BOTW Breakdown – Hammer-ahead; Solway Sharks join the NIHL National Division

(c) Blueline Photography

A few weeks on from the announcement, now that some concrete steps have been taken and everything has had a chance to breathe, it seemed a good time to sit down and take an in depth look at what has been one of British hockey’s big talking points of the off season.

The news that the Solway Sharks were joining the NIHL National Division is something that has been rumoured as far back as the collapse of the English Premier League when reports were the Sharks were offered a chance to join following the departure of Guildford and Milton Keynes. Instead, many years and a global pandemic later, we arrive at 2023 and the Dumfries club are about to embark on their biggest venture.

The three immediate concerns that arise when a club like Solway joins a league:

  1. Bridging the gap of quality as they’re stepping up, a question asked last year of the Bristol Pitbulls. There is a marked gap between Division 1 and the National Division and whether the roster put together can compete
  2. Surviving financially with the costs involved, a question many wondered with the Hull Seahawks given the long-documented history of teams in Hull. As the team furthest north in the division, it will come with additional financial challenges.
  3. The travel for them and everyone else as well as the logistics that come with it. A check of Google Maps says that door to door, it’s the roughly same number of miles from the rink at Romford to Dumfries as it is from Romford to the rink in Amsterdam. (The away trips there would be something else).

The second of those points seems, in the immediacy, to have been answered. Run by volunteers and hard work for so long, the arrival of DJR Sport Ltd., John Strange, Phil Reilly and David McCarroll, as a new ownership group sees an injection of cash into the club that will help sure up and professionalise elements of the operations. Strange and Reilly in particular, fresh off their recent failed bid to purchase the Glasgow Clan from Neil Black were prepared to buy an Elite League club so the initial financial backing into the Sharks you’d hope would be on a solid footing for NIHL National level.

Whilst costs are increasing for everyone, the costs of running a team at this level are lower than the one above. All three are hockey fans and recent Clan sponsors; Strange through Aspray (Glasgow West) that deals with property insurance claims, Reilly through his firm, Consult Lift Services and McCarroll as a part of Cre-8-ive, a Glasgow based signage and graphics firm. Aside from the cash injection into the club, the hope has to be that it’ll help the club run as a stand-alone business more common on National Division sides and less in the amateur sport club model of Divisions 1 and 2.

The travel element is a difficult and different topic. Shark’s assistant coach, Jamie Thomson said in his interview with Sharks TV that “travelling is part of hockey, it is what it is”. Long time EPL player, Shaun Thompson made the point on social media upon Solway’s announcement of the owners made the decision but who asked the players, most of whom work full time outside of hockey, about all this extra travel? The problem is that until it is tried, nobody will know. The issue for North 1, a league that stretched from Dumfries to Solihull, was that teams would regularly travel short on the longer trips. That included Solway, stuck with a 7:15pm Sunday faceoff, would regularly travel light to games in Nottingham some four and a half hours away. The organisation and fixture planning will be crucial for all parties in the National Division, though as BOTW reported just before the confirmation of them joining, the Sharks are prepared to play double headers as well as offering early faceoffs on the Sundays to try and get teams home early. That’s without the fact that the shortest journey for Solway is three hours away.

I do wonder if a part of this could be dealt with under a point that was made in the press release by the National Division owners about closer collaborative working. With increased travel, combined deals on travel will be hard because of the fragmentation of coach companies. We can’t send teams by National Express. However, it feels like an element of this for teams having to do extended road or double header weekends is an ideal chance for the league to work on a deal with a hotel chain for league wide sponsorship to allow clubs places to stay and even try to work in a fan discount as well. It would be a solid opening gambit for their increased desire to do things together.

The x factor, the one question we can’t answer yet is that one regarding the quality that Solway will put out on the ice. It is not hyperbole to say that Solway dominated North 1 post pandemic. The Sharks have not lost at Dumfries in three years and after October 2022, didn’t lose for the rest of the season. The biggest issue for the Sharks, as both coach Martin Grubb and his assistant Thomson have both said, those in Solway felt they had to make the leap now to avoid stagnation or losing their best players and missing the chance.

Can the Sharks players step up? The core on mass from last year certainly believe that they can do. Liam Danskin’s departure for Hull left a gap in the defence but certainly the feeling was this was the big adventure that all of them were meant to take on together.

Then the new regime threw everyone a few curveballs to start the process. The returns of Grubb, Thomson, Stuart Kerr and club captain Struan Tonnar were about as surprising as rain in November but the addition of new General Manager, Craig Peacock along with two local players in long term Elite League forward, Bari McKenzie and defenceman Liam Stenton, fresh off his full-time stint with Glasgow were shots across the league that the sharks have teeth. The item of interest to me personally is just what Peacock’s role will fully entail. Being a “general manager” in British hockey is not like it is in North America. It can range from being solely focussed on hockey administration to being the guy who does everything else that the coach doesn’t dofrom sorting sponsors to selling chuck-a-pucks. Given the setups we’ve seen in Bristol and Hull since their entry into the division, I’m intrigued to see how Peacock approaches the role.

As a writer, I must admit my biases and mistakes when it comes to the Sharks. In 2022, when it came to the Division 1 National Final, all eyes were on Streatham and that included mine. Along with just having more awareness of them, they had a grand slam in their sights, and I’d not found a way to really watch much if anything of Solway. We knew that they were good, nobody wins a league without being good, but they were under the radar until the point that they played Michael Farn and his side off the ice. I remember after that game heading round to interview the players and Grubb and realised that this team were two things; about to get spectacularly drunk and I needed to keep my eye on them. This was after they let me hold their newly won trophy and they kept an eye on me for a moment.

Their dominance of the north this past season and the season before that had left this club, new ownership or not, at a crossroads. Last season, I said a lot that the Sharks needed to be allowed a seat at the top table of the NIHL however that was a view tempered by the fact I and many of us were looking at an eleven-team league welcoming in a twelfth and not what we see now. I’d heard talk of the Sharks coming to the league in 2024 as early as February this year and then when the Bison backed out of the league for a season, it felt that the reasonable thing to do would be do a ten-team league then the division would expand to 12 and split into conferences with the addition of our Scottish friends in the north and the return of the Bison in the south. The best laid plans of mice and men instead leave us where we are.

What strikes me is that in a time where people talk of growing the sport and making the division the best that it can be, can we say no to a club that is actively trying to grow itself and wants to step up? If those within the NIHL structure are going to bemoan the lack of spots for Brits to develop or places for them to play in the EIHL, but when a team wants to join the top tier of the NIHL structure, we say no because they’re too far away?

There are questions that Solway still need to answer because so far, all we have so far is a grand vision and talk. It’s been very good PR so far, but the proof remains in the pudding. There are 4 announced players and a coaching staff. People in Dumfries are going to need to get used to names of those who won the “Shark Slam” moving away. Already four names won’t be back. The club is going to change and grow, and whilst some may find this change uncomfortable that was surely the point of taking this step. Change isn’t easy, at least not the kind of change that really moves us forward which us what Martin Grubb has said for years that he and this club want to do and what they want the sport to do.

There will be growing pains and of course, the talk has been about trying to do things right but they won’t be perfect. Nothing goes 100% right. You only have to look at Bristol and Hull’s 2022/23 to see that there will be stumbling blocks and frustrations. If nothing else, I hope someone has got in the paperwork to get the license for the work permits sent in already.

Every time I speak to anyone connected to the Sharks at the moment, the thing that exudes out of them isn’t blind optimism. This will sound silly but it’s a phrase that I’ve heard a lot of Scottish people use from my days watching Glasgow based Insane Championship Wrestling. When I speak to folk in Solway there’s a sense of “here we ******* go”. There’s work to be done and it’s the same sense I got from speaking to Richie Hargreaves and Matty Davies. They are not scared of the challenge ahead and there is a lot of metaphorical miles to be travelled to get the team ready to go before they must travel a lot of actual ones.

The Solway Sharks have been “kings of the north” for a reason. It’s time to see if the north will give us something to remember. I wish you all the very best of success.

Onward Flight – BOTW chats to Hull coach, Matty Davies



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Photo (c) Jo Loat

Goodnight and Good Luck – Liam Morris

Photo (c) Jo Loat

You can now buy me a coffee at to help keep BOTW keep rolling or even commission your own piece.

Goodnight and Good Luck – Tom Banner

(c) Jo Loat

The number of Bison players announced elsewhere trickles ever onwards. Having had players go to other National League clubs and two home town heroes take over the Buffalo, the first Bison player announced in NIHL 1 South comes in the form of Tom Banner heading to the Oxford City Stars.

For those who remember Banner’s Bison debut, I mentioned that he looked a bit like a deer in the headlights. A young, gangly youth, it took time for Banner to really stick with the Bison as he bounced around with the Buffalo and Slough. When he forced the issue and was kept around by Ashley Tait, the Bison head coach realised that the young man had the potential but was going to need to be shepherded along to make it stick.

At the start of his time as a Bison, Banner spent a lot of time with Adam Jones. It made sense; place the youngster with the team’s best defender with the new lad to look after him ease him into the pace of the game. It allowed Banner to join the fray whilst giving him (and everyone else) the confidence that a mistake would be covered.

However as the Bison season started, there was no Adam Jones. With the player/assistant coach lost to injury, the hope was that Banner would be in a position to hold his own and be OK. He was OK but the Bison’s overall defence wasn’t very good. Team defence was an even bigger issue than it had been the season before, coverage was blown regularly as the defenders were regularly overcompensating or having to do too much individually.

What ultimately helped the team and Banner was the arrival of Neil Liddiard from Chelmsford. It didn’t solve all the Bison’s ills but it did sure up the defence a bit and Ashley Tait went for the barn door option of pairing Banner with the wily veteran. As a shutdown pairing it wasn’t spotless but it was effective and ultimately benefited both players. Banner got to learn from one of the division’s long standing veterans and Liddiard got someone to pass on his experience too and cover some of the bits that required a bit more speed.

Whilst I appreciate that some will wonder why Banner has stepped down a level, I do feel that it’s the right move at the moment for him. Could Banner get a spot on another National Division team? Arguably but at what cost? The one thing that the 20 year old needs to develop right now is minutes and with nearby teams in the south at a premium, the way for him to play a lot and get a crack at being a top 4 defenceman is to drop down a level.

So what are the City Stars getting? If any Oxford fans had read the numbers, then your likely suspicions are correct. Banner is a low scoring, low penalty minutes, stay at home defenceman. He’s coming along positionally, makes the sensible play and can make a decent first pass. The one thing that he really needs to work on is arguably his size. At 6’3” you’d want him to be a bit more physical in his game than he has been. Don’t misunderstand, he isn’t shy to make the hit and is generally reliable at not throwing a hit for the sake of it but he could do with trying to impose himself more on opposing forwards now that he’s got his positional sense more in check. What he lacks in that department, he more than makes up for in heart and determination. I’m sure that City Stars fans will enjoy watching him.

Given Banner’s style of play, this feels like a good move for both parties. The City Stars had a good spread in terms of scoring amongst the forwards whereas the top scoring defenders in Joe Llewellyn and Tom Ravenscroft got 6 points each. Whilst Banner isn’t coming in to add numbers, given his 7 points at a higher level last season, including his first senior goal last December, you’d hope he could edge towards double figures as a reasonable target. Where Banner’s skill set will hopefully help is driving opposing players out wide and lowering the number of shots and high quality chances on net. The City Stars averaged 43 shots per game against, a stat that coach Simon Anderson will not like and will hope that Banner can help in reducing.

Tom Banner has a lot of road left in his career, one that he probably hoped would be played in the rink where he took his first steps on skates. However, here we are. The hope is that he can take this opportunity to use the extra minutes that he’s going to get to elevate his game. Oxford as an organisation are making progression and hopefully this will be a useful partnership both ways.

Goodnight and Good Luck – Paul Petts and Hallam Wilson

(c) Jo Loat

“Told you it was a surprise”, said the WhatsApp message from someone in Basingstoke. That’s something of an understatement to what feels like an announcement very out of left field. With the Bison out of action for 2023/24, former Bison juniors Paul Petts and Hallam Wilson have been announced as joining the Basingstoke Buffalo as the team’s joint player/coaches for 2023/24.

Let’s walk right towards the obvious issue here. With the Bison shut down for the season, how are the Basingstoke Buffalo expected to operate in the same rink when the condition hasn’t improved and it’s supposed to be being refurbished?

The big issue at the moment in Basingstoke with regards to the rink is that everything remains in a state of limbo. The purchase of the lease for the building remains, as far as is publicly known, still to be completed meaning things in the rink just continue as was bar the senior side in the rink.

The apparent plan for the Buffalo as well as junior sides in Basingstoke, according bits BOTW has managed to glean from posts on Facebook, is that teams will front load home games into the first part of the year and then play on the road to finish the season as work begins on the arena. This feels like a risky strategy and one where it feels like the Buffalo will end up potentially playing games for double points down the road however given the fact that there is no time frame for any closure of the rink and they don’t have to stop, they’re not going to.

In a similar way to the Bison. the Buffalo did not have a brilliant 2022/23 on the scoreboard. 5 wins in a 24 game season saw the Blue Herd finish 11th in the 13 team NIHL South 2, edging out Solent Junior Devils on the head to head after the Buffalo’s game with Cardiff couldn’t be played and was awarded as a 0-0. They were blown out in some games and had both a 5 game and an 8 game losing streak during the season but generally managed to lose by respectable margins. Of the teams to miss the playoffs, they actually had one of the better goal differences, finishing on -37 and conceding just over 5 goals a game compared to the teams around them whose numbers read much worse.

In terms of the point scoring, the majority of the Buffalo’s offence went through two former Bison depth players in Cameron Buckle and Sam Brooks who had 38 and 31 points respectively along with Sam Hemmings-Maher returning 23 points and a solid 21 in 16 games from Travis Penny before he was called up to the Bison to end the season. David Wride and Morgan Parsons took the majority of the game time in between the pipes.

(c) Jo Loat

The addition of Petts and Wilson immediately changes the landscape for the Buffalo. Aside from the fact that both are established National Division players, their entry into the coaching ranks brings with it all the additional challenges but also some additional benefits.

Both of the new coaching team have spoken of their chance to give back to the programme that developed them and at Division 2 level, they will be a force to be reckoned with. Petts, who has the ability to play a solid two-way centre game has a shot and skating that should serve him well in the league. Wilson carved out a niche as an agitator last season has an understated goalscoring ability that should see him cause a dent in the scoring charts with the correct line mates.

What they will also bring is contacts and connection. However this season for the Buffalo is supposed to work, the idea of the Buffalo as stands ins to keep the fire of Basingstoke ice hockey burning with two guys who come from the juniors in charge, it’ll attract people to it. It’ll make guys on the team stay, it’ll make the odd name come and those youngsters who are on the cusp of needing to step from juniors to seniors will get a shot because the guys in charge once had that shot and know that it needs to be done for those that are ready.

Petts and Wilson were not world beaters at National Division level, they were solid depth guys. The changes in Basingstoke have meant that they get to pivot and try something different. How it’s actually going to work with a building in desperate need of repair is a massive question that really doesn’t feel answered that well but if they can make it work, more power to them. It’s good to see some belief in the wider club from those born of it. I wish them nothing but the best and offer them the services of BOTW as they need it.

#HockeyStories – 5 Medal Cal; the year of Calum Hepburn

(c) Blueline Photography

After backstopping the Solway Sharks to a famous grand slam and being thrown into the National Division Cup final with Peterborough, netminder Calum Hepburn looks back over the last year.

1st May 2022 – NIHL Division 1 National Final; Streatham IHC 2-4 Solway Sharks

On a coach heading towards Dumfries, Calum Hepburn and the Solway Sharks squad are very, very drunk.

2nd May 2022

How the summer is spent – I always think about next season and what it entails but I’m one of those guys where the season ends, the kit gets tossed in the garage, the mountain bike and the golf clubs come out and I don’t touch the ice till pre-season. I give back to my girlfriend a bit who has taken the slugging all the way through the winter. I have to repay her at some point.

Logan Reid a young netminder has started playing with us, he’s just turned 16 and I’ve taken him under my wing. We mountain bike together and the kid is a lunatic. Me, Struan Tonnar, Ruari Lockerbie, Liam Stenton, a load of us mountain bike together but mostly we forget about hockey. You won’t see Stuart Kerr for 6 months and he’ll just appear in September.

Re-signing with the Sharks – Historically it’s been a couple of months before the start of the season. You have an idea in your heard in you’re going back or not but he (Martin Grubb, Sharks head coach) is always good at knowing that it’s summer and you want to chill out a bit. Then a couple of months before the season starts it’s back to normality.

August 2022 – Pre-season

Getting started – normally middle of August we’ll come back on, just casual skates. Our summer skates start earlier than that and we’ve always had good summer skates. Bari McKenzie, Craig Peacock, we’ve had Matt Haywood the last couple of years, Jordan Buesa’s come up, we’ve got some good summer skates.

The one thing you lose every year, no matter how hard you try is your angles go away from time off the ice. When I take younger goalies on the ice, the players will be bag skating and I’ll be doing goalie specific stuff. There’s no goalie coach, we used to have Gary Russell but it’s me and I’m doing Scotland coaching now. I’m close with Colin Grubb, Martin’s brother, he’s high up in USA Hockey so he helps with that but pre-season is a lot of getting the legs working, getting the eyes working then fitness and skating I’m left to deal with myself.

Goaltending is one of the things in British hockey that’s let down the most. That’s no disrespect to Kinger (Euan King, head of netminding development for GB) and those other guys doing great work, but there’s not enough people there at club level doing it. A lot of goalies are left to it to figure out on their own. The National League might not need to worry about import netminders if there was a better structure.

September 2022 – Record (Wins, Losses, OT Losses) 4-0-1

Solway won their opening 4 games of the season, outscoring their opposition 24-4 before an overtime loss to the Stars in Billingham in the last game of the month

You’re starting that season and after pre-season you feel pretty good, 4 wins on the bounce and then it was like a glitch in the system. I think I had some other family bits going on at the time. Routine things were becoming hard. You count on the team 99 times out of 100 and that one time, it happens. A soft penalty in overtime, Billingham played a blinder, and it fell for them.

As a player, inside you, no matter what, you can think that you have a good run going and you’ll get through it. This is where Martin is good at keeping you grounded. It doesn’t matter who you’re playing, it’s period by period, win every period and you don’t have a shift off. You have to give every team respect because anyone can turn up on any given night.

As a team we don’t give up many shots, but we do give up a lot of high percentage scoring chances as we spend so much time up the ice. You kind of get used to it and try to stay focussed. I’ve gotten good at switching off when the whistle goes. I allow myself a reset. I know some guys who stay zoned in the whole time but I can’t do that.

October 2022 – Record 5-1-0

The Sharks rebound from the loss against the Stars by scoring 29 goals in three games. A regulation loss to Whitley dents their momentum before wins over Widnes and Blackburn to finish the month.

Losing? In one word, it’s ****. Since I’ve been here, 7 years now, we’ve always said that we don’t lose two in a row. After that Whitley game we sat in the room and we said “we don’t lose for the rest of the year, we don’t let off on anybody.”

Nobody wants to lose but we are the team that everyone wants to scalp. We’re the team to beat, we’ve got the target on the back. We had “champions of the league” on the back of the shirt, it’s a bullseye on the back. However, I think we play better with that. I personally think I play better when I’m hated. I love a bit of pressure.

Martin and I know that I don’t need much of a rest. All year, I wanted whoever it was, Grant Scott or whoever, I wanted them on the ice to get a chance. I didn’t get much rest but that’s never phased me.

November 2022 – Record 4-0-0

Sheffield are beaten before the Sharks exact revenge on Whitley followed by another win over Sheffield and a win over Solihull.

I don’t know if you can tell from all the scores that I’m good at letting in one really **** goal. (I interject and ask about stats and some goalies’ propensity to get into their own heads about it.) Every goalie keeps an eye on their stats, anyone who says they don’t is a liar. In this league, 93% save percentage is my goal. If you start creeping on the stats and being stats focussed but you end up making silly mistakes because you’re not focussing on the game. You’re better leaving that to coaches. I’d rather be consistent than be a mathematician.

Whitley – They were scrappy. It’s very old-style hockey; dump and chase, bang bodies etc. Everyone knows that we’re not the most physical team. We’re a small, skilled team. Whitley is that team that if you go in there and don’t play to the occasion, go into the corners all scared then you’ll be bullied. They’ve got some great players, Harry Harley should not be in this league, but they don’t get enough credit if I’m honest. I think everyone has found out how they play and if you do it right, it’s an easy trap.

December 2022 – Record 2-0-0

The Sharks only have two games; an 8-0 win against Billingham and a 4-3 OT win in Widnes. After 4th December, the Sharks don’t have a game until the New Year

The lack of games – Martin was away with GB, time for us to go on holiday (laughs). You’re on an 8 game winning streak and suddenly you have a month off, that’s bad. You’ve just got to keep training and try and stay focussed. In hindsight, it worked out alright for us. Generally speaking I’d have liked to have played but it’s a busy time at work as well (Hepburn works in repairs for Scottish Power) and there’s a chance for some overtime for extra money.

(c) Blueline Photography

January 2023 – Record 4-0-0

Wins over Widnes in the semi finals of the North 1 Cup to avenge the loss from the season before were supplemented with wins over Deeside and Blackburn in the league. The winning run is extended to 12 as the month comes to an end.

Cup revenge against the Wild – It’s been a bit of a bogey hole for us since they joined the league. It’s small, the lighting isn’t great, I don’t know what it is but we just don’t do well there. The year before we had a game plan and it just didn’t work. We were taking penalties which meant we got frustrated and took more penalties. Widnes had a good game plan which was crowd the house and point shots, point shots and point shots. Vlads Vulkanovs was great, he was just a menace on the ice. Personally every game is just another game. If you do your job, you win the game. It was a case of “you could have won it all last year and didn’t so don’t mess it up this year and let’s put our foot down and show why we’re unquestionably the best team in this league.” We did our job this time.

February 2023 – Record 6-0-0

The Sharks don’t play any of their title challengers but also avoid slipping up as they beat Deeside twice, Widnes, Nottingham, Blackburn and Sheffield. Five of the six games in February are played on the road.

Life on the bus – We’ve all gotten good at keeping occupied. A lot of cards, a lot of horse betting, a lot of football accumulators, you’ve got to pass the time somehow. It helps that Martin hasn’t necessarily picked the best players but the people that fit in the team the best so everyone gets on so well. I’ll tell you what, since he’s come in, Cammy Hamill. What an absolute ball of fun that guy is! He’s funny.

On the Sharks as a group – it’s just consistency, week in and week out. We sort of almost overachieve. We aren’t always the best team on a given night but good teams find a way as Martin says.

On the defence in front of him – we’ve got a good group, through and through they’re solid. We’ve got one of the most offensive pairings in the league. I give them a lot of credit. They listen, sometimes (laughs). I trust them, they trust me. They trust me to do it the easy way sometimes and if I see it, let them shoot and I’ll save it. We have the guys developing, and maybe not this year but next year when they’ve had game time and experience, who can come in and fill the spot left by Richie Bentham. Kian Shevlin; he’s a big boy and he’s 16. He’s not afraid and he could have the same presence. Nobody’s got the same weird vision that Bentham had to make cross ice passes that just somehow work but if he’s taught right and listens, Kian Shevlin could fill that gap.

Sharks’ captain, Struan Tonnar – Struan? Honest answer? Irreplaceable. Mr Solway Sharks. He doesn’t say much but when he does, you listen. He’s a man of few words but he’s probably one of the most down to Earth, nicest guys. He’s a big boy and he’s got an engine on him. His body might want to stop but his mind won’t let him stop.

March 2023 – Record 8-0-0 with 1 tie

March is a busy month for the Sharks which includes the end of their league campaign and the enthralling NIHL 1 North Cup Final with Billingham. It also included a surprise for Calum and a trip to Leeds.

The last league games – the 14-3 win over Solihull was a surprise to all of us. They normally travel well to us but we picked a hole in everything. Every goal was a nice goal with a few good passes. It was just one of those nights where everything worked for us.

We were short of bodies in Nottingham. The ice there is nice, the pad is alright but the atmosphere is not quite right. Where there’s not loads of people there, it feels like you’re alone with the thoughts in your head. Jon McBean scored that Michigan goal. Luca Sheldon is a really nice kid and I said to him afterwards “how did you not swing at him?” I’d have broken his wrist!

The last game of the season in Whitley, I went there with a bee in my bonnet. I’d never had a shutout there, we’d lost the last game there. We wanted to make a point and roll them in their own house. Whitley were their usual scrappy selves but it wasn’t what we expected. We all thought they’d have a last swing of the sword but we came out, dominated and I turned up for an evening.

North 1 Cup Final – 100%, the worst game of my season in the first leg. We caused our own problem. We were up 5-1, I think we almost thought it was done. As a team we almost switched off a bit, I certainly switched off a bit. They put the jets on and for want of a better term, we **** ourselves. Goals weren’t spaced out, you blinked and it was 5-5. It was a Friday and I’d been on call till 6 in the morning with 4 hours sleep. I was tired, it was our first ever game on a Friday.

When there were questions about Shaun Galloway’s eligibility late on in the game, I just sat in the corner. (During the later stages of the game, Billingham foward, Galloway had to leave the game due to an issue with the gamesheet) One of the boys came and explained what was happening. I thought to myself, “if this was any other team against us, they’d have taken the 5-0 against us. We knew Shuggy had been there all year. We didn’t bat an eyelid. It felt like we were there for 20 minutes. There were phone calls to figure out what to do. It was a cluster. The game should have stood as it was.

The second leg was great. You get a great atmosphere at The Forum. It’s echoey, it was packed. We had good travelling fans, they had their regulars in. It was a good game for the spectators, less so for me.

End of the second, we’re in the room and Martin just says “that’s you having won the league. So what do you want to be; double champs or league champs and knocked out of the cup in the final?” and he just walks out of the room.

The last minute save was a weird one. (Hepburn made a save at 3-2 down inside the final minute) In hindsight, it’s a good save, probably my save of the year, but at the time it means nothing as we’re down. Then Stuart Kerr scores and, hey, that save now means something. Stuart scoring that goal shows how deep we are. For a home grown boy to score that for us is great.

The final shot of the shootout, I felt so bad for Michael Elder. The worst thing was watching him coming down, he was only going to do one thing and that’s go five hole. You could read it like a book. The feeling after, elation I think is the right word. The weight was off the shoulders as we did what we couldn’t do last year. We decided to have a night that night and whatever happens at Widnes tomorrow happens.

After the game we ran across the road to the Asda. Everyone bought about 3 crates. We each had about 20-25 beers each. There were some sore heads on Sunday. (Solway played later that Sunday and beat Widnes 9-1).

(c) Blueline Photography

Peterborough and the National Cup Final 2nd leg – Martin sends me a really random text on Wednesday, “what are you doing Friday?” Well, I was off work so he said that Slava (Koulikov, Peterborough Phantoms head coach) might want to talk to me. Marr is hurt, Bainborough is hurt and they need a goalie for the second leg of the cup final. I wasn’t sure what he was on about so he said “do you want to go to Leeds on Friday?” and I said “aye, if ye want”. So Slava and I had a good 20 minute talk about what was going to happen. He said “do you want to come down?” and I said “sounds good, see you down there.”

What helped me mentally was they were up 6-0 from the first leg so I said to myself, “all I have to do is not let in 7 goals.” I went there with the mindset of it being an opportunity to go out, enjoy it and prove myself a bit. That’s hard to do when you’ve played teams that don’t have the same shot quality of a Kieran Brown. It was a step up for sure. However as soon as I walked in I saw Duncan Speirs who I’ve known for years and the boys welcomed me in. Jordan Marr was fantastic talking me through things like their defensive structure. We chatted through stuff and if I wasn’t comfortable with something, they adjusted to help me. It did help that there’s a lot of similarities in how Solway and Peterborough play their systems.

When that empty net goal went in, I was buzzing. As much as I wanted to win, I was more buzzing for the guys in Peterborough as they’d worked all year for that. I didn’t want to go in and pop their bubble. Slava asked me after how I was feeling and I didn’t know what to say, I was just so happy.

I got invited back to Peterborough for the after party. They were trying to persuade me to leave my car in Leeds, get the bus to Peterborough and celebrate with them then get up and get a lift back to Leeds to get my car then drive home when I was working on Saturday. Slava said “we’ll sort that out tomorrow”. I said “no we won’t” (laughs).

April 2023 – Record 5-0-0

The Sharks’ season comes to a climax. A comfortable win over Nottingham in the playoffs sees Solway make the North 1 Finals weekend. Solihull and Whitley are dispatched before a final showdown with Streatham and destiny.

Playoff quarter final vs Nottingham – it’s hard to prepare in some ways but we knew what to expect. Martin said “every year there’s an upset. All I care about is that it’s not us” which is quite a good game plan. In that situation, two legged affair, the better team should win. However you have to switch on for two 60 minute spells then get out.

Dumries Ice Bowl – over the last couple of years since we started dominating a bit, it’s become a building that’s noisy and has atmosphere. It’s become a really good place to play. It’s my favourite place to play. You walk in, the atmosphere is great, the ice is top notch, I love it.

North 1 playoff weekend – we seem to get Solihull every year it feels like. They were a bogey team for us for ages but this year we just seemed to roll them over. We saw the last period of the Billingham vs Whitley semi final. Billingham looked the better team but people said they were shaky in the first two periods. I wanted Whitley, truth be told. It’s always a good game, nice and physical and I felt our chances for success were higher. I didn’t mind either way who we got, just my preference.

NIHL National Championship game – for us, it was a yes or no question. “Do you want to make history?” Nobody’s ever done it at this level and it was a case of how badly did we want it? They can say that they’d have beaten us the year before with the guys they were missing but our response was “no, you wouldn’t have.” In our heads they could bring whoever they want and we’ll show why we’re better.

The game itself was enjoyable. I didn’t feel like I did that much but I did the routine things when they were required. It was nice to have the Leeds and Peterborough fans as well as our own fans which added some noise for us. As a team we played solidly. I don’t think we were outstanding but we shut them down. They upped their physicality in the third and tried to bully us a bit. When they realised it wasn’t working, they didn’t really know what to do.

How did I feel at the end? Party time! In that moment, you’re just feeling untouchable. Nobody could touch us, we’ve won everything. It’s pure joy. Everything you’ve worked for in the year, every time you’ve been shouted at, every time you’ve been skated for doing something wrong, it’s worth it in that moment.

Who paid for all the beer on the way home? That is a question for a different person to answer.

Goodnight and Good Luck – George Norcliffe

There’s the old line about the captain going down with the ship but given there’s no ship and the ice in Basingstoke is probably still fine as it’s not August just yet, the fact that the captain has been swooped up so soon feels odd but let’s be honest here; it isn’t a surprise.

(c) Jo Loat

When Elliott Dewey was announced as leaving the Bison, I made my prediction as to who should be the captain of the club. My prediction was Norcliffe for a number of reasons. He’d been there since the start of the Tait era, he seemed the most suited to the role temperamentally out of who was signed and because when all was said and done, he just felt like the right man for the job. It’s not that Norcliffe needed the captaincy but for this writer and many, it did feel like he suited it. The role doesn’t make the man, the man makes the role and whilst the Herd had its issues this season, you knew that they were being led by a player that cared deeply about what he was doing and the success of the team.

The 2019 BOTW Bison Player of the Year joined the Bison after a year at the (then) Bracknell Bees after a journey from the Guildford juniors with stops at Oxford, Gosport, the Isle of Wight and Streatham before ending up at the Hive then joining the Herd following the great upheaval in the summer of 2018. After 4 full seasons, 5 years including COVID, the situation in Basingstoke sees Norcliffe needing to leave for pastures new if he wished to continue playing at a National Division level.

So, comes the cry from Romford, what are we getting then?

Well, apart from satisfying Sean Easton’s almost Pokemon trainer-like obsession when it comes to wanting to catch as many recent Bison captains as possible, if you were to select a player to pick from Basingstoke to put into the Raiders line-up then Norcliffe would be very high on that list.

People sometimes unfairly characterise Raiders hockey as being rough and tumble and not very sophisticated which is actually selling the Raiders’ game plan a bit short. What it is, is a multifaceted strategy with a spearhead. It’s as direct as a brick through your window. Where Norcliffe fits in is that he is able to do a bit of everything. He can be on a checking line or a scoring line, is responsible defensively, takes very few penalty minutes and can be relied upon to do the right thing.

Then when it comes to attacking, Norcliffe is very direct. He’s not going to go sprinting off into trouble and try dangling 1 on 4 past the defence but he has one destination; the net. Many is the defender or keeper who has fallen foul of his trademark move. If Aaron Conolly’s move is cutting from the right wing to the middle and firing back across himself, then Norcliffe’s is a good old fashioned power forward move as he cuts up the left, to the net and pokes it by the keeper.

Norcliffe’s points totals have increased the last 3 seasons to the point that he’s now an over point per game British player in this division which makes him a valuable commodity. 24 goals and 57 points is a player that should be able to have a space made for him on any team in the country. Norcliffe comes in with more points than Harry Gulliver, formally of the parish of Sapphire Ice and Leisure and now of Milton Keynes but I don’t think that one replaces the other. Gulliver is arguably the more naturally skilled of the two where Norcliffe has a bit of a more physical edge to his game. I feel someone else heading to Romford will be a more like for like replacement for Gulliver’s skill set.

The long and the short of it is Raiders fans are about to be very happy. The last two captains you’ve had from Basingstoke have worked out alright and we’re sure the third time is also the charm.

Go well, “Gordon”. See you along the way.

The BOTW Alternative 2022/23 NIHL Awards

The following is best read in your smartest clothes, black tie is optional but a realisation this is just for fun is mandatory

(c) Jo Loat

NIHL Player of the Year – Kieran Brown, Leeds Knights

We might as well start with the painfully easy. There is no player in the NIHL more valuable to their side than Kieran Brown. There’s an argument that extends to the entirety of British hockey with the possible rival of Scott Conway in Belfast. Between league and playoffs, he finished with 63 goals and 134 points. This included 10 game winning goals (9 regular season, 1 in the playoff semi final against Telford) and 47 of 57 league goals coming at even strength. Wispa Gold’s finest proponent’s GB tenure was cut short by a leg injury that he had reportedly been carrying for months but we know that those days will come again for Brown. At 22, his best days should theoretically be in front of him.

National Division Game of the Season – Milton Keynes Lightning 7-6(OT) Leeds Knights, 5/11/22

People might bemoan the lack of any of the playoff weekend games here and certainly all three came close to this discussion but there’s something about this game. The Knights came into the game riding a 12 game winning streak to start the season and with 5.56 to go in the second period, the Knights were 6-2 in front. The Lightning slowly turned the screw and managed to fight their way back in to it. A goal from James Griffin with less than two minutes to go tied the game before the overtime winner from Tim Wallace. The Lightning TV highlights below are worth it for the at the time suspended Bobby Chamberlain losing his mind on colour commentary.

Division 1 Game of the Season – TIE; Solway Sharks vs Billingham Stars, NIHL 1 North Cup final 10/3/23 and 11/3/23

Technically one game and also two at the same time, it felt hard to look past this 125 minute and penalty shot advert for the sport in the north of Britain. Both sides headed into the first leg on respective winning streaks (Solway with 20, Billingham with 9) and proceeded to play out an enthralling 5-5 tie in Solway on the Saturday that featured a mix of everything from an early Sharks lead to a Stars comeback to Shaun Galloway scoring 1+1 and then needing to leave the bench as his name wasn’t on the gamesheet due to an error reading the team list. This lead to the next night at The Forum where Billingham lead with 27 seconds to go till a floated shot from Stuart Kerr found the net to take the game to overtime. The penalty shootout was needed and along with Richie Bentham throwing his gloves and helmet off a bit too early, it was Calum Hepburn’s save on Michael Elder that sealed the deal and on a banner night for the Sharks, they completed half of their “Shark Slam” in the one evening.

Sharks TV has highlights of both games and I can’t recommend them enough.

Division 2 Game of the Season – Haringey Huskies 2-7 Invicta Mustangs, NIHL 2 South Playoff Final 2/4/23

Despite the utter back and forth that Hull and Telford had in North 2 over the various trophies and with all respect to Altrincham’s 6-5 OT win over Sutton where they were 5-1 down, this game wins for the sheer fact that nobody believed we’d see it happen and if we did, the result was a shock. I actually apologised to the Mustangs for doubting them and fortunately they forgave me for it. Heading into the weekend against Bristol who won the title, Guildford who were grand slam champions the season before and Haringey, Invicta weren’t so much seen as dark horses as a Grand National 100-1 shot. Not only did they handily dispatch Bristol on the Saturday, they ran the Huskies out of their own barn after Haringey had shut out Guildford the night before. The final ended up being the James Laming Show. The team’s second top scorer put 4 goals on the board on the night as Mustangs captain, Kevin Lake had the final word on the South 2 season with the playoff trophy over his head.

Mark Bernard Award” for the NIHL’s highest scoring netminder – Alex Mettam, Basingstoke Bison

So this is not solely about goal scoring (sorry, Renny Marr) but the best point scoring performance by a netminder across the NIHL. That honour falls to the now retired, Alex Mettam who finished the season with 5 assists. A close second was Jordan McLaughlin of Hull Seahawks who had 4 points. After that there were 20 netminders, including Marr who finished with one point.

King Rat Award” for the biggest pantomime villain – Lee Haywood, Sheffield Steeldogs

This award was about to go to Bobby Chamberlain because, let’s face it when you’re so reviled by a fanbase that someone throws carrots at you then your chances of winning are sky high but then I remembered who the actual winner of this should be. Nobody engenders anger amongst opposition fanbases quite like Lee Haywood. He’s quite simply a master of his craft. More needling than a knitting exhibition, more dark magic than a Harry Potter convention and all the while managing 29 points and 109 penalty minutes on a pretty solid Steeldogs defence. A player in the vein of the masters, the Marchand of the NIHL albeit he plays on defence and Lee is actually vaguely likeable. A player who every fan says that they hate and that every coach would take in a heart.beat

The Daft **** of the Season Award, presented by Jamie McIlroy

The Scottish Svengali of Swearing and the most opinionated man in British hockey seemed like a good man to approach to help for an award to celebrate just the most asinine, idiotic thing of the season. I told Mac that he had free reign and that I needed what it was and some rationale. As Mac never does as he’s told, all he did was send me this video that is presented without comment.


Chocolate Teapot Award” for most useless thing of the season – The implementation of Spordle

With all due respect to the makers of the software, Spordle’s entry into British hockey has gone about as well as Liz Truss’ tenure as prime minister. Not ready to go on time due to issues with its procurement within the EIHA board, who then mislead the public as to the status of what was happening with it, stats for the entire league ended up being saved by Joe Scutts of NIHL Stats. By the end of the season there remained no active system in place. NIHL National Division teams were testing it, bar one but the system threw up a variety of errors including not accurately recording when some goals were scored and who scored them.

Anthony’s Personal Highlight of the season – Alex Sampford’s hat trick, Basingstoke Bison vs Raiders 19/3/23

You know what? After everything that has happened, I’m having this. The night where the Bison would not be denied and Alex Sampford was sent to the RAF off the back of the performance of the season. Sampford’s three goals, which admittedly his teammates spent the entire night setting him up for, were all well taken and with the final one coming in the final minute, it was just the icing on the cake.

Goodnight and Good Luck – Brendan Baird and Aidan Doughty

We have all known that these were coming and in some ways it’s nice that it’s a nice straightforward couple of moves that make sense.

(c) Jo Loat

It was always going to be a race as to who would be the first players to leave the Bison would be. Bar Alex Mettam who has chosen to retire, the majority of the Bison roster from 2022/23 will be looking for somewhere to play next season and that means that coaches now have some decisions to make. To have that many guys thrust into the player pool will have an impact and whilst it will undoubtedly have more of an impact on the southern sides, it’s still a sizeable chunk of guys that are going to find their way to NIHL National and South 1 sides.

Whilst they may not have intended to be the first, the actual movement of Brendan Baird and Aidan Doughty is not a big surprise given both originally came to the Bison from the Bees. Both have appeared for a variety of teams in the south and had either decided to move to the Bees irrespective of the Bison’s situation, nobody could have said that would have been overly shocked at the destination.

Let’s get this out of the way in the first of these pieces; the Bison didn’t have a brilliant year. As a roster, the team was well intentioned and tried hard but never really managed to click. They were the jigsaw that never quite made the picture with the ending worthy of an ITV Sunday drama special.

One of the Bison’s bigger issues within that was the team defence. Losing Adam Jones for an entire season certainly didn’t help and the defence as a unit suffered as a result. Team defence was an issue in 2021/22 and 2022/23 for the Herd. Even with that, Brendan Baird had a pretty decent year statistically. 102 penalty minutes aside, he is a Baird after all, Baird ended up as the Bison’s top defensive point scorer with 5 goals and 18 assists for 23 points. That would have put him third on the Bees for defensive scoring and 7th overall on a team that had many established players at this level who managed fewer points than he did.

Baird’s skill set is relatively well established at this point. Certainly not the biggest player physically, he’s a very physical player who is unafraid to play body or puck. He shares some of his older brother Joe’s old school mentality with more of an attacking upside though in a defence that features Harvey Stead and Stuart Mogg, his point scoring ability becomes a nice extra for the Bees rather than more of a necessity than it was for a Bison side that scored in fits and spurts. Baird’s defensive acumen will be the thing he really needs to have on fill display for a side that conceded 4.85 goals a game on average. If the Bees want to progress and make the playoffs in 2023/24 then they need to drastically reduce that number. With some adept netminding and defence better tailored to the netminding corps, it’ll help the Bees achieve of that.

The other signing is a good news story in and of itself. Those of us present in the building when Aidan Doughty took the hit that ended the season, hoped that when he was stretchered off it was a precautionary measure. Instead the news that the former Isle of Wight Raider had broken his back and was done for the season and potentially longer. Instead due to good fortune and some very focussed work on his rehabilitation means that Doughty is in a position to not only play hockey again but be in a position where he can be announced as ready to play in September. Irrespective of whether the Bison were due to play or not, this is excellent news. Personally I will be very happy to see Doughty ice again once he is ready to.

Doughty was not having the best of seasons prior to his injury points wise albeit the numbers don’t tell the full story. Doughty’s overall play followed the pattern of recent years. His points per game dropped from 1.1 to 0.78 but this was on a team performing objectively worse and he was still not a mile off a point per game pace. 7 of his 11 goals were scored on the powerplay with two of those proving to be game winners. His ability to operate in his office in front of the net on the man advantage immediately improves the Bees’ special teams unit which will certainly include player/coach Dom Gabaj even if it potentially doesn’t include Brendan Walkom.

The other thing that Doughty adds to the Bees that they lacked last season is a bit of size. The Bees had a lot of guys with grit and skill but if we take the numbers on Elite Prospects as close to accurate, Doughty is immediately the tallest and heaviest forward on the team and would have been the same on last season’s team had be been in Slough. Gabaj faces a challenge this season where the Bees definitely do need to get bigger without losing too much of their speed on the counter which proved to be such an effective weapon for them last season.

The first names have moved on and eventually we will hit the point where there are no more. Goodnight and Good Luck will serve as a means for fans of the other teams to see who they’re getting but also a thank you as guys leave for what comes next. BOTW wishes both Aidan and Brendan the best for next season.

Curtain Down 2022/23

The last couple of weeks have had a very odd finality to them. Since the announcement of the Bison’s pausing, every time I think there’s a last piece to write then another one seems to appear. There is a piece that will come after this, the BOTW 2022/23 Alternative NIHL Awards where we’ll take a bit of a semi-serious look at the past year but for now this site officially ends its coverage of 2022/23. This is Curtain Down.

Playoffs 2023

One day I’ll learn not to open my big mouth.

Watchers of the What’s Current Stream have heard me say for ages that I’d love the chance to commentate on the Division 1 National Title game. Since watching the 2022 version, I wanted to see them do it again. That bit of my brain that looks for a story to tell could see so many threads about both sides. I’d stood by the glass and watched two juggernauts butt heads. The reason why I wanted to commentate was to be able to talk about and tell those stories in a different way. I said out loud what I wanted to do because I couldn’t see any other way to achieve it with no opportunity to do commentary.

The Thursday before the playoff weekend, I was feeling somewhat emotionally spent. After everything that had happened with the Bison earlier in the week and wobbling through a couple of days of work, I hit Thursday and the start of some days off needing a decompress. By midday and after a conversation with Ben Lee of Drop The Puck, I was sat in front of my laptop writing down stats for Liam Danskin.

As ever a big thanks goes to Paul and Becky Shipman for putting me up for the weekend. Being a little bit out of the centre of Coventry does wonders for me being able to decompress as well as being able to see my friends. It was also good to see Stuart Coles to make sure I saw as many of the Coventry lot as possible.

The playoff weekend is always a spectacle but at times the hockey can be very nervy. The entertainment comes from the occasion rather than the hockey actually being good. That was not the case on Saturday. Romford springing a surprise against Sheffield and winning with a last minute goal gave that element heart wrenching drama with Leeds and Telford serving up an old fashioned firefight. It made for a really exciting day and also made the dinner at 7Bone well worth it.

Sunday was a slightly different day for the obvious reason. The commentary gantry at the Skydome is one of the better views that I’ve had for a hockey game. The team at Drop the Puck looked after me well, although the instruction to talk more was one that I think made everyone laugh. I’ve not had the opportunity to hear any of it back but George Perrett who called play-by-play as I did the colour commentary on Solway vs Streatham and I eventually hit a rhythm and relaxed into working with each other. Hopefully people enjoyed it. The Solway Sharks organisation have always been very good about letting me poke my head in on their celebrations and getting some words with guys, even if I can’t repeat what Peter Gapa said to me.

The National Division Final between Leeds and Romford was one of the better finals that I remember for some time. Leeds racing out to a 3-0 advantage before the Raiders slowly but surely clawed their way back into the game. Ultimately it wasn’t enough and Leeds, who we have to admit have been otherworldly at times this year, end the season with the double.

Leeds Knights’ coach Ryan Aldridge on his side completing the grand slam

Normally there would be a bit about the Bison here but I think that after the last couple of weeks, enough has been said there. It wasn’t a good season and it ended with terrible news but it is our club and we love it.

The thank you section

God; first as always.

A big thank you to all of the folk across the British hockey online space; Andrew Day, Joe Scutts, Jamie McIlroy and all the other folk who keep my Twitter ticking over. Remember to check out all the quality podcasts and the like out there like AVFTB, 4000 and Counting, Zero Pucks Given, The Wildcast, 3on3 Podcast UK, Hockey from Across the Pond, Door 14 Hockey and the rest of them.

A thank you to all the coaches, players,administrators and officials across the league who have taken a moment to explain what’s going on or add some context.

A sincere thank you to all my friends for keeping my honest across the year. From September to April, across the season you have all picked me up, pushed me on and kept me in check. I’m very thankful for all of you.

The Basingstoke Bison; from John Neville downwards, covering this club started as a means to keep my sanity and turned into something that changed my life and gave me an outlet to be a better writer and to contribute towards this great sport, thank you. To the fans; keep the faith, those days will come again.

To Emily and Nathan; Thank you for realising why I need to do this, it’s a different adventure for me next season but I know you’ll both push me to keep getting better. I love you both.

The Future:

So what now for Banners On The Wall? It’s not exactly set in stone at this exact moment.

The site will continue and I will continue writing about hockey. There will be game write ups when I go and Hockey Stories pieces. The What’s Current Stream will continue and whilst its frequency will go down during the summer, come September it will be back to every week during the season.

But where will I go? I don’t know. Ultimately I am a free agent for a year at the moment. I have over a decade of experience doing club social media and writing about the game. I suppose this is the call out to clubs and even the EIHA or IHUK. How can I help? The Bison let me give back to my team whilst I did all my BOTW stuff. It’s time for me to give back to hockey in a different way. Can I help your team with social media or writing for the site? Let’s have a chat.

Until then, the same truth as ever. Be happy and if you can’t be happy then be safe. Till we meet again, I have some writing to do.