rand spoke in his piece about how 2013/14 was a season where the Bison hit the ground running from the season before. If the Herd are to do the same in 2014/15, a Ciaran Long firing on all cylinders is a scary prospect for any of the 8 opponents in the EPL.

What I always like about Ciaran is how he gets improves as the season goes on. Some would dismiss this as him playing for a contract but this contract he is on was 18 months from December so he knew he was coming back. When the games get more important, Ciaran Long gets better. It just seems to be one of those things. If you scour the BOTW archives back to the Bison’s 2011 playoff quarter final loss to the MK Lightning, this isn’t a new trait. That game always sticks in my mind because when the Bison were on the back foot, Long was on a virtual one man mission to pull the team through. It didn’t work that time out and the make up of the Bison roster is vastly different now than it was then but that spark is always important as we saw in Coventry.

A top British player still in his early 20s who can score a point per game, play point on the powerplay, play on the penalty kill is something all teams should want. That said, someone should persuade him not to dye his facial hair.

Welcome back, Ciaran; if you’re going to try and compete with Aaron and Muzzy for the BOTW Mo-vember title then get planning.

Building the Herd – Declan Balmer

#24 Declan Balmer

Position: Defence

Born: Kingston upon Hull, Humberside

Announced as signed: Basingstoke Gazette, 3rd July

Declan Balmer (left) is the newest member of the Basingstoke Bison (c) 5 Hole Photography

Declan Balmer (left) is the newest member of the Basingstoke Bison
(c) 5 Hole Photography

Bison coach Doug Sheppard finalised the defence in Basingstoke for the 2014/15 season with the signing of Declan Balmer from league rivals, the Peterborough Phantoms.

Recently turned 19, Hull born Balmer will be entering his second full season in the EPL after 18 months in Cambridgeshire.

Balmer started his junior hockey in his home town playing 2 years of under 16s with the Kingston Crunch before heading to Bradford to start the 2010/11 season splitting his time that campaign between the under 16s and under 18s.

2011/12 saw Declan make his debut in senior hockey as he was drafted into the Bulldogs ENL campaign making 24 appearances and scoring 15 points. He also had an impressive season with the under 18s in Bradford scoring 40 points in 11 games.

His performances caught the eye of a couple of coaches and found himself on a two way contract for 2012/13. Balmer played for the Solway Sharks in the NIHL 1 North scoring 3 points in 25 games as part of the Sharks’ league winning side as well as scoring 2 assists for the Phantoms in 22 EPL games as Balmer graced the top level of EIHA play for the first time.

His performances for the Phantoms saw him earn a full contact for the 2013/14 season. In what was a challenging season for the Phantoms, Declan played 50 games games where he tallied 7 assists and 72 PIMs.

Declan is also a Great Britain junior international having represented his country at under 18 level 10 times tallying 1 assist and 10 appearances for the under 20s including last year’s World u20 division 1B championships held at Solway where he plied his trade with the Sharks.

So the first section of the Bison roster is now complete as the 6th and final member is announced in Declan and I’ll tell you what; I like this signing.

A few people might be apprehensive of signing a defenceman from a team that missed the playoffs to essentially replace an EPL all star in Zach Sullivan. It’s an obvious concern to have. With Brendan Baird occupying the 6th defenceman role akin to Carl Graham at the end of last season and Matt Selby now into the lineup full time, a lot of scrutiny suddenly falls on Balmer to be a like for like replacement but Declan’s game is not really that of Zach’s.

Balmer is 15lbs heavier and 5 inches taller. At 6’2 and nearly 200lbs he is a more imposing figure than Sullivan is and is a more physical player though the nature of their games is relatively similar. Low errors, low scoring stay at home defencemen who make the good first pass are a needed commodity on all teams. Now Declan’s PIMs are higher, that’s a by-product of a more physical nature of his play but ultimately they are different kinds of defenceman so whilst in terms of names on a roster sheet, it now reads Declan Balmer instead of Zach Sullivan. We don’t need him to be Zach Sullivan, we need him to be Declan Balmer.

So what does the Bison defence look like now with Balmer in it? The overall size is increased with his addition and given he’s likely to be 3rd or 4th defenceman the second pairing will likely see Declan with Matt Selby is now a much more old school shutdown pairing that will go out and wallop people. That’s two young defenceman, both 19, with a lot of responsibility on their shoulders in 5 on 5 play as special teams (though more likely penalty kill than powerplay in Balmer’s case). There are some who would be unnerved by that and I think that’s excusable but in true BOTW style, I’m rather looking forward to it.

The blueline corps has skill, size, physicality, youth, experience and depth going into the defence of the Bison’s two trophies. The one thing that the defence doesn’t appear to have is a massive amount of points production but, and this somewhat adds into the discussion I had with a few EPL fans at the end of the 2013/14 season over whether Marcel Petran should have been an EPL all star; you don’t sign defenceman to score but to defend. Having a defenceman scoring 60 points means little if you lose 2/3rds of your games and given the needs in the Bison defence in response to the players that left, a positionally responsible hard hitting defender is a much more sensible and necessary pick up than a free scoring offensive defenceman.

Welcome to Basingstoke, Declan. We’re all looking forward to it.

Building the Herd – Brendan Baird

#51 Brendan Baird

Position: Defence

Born: Southampton, Hampshire

Announced as signed: Bison website, 18th June

After staring for Bracknell under 18s at playoff weekend, Brendan Baird has joined the Bison (c) 5 Hole Photography

After staring for Bracknell under 18s at playoff weekend, Brendan Baird has joined the Bison
(c) 5 Hole Photography

With the announcement that one member of the family was back in town, the Bison added to it with the news that Doug Sheppard had signed up and coming defensive talent Brendan Baird from Bracknell. Brendan and Joe become the latest set of brothers on the roster to ice for the Bison at the same time joining names like Dean and Ashley Skinns, Andy and Kris Melachrino and of course Tony and Kenny Redmond.

Baird, 18 started as a member of the Basingstoke junior system before moving to the highly thought of junior system at The Hive and he has made steady progression at Bracknell ever since. 2010/11 saw him make his debut at under 16 level with the Stingers before splitting the next season between the Stingers and the under 18 Drones. 2012/13 saw Brendan make his debut in senior hockey as he played 20 games for the Hornets in NIHL 1 South alongside a productive 14 points in 15 games with the Drones and they finished 3rd in the league. 2013/14 was a banner year for Brendan; he played 19 games for the Hornets, scoring 5 points and also made his debut in the EPL for the Bees scoring 2 goals and an assist from defence in 10 contests. Still playing with the Drones, the Bracknell under 18s swept the board. They won the league losing only 1 game, won the North/South final against Nottingham at the Skydome before the Bison won the EPL playoff trophy and then topped it off with the National Championship, capturing the Rob Laidler Plate at the EIHA’s end of season junior hockey showcase as they defeated local rivals Guildford 3-1.

Brendan, who can play as a forward but will play on defence for the Bison, finishes junior hockey with 68 points from 77 games combined at under 16 and 18 levels.

Firstly, interesting choice of #51 by Brendan; someone suggested a brother fight for #15 but I think Joe appears to have already won this battle.

Since taking over as the coach of the Bison, I’d argue that Doug Sheppard’s record with young forwards is pretty good but his record with young defencemen isn’t that hot. Elliott Dewey appeared on the Bison roster at the start of last season, sat on the bench for about a dozen games then vanished off to the Buffalo and the club never officially explained why or gave a mention as to his removal from the full time EPL roster. As such it will be interesting to see how Brendan is initially handled but Sheppard appears to be signing a player with qualities and potential for this to work well for all concerned.

Sheppard has made it clear that Baird is the 6th defenceman which instantly lays out what we expected; to start with he’ll get no special teams play and will be used sparingly in the rotation. However Sheppard has shown that if he feels the situation is right that he will play younger players. Ingoldsby, Mogg and Wynn all were given chances in their respective positions when a shuffle was needed.

Defence however is a very different situation than playing up front. Many in Coventry felt that was part of the reason that Paul Thompson tried to use Matt Selby as a forward at EIHL level; because he wasn’t at the required standard at his natural position and it was a risk to put him there. The EPL does offer the luxury of a) not being a step too high for Brendan as he’s already proven that he’s worthy of a chance at this level and b) existing for this exact purpose; to develop young talent and under a coach with trophy winning pedigree and alongside the calibre of the already signed players he will get decent training and game time situations.

Why he’s chosen to do that away from Bracknell is interesting. If anything it’s arguably a better setup for a young player wanting to develop in some ways with NIHL 1 and EPL an option (the drop from EPL to NIHL2 is rather more pronounced) but maybe the lure of training with a team that is more likely to challenge and the chance to play alongside his brother at senior level before he retires (Joe can’t play forever obviously) is one that Brendan wants to take.

It’s a big step for the young man as he approaches his first full season of EPL hockey. His pedigree and skills at youth levels speak volumes for him and Sheppard, who has at least made an effort to bleed in younger players with a connection to the town feels that this is a viable skill set to add to the roster. Let’s see what he does with it.

Welcome aboard, Brendan.


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