After previous surveys about the English Premier League in 2016 and the National Ice Hockey League in 2018, Banners On The Wall had initially planned to return in 2020 to get thoughts on the inaugural NIHL National Division season. This didn’t happen for obvious reasons.
However after a period of time like no other in recent memory, we’ve taken the decision to review what we’ve seen in British hockey. Hockey was postponed, playoffs abandoned, hockey tentatively brought back then a bit more, then a bit more until Great Britain headed to the IIHF World Championships.
The survey will look at the decisions made to bring games back, streaming as a means of watching games through the pandemic, the quality of the streams provided, the consequences of the games being played as well as a brief look forward to what can be done with the lessons learned.
The plan is to leave the survey open for 3 weeks. After that some time will be taken to analyse the results and write up the findings of it.
Ultimately, BOTW has lived and died in the last few years by its analysis. To do this sort of analysis we need some data. What we also want and intend to do is to offer the conclusions and data to Ice Hockey UK, the EIHL, the EIHA and any other organisation that can and wants to make use of it.
Please only fill out the survey once. The more accurate the data collected, the better the results will be. Please make sure to share it far and wide to as many people connected to British hockey as possible.
The survey is embedded below or the direct link is here. The direct link might be the best option if completing on a mobile.
After leading off the signing announcements in the National League, the Basingstoke Bison took a couple of weeks before adding to the roster but did so with the return of captain and defenceman, Elliott Dewey.
Now 24, Dewey has played 4 seasons for the Bison for a total of 116 league games for a total of 17 points for 86 points. Dewey returned to the Bison after a three year spell at Invicta which saw 97 league appearances for 26 points and 110 penalty minutes.
Dewey’s junior career saw him start in Basingstoke before moving to Slough and included a brief spell with the Basingstoke Buffalo.
Way back before the EPL collapsed, the Bison signed a very young Elliott Dewey. He was so young that as a writer I knew nothing about him to the point I ended up speaking to his mum to check some details because I felt it in appropriate to approach a 16 year old child about how he played a sport that he was effectively still learning.
Dewey’s first campaign in Basingstoke lasted about half a season, if that. Doug Sheppard decided that the young man wasn’t seasoned enough but nor was any announcement made. He just vanished one day. There have been players like that in all clubs across Britain. They’re there, they’re given a chance then they vanish.
However he didn’t vanish. Dewey went away, almost onto something of an apprenticeship to Invicta. He needed ice time, he needed big game situations. Ultimately it worked. For all the criticisms that people have had over Kevin Parish as a coach, he did right by Dewey from a development standpoint. He got lots of game time, he got chances to develop his natural game as a shut down defenceman. We still fondly remember the game where he didn’t play in goal against MK but instead just stood in skater gear at the top of the crease for a period. (Yes I’ve mentioned that before, yes I will continue to because it’s utterly insane and I kind of want to do a Hockey Stories piece about it.)
The Elliott Dewey that came back to Basingstoke was a much different prospect. It was something of a surprise to see Dewey come back to Basingstoke with Doug Sheppard in charge. Sheppard had been the coach who had shuffled Dewey to the side all those years ago but in he came and it has to be said that it worked. Dewey was the fifth defenceman in the rotation but it was a pretty solid rotation to be a part of; Kurt Reynolds, Dan Scott, Joe Baird and Stuart Mogg all sat ahead of Dewey on the depth chart though Dewey did play with Scott regularly during the season. In the midst of British hockey in a sea of confusion after the collapse of the English Premier League with teams put into the regional NIHL leagues and that defensive corps, with Dewey getting the least ice time, won a historic treble.
Then came the great rupture in Basingstoke hockey in the summer of 2018 and all that came with it. Dewey stayed and was one of the earlier announcements after a flood of names that had left. It’s been said before on this site and on our livestreams that the Bison side of 18/19 were the Raggy Dolls. It was a roster that was pieced together by a coach that started late and many predicted would do little. Instead the roster galvanised and found a way to work. Dewey found himself with a lot more ice time and responsibility. Handed an A (and let’s face it, who else would have been captain of the Herd that season with Russ Cowley on the roster?) Dewey was not and is not the most vocal guy in the world but instead did what he’d always done; tried to keep his head down and work.
When Cowley left at the end of the season, I will confess to have been surprised that Dewey was named captain of the Herd. It seemed even more of a surprise when announcing his return, Ashley Tait announced that he and Dewey hadn’t always seemed eye to eye. However, again, Dewey just went about his business and didn’t really poke his head above the parapet unless he made a rare mistake or tried fighting someone in Peterborough.
Whilst Elliott Dewey is a young man, he’s a very old fashioned style player. He’s a low maintenance, low penalty minutes, low scoring, shut down defenceman. I could sit here and try to wax lyrical about stuff but in some ways it’s entirely the wrong thing to do. There’s little column inches found about how defensively sound a player his, how good his footwork is, how well he uses his size and skating to push a forward wide but that’s kind of the point. Players like Elliott Dewey are like most of us in the office at work; give us a job, leave us to get on with it and don’t bother us. No hockey team wins games with all their blueliners trying to be Adam Jones because without Dewey to anchor things behind him, Jones wouldn’t have had the chance to go forward to do what he did.
Dewey the leader is a different prospect as that’s very much developing still, just like Dewey the player is. We’re all about to face a brave new world after COVID subsides and gives us hockey back. I’m intrigued to see how he presses on as a leader of this roster that’s been denied the chance to play for over a year and a half. What is certain is that a player of his style will be working with his head down but only in the metaphorical sense.
Hockey is full of lots of little stories. It weaves its way through and into the lives of people. Some of these stories are big and long but some are short, sharp and just weird. So rather than tell one big story, let’s have a couple of short ones.
Being a Rhodes scholar is a big deal whatever the country you come from. Controversy surrounds the scholarship and has for years. The oldest of its type in the world, it is paid from the estate of Cecil Rhodes. Rhodes was the man who founded Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe and Zambia) and his views are very outdated by modern standards. The scholarship in his name is awarded to postgraduate students to attend the University of Oxford. None of that was a controversy for George Stanley, certainly not in 1929.
After getting a degree at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, he had gladly taken the opportunity to study at such a place and studied at Keble College. The good ol’ Canadian boy was doing good and what do good ol’ Canadian boys do when they get together the world over? They play hockey.
The Oxford University ice hockey club was dominated by Canadians and Stanley was involved early, playing in the Dark Blues’ 1-0 win over Cambridge in the Varsity Game, played that year in Zurich. Cambridge won 2-1 the following year at St. Moritz but Stanley and Oxford returned to St Moritz the following year and regained bragging rights with a 5-1 win. However it was later in 1931 that would be bigger news for Oxford as they took part in the 9th edition of the Spengler Cup.
Played in Davos to this day, the Spengler Cup was set up to help promote German speaking teams to the world after World War 1 and by that point Oxford and Cambridge were long standing participants. Oxford’s last win had been in 1925 with two wins for LTC Prague who were absent from the tournament and two wins for the Berliner SC who entered the tournament as favourites of the 9 teams taking part at the outdoor Eisstadion.
Oxford breezed past Akademischer Zurich 7-0 in the first game before an unlikely 0-0 draw against Racing Club de Paris which was enough to put Oxford into the semi finals whereas Cambridge lost 11-1 to Grasshoppers Zurich and 4-1 to Berlin.
Stanley and the Dark Blues faced off with hosts, Davos in the semi final and fought their way to a 4-1 win setting up a final with the favourites, Berlin thanks to their 6-0 mauling of Paris. However it would be an underdog victory as Oxford would bring the title back to Britain with another 4-1 win. It had been a good year in hockey for George Stanley.
Stanley would play in the 1932 tournament where Oxford would share the win with LTC Prague after the two sides played out a 0-0 draw through regulation and overtime.
George Stanley would return to Canada in 1936, becoming a prominent academic. Where Dr Stanley would really make his mark is in 1964. With Canada in the midst of a debate about the country’s flag, Stanley sent a memorandum to prominent politician John Matheson with his idea and a sketch. After long deliberations and discussions in parliament, Canada’s new flag was chosen. It was 2 red stripes with a central white stripe with a red 11 pointed maple leaf in the middle. George Stanley’s career in Canada’s game had been a ripple overseas only for him to come home and design the most Canadian of all symbols.
The local lad
It had been a decent season for Dynamo Moscow as the biggest game of the 1952/53 season approached.
The initial stages of the the campaign had gone well. The Soviet Russian season started with 3 groups of 5 or 6 teams. Dynamo had ended up in group B with teams from Minsk, Novosibirsk, the army team from Leningrad their cross town rivals Kryla Sovetov Moscow, the aircraft industry team.
Led from the front by the goalscoring talents of Aleksandr Uvarov and at the back in goal by Estonian netminder, Karl Liiv, Dynamo lost to Kryla but managed to finish second in their group which meant qualification for the finals round and the chance to be champions of the USSR.
Liiv was playing well in net with occasional relief appearances from his backup and the same would happen as the Soviet Cup started. 11th February 1953 was a routine win for Dynamo over SK im. Stalina Molotov as a 5-0 opening period allowed Dynamo to coast to an 8-3 win.
11 days later Dynamo went on a rampage, cruising into the quarter finals thanks to a 16-1 win over Lithuanian side, Inkaras Kaunas and the following Friday they ended February on a high with a 7-1 win over Spartak Minsk who they had already cruised past in the league.
The league’s championship round had been a moderate success for Dynamo. A 16 game campaign had seen the blue and whites end with a record of 12 wins, 1 draw and 3 defeats and score 107 goals along the way. The problem was those defeats as CDSA Moscow hopped above them as did eventual winners VVS Moscow, the air force team and the pride of the Minister of Sport who just happened to be Joseph Stalin’s son Vassili.
However Liiv’s form was suffering and by the time the cup semi finals rolled around he had been supplanted by his backup, a local 23 year old who also happened to be the Dynamo football team’s reserve keeper.
The cup semi final would be a monstrous task as Dynamo would face the champions of the Soviet Union, VVS Moscow. Liiv watched on from the bench as Dynamo headed into the third period with a 2-0 lead over the league champions. VVS would fight back and win the final period but it wasn’t enough as Dynamo won 3-2 to take them to the cup final. The local lad in goal had done his job.
It was the end of VVS’ season and the last game they would play. Less than a month later, Joseph Stalin would die and as the Soviet Union would begin to distance themselves and hide his legacy. Vassili had his favourite toy taken away from him, VVS was disbanded and the players, many of whom had been playing against their will, could finally go home.
However back to our story and the biggest game of Dynamo Moscow’s season. Thursday 12th March 1953 and the Dynamo Arena would play host to the Soviet Ice Hockey Cup final between Dynamo and CDSA Moscow. It burned at Karl Liiv to watch from the sidelines but the local youngster had taken his spot.
The first period went well and two goals from Vsevolod Blinkov helped propel Dynamo into a 2-1 lead at the first break. A scoreless second period gave way to a tense third. CDSA scored but a goal from forward Aleksandr Soldatenkov would secure the 3-2 win and land Dynamo Moscow their first ever Soviet Cup. The team celebrated, collected their medals, raised the trophy high and the 23 year old Russian netminder no doubt shared a word or two with Karl Liiv. The two skated off the ice but for one of them it would be the last time.
Liiv would stay with Dynamo for another 3 seasons including being part of their league winning team in 1954, their only Soviet league title until 1990.
The 23 year old Russian would never play competitive ice hockey again. He’d had a choice he needed to make for some time between hockey and football. In an act of irony, it had been him on the bench for Dynamo’s football team as they won the Soviet Cup. He was a reserve for the football team and had now helped the hockey team win its first trophy but he knew what the choice had to be. He liked hockey but he loved football so football it was.
By the time that 23 year old passed away at age 60 in 1990 he had would have added 5 Soviet league titles, 3 Soviet Cups, finish 4th at a World Cup, won a European Championship, won Olympic gold, won the Order of Lenin and be the only goalkeeper to win the Ballon d’Or. After his death he was named to the FIFA all-time World Cup team, the Ballon d’Or dream team, Russia’s best ever player and FIFA’s goalkeeper of the century.
To walk away from the sport with a 1953 Soviet Ice Hockey Cup winners medal at 23 might seem an odd decision, but it’s hard to argue that it wasn’t the right decision for “The Black Spider”, Lev Yashin.
In the 395 days since the Basingstoke Bison left the ice after their home defeat to the Peterborough Phantoms, the world stopped and the despite the club attaining elite sport status from the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport in December 2020, are yet to return to the ice.
When the NIHL National League owners announced after the end of the Spring Cup that they were moving their focus towards a full 2021/22 campaign in September (another 140 or so days away at the time of publication) the Bison were the first club out of the gate to announce signings with the return of Ashley Tait as player/coach.
Tait, who will be 46 at the start of the next campaign, has been kept moderately busy during the pandemic doing the occasional camp with the juniors and becoming an insurance broker. However you do wonder about the sense of frustration. Within British hockey it is no hyperbole to say that Ashley Tait is a legend. He’s got over 100 caps for GB, multiple championships, captained a team to a top flight grand slam but he is edging ever closer to the day he puts the skates away as a player and he’s lost a year. Has it elongated his career by a season or not?
That remains to be seen but what we do know is that if he is able to pick up where he left off then the Bison will be continuing with a premier attacking threat. Having a 50 assist and 75 point season is impressive enough but when you consider that the quality of competition had increased and he then increased his points per game from 1.42 to 1.6 with that is alarming rate of quality for a man feasibly old enough to be the father of about 9 members of the last roster he put together that got to play. Tait is a top level forward in the National Division with the ability to swap between centre and wing with ease. As comfortable scoring as he is with setting the man up a lot of the offence in the last campaign went through Tait. With the loss of Michal Klejna to retirement the rationale was there with the signing of Alex Roberts, a natural sniper with a physical upside to be the foil to Tait’s game. Whether we see that or not, we are yet to know but the reigning BOTW Player of the Year will no doubt be on the search for the right men to be his line mates come September 2021.
Tait the coach has been an interesting watch as well. What has been the most interesting is just how similar Ashley Tait hockey was and is to what has always been appreciated by Bison fans which is the right mix. Having skill, grit, flash and heart is just part of the make up of hockey teams but getting it in harmony to keep the fans happy even if they fall short of silverware. This site has criticised (justifiably I feel) how overly emotional the Bison were at times. They saw red, went heart over head too often at times in my opinion. However Tait the coach is now a bit more experienced, he has kept faith in his backroom staff including bench coach Tony Redmond who whilst can also be hot tempered is also laser focussed on getting the job right.
Along with Tait and Redmond, the Herd also kept faith on their off ice team; physical therapist Phil Barrett, medic Glenn Wells and GB under 16 equipment manager Gary Mitchell to keep faith with the way things are for the Herd. This was combined with the return on the mic of match night DJ and the general bane of officials, Daren Bavister.
The next move then was for the roster around Tait and in keeping with popular announcements to start off the string of news, the Bison went back to the same well with the return of Alex Mettam and Dan Weller-Evans to once again be the Bison’s netminding crew.
When speaking to Mettam and Weller-Evans for the Hockey Stories piece that featured them late last year, it’s clear the two have found a solid working relationship. There is a number one and number two, that is clear but both are able to make that balance between personal rivalry (any goalie who says they don’t want to be number one is a liar) and doing what’s right for the team.
The two netminders have some similarities but both have different strengths. Mettam, the veteran of the duo, has never quite had the save percentage and goals against average that put him top of the stats charts but frequently rescued the Herd with his play. In 2019/20 in particular he played with an added aggressive edge, frequently coming further out of his net to close down angles and challenging opposing forwards. The Bison defence was stingy across both Mettam’s seasons as the team’s number one goalie and a large chunk of that has been down to Mettam’s energetic style. There is little wasted motion, every movement deliberate. Mettam is not a frantic goalie, there is no thrashing about to give Bison fans memories of Jon Baston but Mettam is a kinetic goalie and every adjustment has a purpose.
By contrast Weller-Evans is a much calmer figure on the ice. Taller and with a longer reach than his colleague, the Welshman is much more controlled in his approach. A self-deprecating character, in interviews Weller-Evans has always underplayed his performances, never giving credit to how well he uses his size to get square to shots quickly or to reach across with glove or pad to make a stop. Arguably more of a confidence player than Mettam, Weller-Evans is comfortable if not content as the team’s secondary backstop.
All of these returns are important to the Bison. Tait is becoming a very solid coach as well as being a premier attacker in the league. He’s got the support staff around him who get the club and have been with him since he arrived in Basingstoke but also have long term connections to the side. The first two signings are the two netminders who have been at the club since Tait’s arrival, one of whom started in Basingstoke with the Bison. It’s three solid signings for the Herd. There’s also another level of importance to this and that’s continuity.
The Bison that rebuilt its roster after the enforced changes of a couple of years ago were forced to galvanize quickly and in those two seasons the roster stayed very similar. The fanbase, the roster and the staff had leaned into each other. Then hockey went away, rightly of course but it went away all the same. People will have re-evaluated their lives, their circumstances and whatever their role, their place within hockey. The world has changed dramatically and hockey is no different.
The nature of British hockey in many ways is that lack of permanence. Things change, players come and go, it’s accepted at every level of the sport in this country. The fact that after all that has happened that there will be familiar faces is important. This will have not come into Ashley Tait’s mind when discussing his return or either netminder but it’s a reassuring feeling. It’s a totally inadvertent positive but it is a positive. After all the change that when hockey returns, some will be gone but there will be some familiar faces.
As the final buzzer sounded on the MK Thunder and the Haringey Huskies game on Sunday 4th April, it saw the end of NIHL hockey for the time being. The Elite League series began as the NIHL’s second foray into returning to play ended and with many preview pieces for British hockey’s top flight still flying around, it seemed a good time to break down what we’ve seen from the three NIHL tournaments over the last month; the good, the less good and the bad.
There’s only one thing that was truly bad over the course of the 3 tournaments and that was the unfortunate injury to MK Thunder defenceman Samson James who suffered a serious wrist injury in the game against Slough. The quick reactions of guys around him on the ice stopped a bad situation becoming much worse. We sincerely hope that Samson is back playing as soon as possible.
The less good
It has to be said that there were elements of all three streaming series that didn’t work as well as they could of or just didn’t click or felt wrong. I won’t be talking about players joining other teams. Guys want to play and that’s fine. Other things can’t be controlled (the camera at Solihull feeling a thousand miles from the ice or Solent’s feeling like it was on top of the players) so we won’t gripe about things that generally can’t be changed but to say the following.
The biggest and most obvious was one that various players have mentioned which was that hockey without fans is weird. It was entirely necessary for these series to happen, we appreciate that, but it doesn’t make it any less bizarre. It’s fun to have the interactive interactions that streams offer whether it’s shoutouts, live Q&As with players and commentators or (thanks to at least one Bees stream) dogs in hockey shirts but it made many realise that hockey without people in the building will always be kind of wrong.
Those interactions made for something of a comedic moment at the end of the Solent Devils vs Slough Jets game on 3rd April. The Devils stream and social media had made it clear what scoreline meant for the destination of the trophy, as had Jets and EIHA social media. The final buzzer sounded and neither the referees on the ice or the EIHA officials in the building knew what a 3-1 Jets win meant in terms who had won the tournament.
Hockey has a tendency to throw up weird results that make a boxscore resemble the early overs of a cricket game. None of the three tournaments were immune to games with lopsided scores but it seemed more prevalent in the National League Spring Cup. More teams does obviously mean more chances for such thing to happen but 11 of the 30 games had a result where a team won by 4 or more goals compared to 3 of 12 in the South Cup and 1 of 12 in the North Cup. The issue in the National Cup was there was a larger gulf between the rosters at the top and bottom. Even with EIHL player additions it was hard for the Bees and Raiders to catch up across the tournament with Telford and Swindon and nobody could compete with a Sheffield roster that was like a juggernaut throughout the tournament which made more than a couple of their games feel academic.
It also plays into the other big issue that has been talked about before, during and likely after which was the cost of streaming for National League games. The teams should be credited for at least doing the sensible thing and offering team package discounts for a larger tournament that weren’t offered in the Autumn games but £12 a stream is still a large chunk of change when many of the games were not close.
Off the record BOTW has been told of there being a drop off for some teams in terms of numbers watching their stream as the tournament went on. Part of this was potentially due to the timing of games as well as other teams playing and others streaming for free in lower leagues that whilst not of the same quality of hockey were arguably closer games and more competitive. The odd situation of Slough charging £10 for games in the NIHL South Cup when every other team in the South and all of the North Cup offered the games for free made for additional confusion.
I’ve made the point before that £12 as an experiment was fine but going forward this price point doesn’t offer value for money at National League level and isn’t sustainable. Given there has been talk of one club reportedly wanting to charge £16 per stream at one stage, there needs to be a really tough conversation and some serious joined up thinking going forward in terms of a uniformity of approach for how streaming it’s done.
The clubs deserve a lot of kudos for putting it on and this is not a comment on the commentators and the crews who all put in a lot of time and effort to give hockey to people starved of the sport they love for the better part of a year but the clubs can’t charge walk up prices for not getting the premium experience that is ice hockey live and in person. Watching a game on a laptop or TV is a great thing if you can’t make a game but it’s no substitute to watch the puck at 1/100th its size on a screen. The club owners need to realise this going forward and price accordingly.
The same goes for the sudden stopping of the EIHA social media posting GIFs of goals and the very odd reporting from the Bees social media that it was league policy to not tweet updates when there was a stream on. Aside from Swindon not getting the memo about such things, clubs complained to the EIHA that people seeing the goals on their feeds would make people less likely to buy streams and they stopped as if possibly seeing a tweet if a goal happens would have that effect. Does Sky Sports tweeting goals stop people subscribing to watch the Premier League? No, because seeing a short video isn’t a substitute for watching the whole game on the telly which isn’t a substitute for seeing it live.
It would have also been nice for the EIHL sides (especially those close to NIHL sides) to have acknowledged it all a bit more.
The above are all reasonable criticisms of what we saw but it’s also fair to say what’s gone well here.
All 13 clubs (with support from the EIHA) deserve credit for getting the necessary bits in order to get this happen. It’s getting all the paperwork done, it’s finding a COVID officer, it’s the testing, the training and getting sets of legs moving that might not have moved for months, it’s integrating guest players into rosters and line combos and systems. The criticisms above are because we want things to be the best they can be but for even getting going all the clubs deserve respect for the sheer volume of effort put in to achieve just the players being on the ice.
For complaints about the cost of streams in the National League’s competition, the streams were put together mostly by teams of volunteers who did a good job. Commentators are of course a personal preference though knowing the effort that people that Jono Bullard and Chris Gadsby at the Nottingham Lions put into their streams, whoever did it deserves a tip of the hat. I do have to give a special mention to Joe Scutts who along with commentating on games for the first time as part of the Solent Devils streams compiled his own stats site that covered all three cup competitions.
Whilst some of the games at National Division level were one sided we were treated to some very good hockey as it happened. Games were lopsided at times but every team put in the effort to make the competition as competitive. There was a marked gap between the top three and the bottom two but the Bees and Raiders but both beat teams above them and both fielded rosters closer to what we’ll see when NIHL hockey returns in earnest later this year.
EIHL players came into the clubs but young players were also given chances. Ben Davies and Matt Meyers played for Swindon but so did Reed Sayers and Jack Goodchild. Juha Lundgrun and Bayley Harewood saw good time for the Bees. Austin Mitchell-King returned to British hockey with Telford and looked a superb acquisition that if he’s retained by the Tigers will only help their chances of retaining the title. Ethan James continued to make a case for the Raiders as a real netminding prospect in a side that stuck as closely as it could to Sean Easton’s ethos of the Raiders being in and of Romford. Harry Guliver and Ben Solder stood out to the point that they’re still playing at the moment in Nottingham.
We also need to talk about the Sheffield Steeldogs. The roster that Greg Wood put together pulling in locally based EIHL guys along with a decent core and some talented youngsters had them utterly crushing the competition. Telford ran them close, Tom Watkins is very good at recruiting and making teams more than the sum off their parts as we know from the title winning roster but the Steeldogs were a class above this entire tournament. It was a pleasure to see Liam Kirk playing in this country again. Watching him, you can only feel that the NIHL and EIHL series will be an anomaly in a hockey career that should see him play in more exotic places than he has the last month or so.
In Division One, both northern and southern cups had players from higher levels come in to supplement rosters but we were also treated to some really excellent and exciting hockey. Most of the teams streamed games for free, many of them doing so for the first time and put on commendable products and others arguably outshining their National Division counterparts in parts.
In the South, Slough and Solent had some real battles of attrition in the south over their two games that decided their tournament as the free scoring Jets and the defensively stingy Devils could only be separated on wins in regulation. The MK Thunder played out of Solihull to enter the tournament and played a high paced, high pressing game that was fun to watch alongside the Haringey Huskies who eeked out a well deserved win over the Thunder to end the competition.
In the North, Widnes were worthy winners. It was very much the Adam Barnes show but alongside Richard Haggar and a good supporting cast and good netminding from Matt Croyle the Wild edged over the line past Blackburn. The Hawks were the other team that had a some EIHL additions with Finlay Ulrick staring for them but lost out on the head to head as well as having a worst goal difference. Then there’s Sheffield and Nottingham; minimal additions to the roster (although Vladimir Luka was a real surprise addition), both sides packed with youngsters and they served up the best game across the three tournaments in terms of excitement. The Lions vs Scimitars game has nearly 10,000 views on Youtube, nearly 3 times as many as any other Lions game. Sheffield’s James Hadfield looked like he was still in the EPL at times with some of the saves with Ruskin Hughes being the other star name. For the Lions, Jack Hopkins announced his arrival in senior hockey with 13 points in in 6 games with Archie Hazeldine looking like another superb prospect.
Hockey returned and we hit the start of April for it to end, as it always does. After the last 13 months there’s a reassuring familiarity to that even if we’re all not nursing post playoff weekend hangovers. The cork is now out of the bottle on certain ideas, themes and even players. There were eyes on the NIHL that were never there before. The leagues under the EIHA’s purview have a choice of slinking back into the shadows or stepping out into the light. They can promote themselves to all and sundry or allow things to stand still. There are things to improve and good to be built upon. The hope is that the bravery needed to put this on will translate going forward.
I’d like this to have been a little bigger than it is. I’m not talking about some big noise made or anything but I would have loved to do something centred more around a 2020/21 season coming to a close rather than small pockets of play as we emerge out of what has felt like a never ending fog brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. In some ways though, any lack of flash and getting straight to the point feels much more what this site has been about.
Today, 24th March 2021, is ten years to the day since I first made Banners On The Wall and started a blog to write about ice hockey. I’d written about all sorts over my life to that point; my anxiety, poetry (which I still write), the odd story here and there but it had been bits and pieces. I’d never really followed through on a collection of writing or a single writing project for longer than about 15 months.
A decade later, I find myself acknowledging this anniversary because as I allow myself that bit of reflection I see a lot that hasn’t changed and a lot that has.
British hockey continues to fascinate, enrapture and frustrate me in equal measure. The potential of the sport in this country haunts it. What it could be is massive and what it is, is not that. The Elite League wants to live in a bubble, folk in the EIHA seem to treat the EIHL like a dog left alone in the kitchen with a tray of open sausages, everyone is obsessed with their part of the pie. This doesn’t detract the sport from being brilliant. There are not many things that I wouldn’t trade to be sat in a rink somewhere watching a game of hockey.
What has changed? I’ve seen the Basingstoke Bison play in 4 different leagues, Great Britain’s national team has gone down then up, people have come and gone from the sport and our lives. The other thing that changed was here and me.
For years on this site I thought having set formats for stuff would be the way to help me form a style and for a while it did. In depth game reports were lacking at the time about the Bison. The Gazette had match reports of course but they were limited by space, I wasn’t. So write I did. And write and write and write.
One person who helped completely inadvertently was Mark Denholm. Following Slough Jets’ withdrawal from the old EPL, Mark helped out at Basingstoke and came to more games. He also started writing his own match reports. It was the kick in the backside it made me take a big leap into being much more analytical in what I wrote. With other people writing match reports in their own style, I made the conscious choice to bin a blow by blow account of the game and instead give some analysis. It lost the site some readers and gained others but it was the right choice as it made me a better writer.
I’ve experimented with some things that didn’t work at all and some things that did. The more confident I felt in my knowledge of the sport and within the world of British hockey the more risks I took in my writing and away from it. The BOTW Podcast was the right thing to do at the time and I stopped it when it no longer became so. The BOTW What’s Current Stream in its place is the right thing in the right format for the right time. It’s not a snazzy high production piece but it doesn’t need to be. It’s raw, unfiltered and to the point which allows me to keep my writing for deep dives, more thought and more risks.
If you go back through the site there’s a piece called “Back to War”, the intersecting of Basingstoke with pioneering surgery in world war two and the owner and founder of the Toronto Maple Leafs, Conn Smythe. It’s one of the favourite things I’ve written and I think holds up years later. That was the foundation for trying stuff like I’ve done in Hockey Stories recently and telling stories in that way has paid off outside of hockey.
I realised that I wanted to try writing about the other sports that I liked and ultimately the writing seemed to translate. I’m proud of the places I’ve managed to write for, especially in the last year where I’ve written for Wisden’s The Nightwatchman, Beyond the Last Man and German football fanzine Halb Vier. None of that happens without here.
When people ask me about hockey, there is a simple truth; hockey changed my life for the better. I’ve made friends, made it through at least 3 breakdowns, eaten much, drunken too much and seen some utterly awful and some simply amazing hockey along the way.
I need to go all Oscar speech for a moment so bare with me:
- Rostocker EC Piranhas – durch Regen, Sonnenschein und Schnee, immer und ewig REC! Ihr waren meine Anfang an diese Reise und bleibt mein Heimathafen. Auf die Dauer, hilft nur Ostseepower!
- Without the Basingstoke Bison, I would have had nothing to write about in the first place. I wouldn’t change it for the world. A thank you to all connected with the club for allowing me to document the journey in my own way. Thanks to John Neville for giving me reign to do what I do.
- Stuart Coles and Paul Shipman (as well as Kerry, Becky and their families) have had my back through rain and shine for many years. We’re all going to Fargo for a beer when this nonsense is done.
- Graham Bell saw the value in what BOTW and other places like it were long before anyone else. Thanks for the faith, mate.
- Scotty, Jonny P and Marc; the FOHS boys made me realise that this was a thing I could do. Thank you, guys. You are criminally underrated and I long for the day someone there takes notice.
- I always thank God at times like these, no change here.
- To you my friends, thank you for keeping me honest. For every time you read something, shared something, called me out, pointed out an error or spelling mistake. It’s worth it.
- Lastly; Emily and Nathan, who make all things worthwhile. Thank you, love you.
And to you dear reader? Be happy, and if you can’t be happy then please, be safe. Thank you if you’ve been here for a day or the whole time. It means a lot. As my friend Scotty Wazz would say, “take care of yourself and someone else” and I leave you with the words I ended that first piece with. It was true then, true today and true for as long as I can find the means to do so.
If you’ll excuse me, I have some writing to do.
Like most people I’ve met from the north of England, Mara Reynolds is blessed with a cheerful bluntness that permeates the conversation. “Why do you do it?” I ask. “I think it’s a mix of hating inaccuracy in literally anything, my own drive towards an unachievable perfection in pretty much everything I do…and just loving data.” This is a very helpful trait for arguably one of the most important curators of hockey statistics in Britain.
Founded in 1999 and based in Växjö in Sweden, Elite Prospects has emerged as a go-to source for hockey statistics around the world. Mara started helping with the British stats in 2010 after someone suggested she help having seen the work they were doing on a forum for hockey’s version of Football Manager, Eastside Hockey Manager where she fed stats into databases to try and make the British leagues more accurate.
Being from Manchester, when what is now the Manchester Arena opened the Reynolds family originally went to see the Giants, the city’s basketball team but it was the original Manchester Storm that really caught the eye. “The first game was against Telford Tigers, a 6-6 draw and I was hooked from that point. We didn’t go to every game that first season but from the second season we had season tickets and went to every game. We went right up till the final game, right till the end. I got involved with the Manchester Phoenix as a volunteer along with my now wife, they then mothballed for a bit, then they came back and I volunteered during the next three EIHL seasons and the first EPL season. I ended up actually working for the club for about 10 months and not having had a good experience, I walked away. I went to the game when they won the first EPL title, I wanted to see that happen and get a bit of closure but I was done with it for a bit.”
It was around the time of stopping working for the Phoenix that Mara was offered the chance to start helping out at Elite Prospects. 11 years on, she remains a volunteer having never earned a penny from their work for the website. “If I ever did get paid, I’d probably love that but I’m more than happy doing that unpaid. I’d have to get paid for it to know if making it my job would spoil it but I really enjoy what I do.”
When Mara started with Elite Prospects there was very little of anything in the way of accurate statistics for British hockey on the site. In those 11 years there have been occasional helpers but otherwise Reynolds has done the work themselves. The admin backend of the website (which they say hasn’t really changed in their entire time doing this) keeps a list of all the edits made and profiles created. 22,401 players are now on the database because of the work done by one person out of their flat in Greater Manchester. To speak to how dedicated the army of people who work on the site are and despite adding a small town’s worth of people to the site, Mara isn’t in the top ten for players added.
Using a small library of Ice Hockey Annuals and the website of the now retired EIHA statistician, Malcolm Preen, Reynolds set to work going back through the years and filling in the gaps. Teams would have three players listed, if that and they had incomplete or patchy numbers. For someone obsessed with accuracy, this didn’t sit well. To do each new roster from scratch would take about an hour’s worth of work. “I’d just work backwards and add stats and players. Malcolm Preen; his site went back to 2000 and it had junior stats and all sorts. I added stats and if the player wasn’t there I added them. It was deep diving every day and, above all, being systematic with it.”
Is there a part of their work that they’re more proud of than anything else? “The BUIHA (British Universities Ice Hockey Association), I did that whole thing from start to finish over 5 years from nothing. I wanted that in for a few reasons. One of the people I managed a team in ball hockey with was big in getting the BUIHA stuff off the ground but also I had a lot of people asking me to keep the stats. I went to the guys at the site. They said ‘have you got stats for it, have you got historical stats for it, is it a recognised competition? If the answer is yes to all three, knock yourself out.’ so I did. I’m really proud of that. Teams and players really helped out. About 5500 players of my 22k is all of that. I’m really proud of it.”
It has not been easy in recent years to keep everything as Mara would like it due to how stats have been kept. Whilst the Elite League gets credit (“for 5 or 6 years it’s been nailed on”) Reynolds is very critical of how both the SIHA (“they use Google sheets but they at least keep goals against average”) and the EIHA have kept the stats. Fixtures Live which the EIHA have used for some time has been a source of frustration. “I hate it but it’s all we’ve got to work with. They’ll need to change it eventually as it’s at the end of life. We need to be able to keep basic stats like goals against average and it needs to work. How in 2021 are stats engines getting worse? The backends don’t work. The front facing stuff looks all fancy but the backends do not work and put things out wrong. We’ve had players come to us asking for stats to be changed but I have to send them to the EIHA. We take our stats from them. They need to get it right.”
So given an infinite pot of money, how would she make it right for British hockey? “First off you have to get the stats engine working. Get that and the rest will follow. Pointstreak for example is made for this. It’s easy to use, easy to read, it’s open. I don’t care how stuck in the past you are and it’s not about advanced stats, I don’t care about them much. Get a decent engine that’s fit for purpose; not one that’s free, not one that’s easy to use, get one that records the data correctly. Yes, it needs to work with mobile gamesheets and the like but it has to do the job properly.”
The thing is when they do get it right, it makes a big difference and it’s really appreciated. “I’ve got a list of people at different levels of British hockey who have been less good to work with but many who are really lovely and appreciate it. One former EIHL player sent me a message saying ‘you made my career’, that was nice…It was similar with the women’s game. I pushed on that because I believe there’s a lot of potential in it and I want to do it right.”
The age old adage though is lies, damn lies and statistics and I asked Mara, given the world is in the age of fake news and opinions trumping facts, about any examples of stats misuse but it wasn’t something that concerned her. “I stay away from things like that. It more irks me when people say Elite Prospects isn’t accurate. We use official stats and it’s either incomplete or we’ve been misinformed. If we’ve been misinformed then I’ll happily correct it if you can prove it. Just saying that it’s inaccurate annoys me.”
People making inaccurate assertions is one thing but I have to ask about the one thing that has occasionally reared its head on Elite Prospects’ social media feeds and that’s people trying to to fake their numbers. Mara laughs, “I’ve got a few stories. It’s mostly pushy parents who think their kid is some sort of megastar. The best one was a player in the Belgian league who set up a fake stats site and a fake league site to push his numbers. He even made fake gamesheets. It’s so dumb, it’s so transparent especially when we’re trained at looking at this. It’s easy to spot if you know what you’re looking for.”
The conversation rolls on and looking back on what we’d discussed and that this person who has given all this time to the sport in a way that’s enhanced the careers of people wasn’t going to hockey regularly. So I ask the question. “Do you miss it?”
“Yes. I’ve obviously not been to many games in the last three years but yes. Especially if it’s a skill game. The temptation is there.”
The Mara Reynolds that will possibly one day go back to an ice rink is one that’s been on a journey. Burned by working in the sport and arguably, for a time, burned out by it, Mara admits that the last two years since they came out as transfeminine and non-binary made her a bit of a hermit as she worked to learn about who they were. She certainly welcomes the recent efforts of the Elite League and the EIHA with their vocal support of Pride and LGBTQ+ initiatives but the proof will be in the pudding. “In the community, it’s called ‘rainbow washing’, it’s doing the bare minimum and then actions are at best apathetic or at worst detrimental. Do they mean this? If I went to Altrincham for a game and someone did something to me, would the club and league take action? Now I’m not expecting it to happen, especially in Manchester as it’s not the sort of city for it but if it happens, will they back it up? Are they willing to tackle it if it happens? I go into things not expecting it to happen but I do have my guard up.”
As I try to get adequate context about how this life change has made Mara the person they are and how the hockey community they have dedicated so much of their time to could and would stand by the other community they’re a part of, she comes out with something I’d not considered when I spoke to them about writing this piece.
“It’s one of the weird things about doing EP and the @EPUKHockey twitter account. Thousands upon thousands of people know what I do but so few of them know who I am. It’s a sort of weird anonymity. It’s nice being a little bit faceless but also as someone who occupies several marginalised identities; non-binary, transgender, pansexual, it’s why I push those things so hard on the twitter account because it matters.”
Whilst she’s talking my brain ticks over. Stats people are not known for wanting to be in the spotlight at the best of times and that’s without anything else she has going on. I wait for a moment to interject and ask as to whether doing this shatters that anonymity. “Yeah but I’m OK with it. I link to my personal twitter on the EP profile. Sure, my personal account is locked, I’m a trans person online. The anonymity is a thin veil. It’s easy to break through it if anyone looked into it a little bit but yeah, I’m happy with it.”
The call ends and I’m left contemplating what will happen when Mara finally goes back to a game in Britain again. For me they’re like a cog in a watch; rarely seen but vital to the mechanism and occasionally looked at to see how all the intricacies make it work. This might be the only time they’re front and centre like this and when she goes to a game again I don’t think they’ll be rinkside slamming their fist on the plexiglass. They might feel they need to have their guard up like she spoke of and want that bit of anonymity back, and that’s fine. If nothing else, the quiet will help them fill out the gamesheet in peace.
On 1st Feburary 2021 long time Nottingham Panthers player, coach and legend Corey Neilson was relieved of his duties as the head coach of German second tier side, Lausitzer Füchse; a club based 2 hours south east of Berlin in the city of Weisswasser. The former GB international defenceman departed with the club in 12th place in DEL2 ending with a run of 1 win in the last ten games. Neilson’s name enters the club’s history books but, despite his best efforts, his name sadly won’t be listed amongst the greats there. What many British fans who have followed Neilson’s career overseas won’t be aware of is that his former employers are multiple time national champions and once played in the smallest top flight ice hockey league in the world.
To start the story we need to go back to the end of World War Two. In late March 1945 the Wehrmacht blew up a railway bridge on the eastern outskirts of Weisswasser but it couldn’t stop the inevitable. The Red Army swept in to occupy the city. They never properly left and by 1949 the city of Weisswasser was in what was poorly titled the German Democratic Republic, better known in our history books as East Germany.
Post war life saw everything slowly return to normal, sport included, and ice hockey returned on both sides of the allied controlled divide. Weisswasser was no different, albeit things were organised very differently in East Germany to how we would understand things. There were technically no professional sportsmen or women in the GDR (this was of course nonsense, elite sportspeople had nominal jobs). With no large financial backers and top class sport supported by the state, all sports teams of a decent standard were attached to a local industry. Weisswasser was a city of glass making so 1950 saw the founding of BSG Kristall Weisswasser.
East Germany however was a place where teams changed their affiliation and their name a lot. The following year saw Kristall become BSG Ostglass Weisswasser and they won the 1951 Oberliga. The league itself was held over the space of about 3 weeks between 4 teams. Weiswasser went undefeated to win their first title.
The next year the club became affiliated with the national Chemie sportsclub which encompassed chemical and certain manufacturing sectors. (Ostglass as a club didn’t technically disappear but the team operated under a different name. This confusion and changing of names and affiliations is typical of East German sport.) The Oberliga expanded slightly but it made no difference as Chemie picked up the mantle and won the title in 1952 and 1953, losing only 1 game in the process albeit they only played 17 games to do so.
After the 1953 season, the local communist leadership decided that the glass manufacturing industry had seen enough glory. Ostglass and Chemie were officially “fused” (read forced to merge) and the club’s affiliation swapped to the sports club of the police and the secret police. Dynamo Weisswasser was born.
To say that Dynamo were dominant is an understatement. Weisswasser was Hockey Town GDR. Including the league titles dating from Kristall’s maiden win, the club won 15 Oberliga titles in a row.
The league would grow as big as 8 clubs and be as small as three during that time as teams were admitted and removed by the powers that be but it didn’t matter. In 1959/60 instead of a single league they had 2 groups of four then a final group of four. It didn’t matter; Weiswasser dropped 1 point in the entire competition.
Then suddenly from 1962/63 onwards there’s a familiar name nipping at their heels; Dynamo Berlin.
Older fans of sport will be familiar with the name Dynamo Berlin. The football section of the same sport’s club won 10 consecutive East German championships in the 1980s. If you thought Scottish football in the 80s and 90s was repetitive then you would have hated East German football. Dynamo Berlin’s footballers were the darlings of a very powerful man in the form of Erich Mielke. Mielke was the Minister for State Security, the head of the infamous secret police known as The Stasi. Mielke loved sport and (though it’s never been proven) it’s believed that he actively influenced East German football so that his team won. His influence in this story starts with the fact that Mielke also loved ice hockey and whilst he didn’t give it as much attention as he did the football, his influence was far reaching in terms of resources.
From their inception as multi sport’s club in the 1950s, Dynamo Berlin were a decent second tier side then a perineal Oberliga side then suddenly in the early 60s started nipping at the heels of Weisswasser. They would get close but not quite close enough. Despite both being part of the larger Dynamo sports club, and the strides being made in Berlin, the title was staying in Weiswasser.
However eventually the air of invincibility broke. The 1965/66 season ran the same as the previous campaign as the top 3 teams from the season before (Weiswasser, Berlin and Vorwärts Crimmitschau) automatically made the “championship round” to allow the national team players to get rest and prepare to play for the national team and the other 5 teams had a play in. The play in round was won by the unfashionable TSC Berlin. TSC would win one solitary game in the championship round but their one draw decided the title race. A big enough win would have given Weisswasser their 16th championship in a row but instead that draw saw a first every East German title for Dynamo Berlin. Berlin would go back to back to back as they also won in 1967 and 1968 before Weiswasser claimed the title back in 1969.
It’s hard not to notice that there’s a lot of repetition and that since 1951 only two clubs have won every league title in that 18 year period. The problem on a larger scale was that the quality of player domestically wasn’t bad but they weren’t amazing which made for a not bad but not amazing national side. The East German national team was the definition of mid-tier as they never finished higher than 5th at worlds and even on occasions found themselves in the B pool. The national side finished 8th at the 1968 Olympics in Grenoble, France and won the 1969 world championships B pool in Yugoslavia. Why was all the above an issue? The East German communist government were obsessed with international sporting success and good, not great wasn’t what the leadership wanted.
During the Cold War when capitalism and communism weren’t at actual loggerheads, soft power was the order of the day. One big way to show superiority was the space race, the other was sport. The communist government of East Germany were no different. Being that they were on the front line of the iron curtain and not in a place to launch rockets into space themselves, sport was a big showcase of the communist German way of doing things.
With the 1972 Olympics to be held in Munich and West Germany also due to host the 1974 Football World Cup, the East German regime decided it needed to focus its resources into where it was doing well so it could win medals and do better than the hosts. In the spring of 1969 the powers that be sat down to decide which sports would get a boost to be all conquering and which would miss out.
The big Olympic sports that you can think of all got their funding increased; athletics, boxing, cycling, rowing and more got extra money as of course did football ahead of the world cup. Given at the time winter and summer games happened in the same year sports like figure skating and speed skating also had an increase but ice hockey, due to its mediocre standing on the international stage was set to get all of its funding removed. However this meant more than just no central funding for the national team, it meant no funding for the sport at all. In a communist country with no independent business or sponsors to prop up teams, it effectively would have made the sport amateur overnight.
Here is where Minister for State Security, Erich Mielke returns to the story. Mielke was a really powerful man and literally saved the sport in the country. His other honourary position? The head of the national Dynamo sports club. Mielke made sure that Berlin and Weisswasser would continue to be funded.
The 1969/70 season would be the final season played with other teams involved. TSC Berlin made the championship round along with Empor Rostock. TSC would actually manage to take second place above Dynamo to be the best of Berlin as Weiswasser took the title at a canter.
The government edict took effect and it reduced the funding to the two Dynamo teams. This then led to a very important question of who would the sides would play. Discussions were held with the two teams joining the Polish league but nothing came to pass on that front. Instead it was decided that the two teams would just play each other. The smallest ice hockey league in the world was born.
For the next 20 years, the top flight of East German hockey was contested as a two team league where the winners were declared champions of the German Democratic Republic. Initially the league was done as just that, a league format. The teams played each other 8 or 6 times across a season and the team with the best record would be declared champions. Weiswasser won the first 5 championships, Berlin won the next 5.
In 1975/76 the championship expanded to 10 games in a season and again to 12 in 1978 before inexplicably dropping to 6 games the following few seasons.
Weiswasser won the 1980/81 title but amazingly (says the author with a mild amount of sarcasm) around the time the football team started their run of consecutive titles in football so did the Dynamo Berlin ice hockey team. From 1981-88, Dynamo won seven league titles in a row.
The biggest upheaval in all this came in 1986 when, to try and inject some more excitement into proceedings, the format was overhauled. Draws were ditched and games started using sudden death overtime, in line with other leagues around the world. Each season would have three playoff series between the sides and each series would be a best of five games. Win two of these five game series and you were champions. The 1986-87 season saw Weiswasser win the first series with a 3-2 win in game 5 in Berlin before the team from the capital won series 2 in four games then swept Weisswasser in series 3.
As mentioned above, Berlin won till 1988 before Weiswasser won the 1988/89 season.
For the 1989/90 season it was agreed to increase the number of series to five from three. The season was to begin in November 1989. With discontent and revolution in the air the last ever season of the DDR Oberliga started and shortly after, the Berlin Wall fell. The season did continue and on the 18th February 1990, Weiswasser won 5-3 in Berlin to become the last ever champions of a country that wouldn’t exist by the second week of October that year as Germany became one country again. Weiswasser finished with 25 titles to Berlin’s 15. Despite their funding the clubs were in very different positions in terms of support. By the end Weiswasser were regularly selling out their arena where Berlin were averaging gates of about 500 people as more people went to see their footballing counterparts.
With every structure they’d known slowly falling apart, both teams needed to effectively cut themselves loose from the larger Dynamo sports club to become independent businesses like sports teams we recognise today. Weisswasser became PEV (Polizei Eissport Verein, Police Ice Sport Club) Weiswasser whilst Berlin kept their name though amended it to EHC Dynamo Berlin and started using a polar bear for a logo instead of the iconic Dynamo stylised D.
Given by the time the next season would start there would be one country rather than two, the German Ice Hockey Federation wondered what to do with the team teams. Initially discussions seemed to be leaning to putting the two teams into the 2.Bundesliga North but eventually both ended up being placed into the 1.Bundesliga, the forerunner to today’s DEL. In a 12 team league, Weiswasser finished 11th and Berlin were 12th. Weisswasser and Berlin played in a best of five playdown series that saw Berlin lose 3-0 and were relegated. Weiswasser lost a subsequent relegation playoff against Krefeld but stayed in the top flight after Eintract Frankfurt withdrew. After decades of just facing each other with a title on the line, life in a new and bigger Germany had been a shock for the two old foes.
Despite relegation that first season, Berlin would return to the top flight after one season in division 2 and have remained there, albeit by the skin of their teeth at times, ever since. The club changed its name to EHC Eisbären Berlin in 1992. In 1999 the club was bought by the Anschutz Entertainment Group who also own the LA Kings of the NHL. They are now 7 time champions of a united Germany.
Weisswasser hung around a bit and yo-yoed between the first and second tier including a brief spell in the newly minted DEL before withdrawing in 1996. Bar one season, Weiswasser have been in division two ever since and have never once won a league title since German unification. The club changed names a couple of times before finally becoming EHC Lausitzer Füchse in 2002. The two teams have gone in different directions but the link remains; Weisswasser are a development partner of Berlin, regularly taking younger players on dual registrations.
I wasn’t a huge fan of the recently departed broadcasting legend, Larry King but always respected his style. Whilst King never hammered or harangued his guests, what he was good at was asking simple questions to elicit long answers. So let’s try it.
Do we get a season?
If we’re honest, we’re not getting a season till September, or more likely October 2021. Ultimately the spike in cases and a national lockdown in England at the start of the year which is due to last till the middle of February means that any sort of attempt of a season that doesn’t mirror what the NWHL are doing for women’s hockey and cramming it into a short space of time, won’t work.
It is beyond frustrating to have to admit that. The optimist in me that something was achievable had to give way to the crushing weight of evidence that a league campaign has to be let go. We need to turn our eyes towards the autumn for a full campaign of all ten teams and that’s the best result.
What happens between then depends heavily on the infection rate in the country. The variant that caused the skyrocketing rate in the south east of England is starting to be beaten back. With 8 teams having elite status from the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport to allow them to train, a late season short cup competition isn’t 100% out of the question but isn’t likely. Holding your breath on that one isn’t worth your time.
What would an NIHL cup look like?
If you get an 8 team cup competition then you do two groups of four; Basingstoke, Bees, Romford and Swindon in one with Leeds, MK, Sheffield and Telford in the other or you have a straight knockout; 2 legs, 3 weekends and a two legged final. You leave Hull with their rink issues and Peterborough who have stayed quiet to come back later. I venture the later of the two suggestions is more doable.
What about the EIHL?
It seems highly unlikely that there will be an EIHL season or anything at all until the autumn. Guildford Flames recently opted to reject the money offered by the DCMS to focus on a return to playing in the autumn along with Dundee opting to not play this season either. The EIHL playing before the autumn is about as likely as Donald Trump apologising.
Ultimately (and I’ve had a similar discussion with Jono Bullard for the next issue of Fresh Cut Magazine) I personally don’t think that post a return to the sport from COVID that much changes in the main for the EIHL. There will be adaptations for everyone of course and finances will be interesting for teams but a league that mostly obtains imported players from North America via work permits is not going to see a large change in the sort of players it gets. Former Guildford forward, John Dunbar recently said that the EIHL has more veteran players and that the game is slower than on the continent as guys look to playmake a bit more rather than a speed based game. Smaller finances might see teams go for younger players with fewer commitments who are on smaller wages so that potentially changes but it’s impossible to tell at this stage.
So what do we do?
On a basic level; follow the advice, stay at home for the moment, wash your hands regularly and do all you can to look after yourself and your loved ones.
From a hockey perspective it’s a case of looking to other countries and seeing what you can find.
So what is there?
The NHL is back though the cost of GameCenter is prohibative for some. BT Sport, Premier Sport and Freesports have occasional games. Getting Freesports on TV is an issue in some parts of the country but Freesportsplayer.tv is an option as well for this.
Premier/Freesports also has KHL games as well as the Swedish SHL. Having watched the SHL live, this is a very good league that I recommend checking out if you get the chance.
If North American hockey is more your style then the American Hockey League, the premier development league for the NHL has its season starting soon and has its own version of Gamecentre with not terrible prices. It’s a fun league and you get to see your NHL team’s prospects in living colour. https://theahl.com/ahl_videos/watch-every-game-live-on-ahltv
Also in North America, the National Women’s Hockey League (NWHL) is streaming its truncated season at twitch.tv/nwhl
If you can stand foreign commentary, the German DEL streams its games on Magenta Sport. Magenta is a subscription service that is 10€ a month for foreign customers. For that you’ll get all the DEL as well as the German 3rd division football.
There’s fewer games available but for free is the ICE League based in Austria. They do live games on a Friday or a Sunday on Puls24.tv. It is in German but it’s a decent standard and you’ll get to watch Ben Bowns when Graz are on.
Got any podcasts?
So there’s billions but hockey wise I recommend:
NHL – Face Off Hockey Show. I’ve said before that there’s no BOTW without them.
AHL/junior hockey – Hockey Across the Pond
European Hockey – Euro Puck Podcast
Hockey stories – 4000&Counting
Amazon Prime has a really good one called “Bar’s to Bears” which is about the history of the Hershey Bears that’s totally worth checking out.
What about the rink in Basingstoke?
Little at the moment. Standard Securities who own the freehold and Planet Ice as operator want the council to contribute to repairing the rink. The council don’t think they should have to. It’s frustratingly dull at the moment.
We wait. We try to keep sane and we wait. If you’re struggling then please reach out. There’s people who love you and you don’t need a permanent solution to a temporary problem. If nothing else, there’s hockey to be watched when all this ends.
We didn’t mention everything that happened. We didn’t talk about the EIHL or Bracknell closing. We don’t do much in detail but let’s sum up this dumpster fire of a year.
See you in 2021.