Building the Herd – Ralfs Circenis

#33 Ralfs Circenis

Position: Forward

Born: Latvia (seriously, that’s all we know)

Announced as signed: Basingstoke Gazette, 16th July

With the Bison squad for 2015/16 taking shape, Doug Sheppard has added depth to the side with the capture of Ralfs Circenis from Solent Devils of NIHL1 South.

17 year old Circenis, who turns 18 in September was born in Latvia and represented his native land at under 18 level during the 2014/15 season but having played junior hockey in England since 2010 he will not count against the Bison’s import quota.

Circenis had his first taste of under 16s hockey at the Gosport Arena with Solent’s under 16 side, the Cruisers in the 2010/11 season going a point per game.

After a brief spell with the Bison’s under 16s in 2011, Circenis moved up to Surrey and started a very productive time in the Guildford junior system finishing 2011/12 with 15 points from 14 games with the the Firestars.

2012/13 saw Circenis register almost insane numbers as he scored 27 goals and 65 points in just 20 games at under 16. Circenis also played up to under 18s level with the Guildford Phoenix, going a point per game there.

Moving to under 18s full time for 2013/14 saw another mammoth points total with 41 points in 16 games but also his first taste of senior action as he made he debut for the Devils at the end of the season. Ralfs registered 2 goals and an assist in 4 regular season games as well as a goal in 2 playoff games.

2014/15 saw a more permanent move into senior hockey for Circenis as he was dual registered for Guildford’s under 18s and the Devils alongside netminder Sam Calder and defenceman Monty Gailer. 18 points in 13 under 18s games for the Phoenix came alongside an impressive return for a first full season in seniors with 27 points in 28 games with 98 PIMs and 1 assist in 2 games as the Devils bowed out in the playoff quarter finals to Invicta Dynamos.

This is a bit of a different signing but one that certainly brings a degree of intrigue with it and it’s certainly peaked my interest when it was rumoured a couple of weeks ago. The numbers tell an instant story; this lad appears to be well acquainted with the location of the net. An international under 18s call up for a nation a fair sight better at hockey than our own shows that this lad is on the radars of some influential people.

Circenis looks to be a very exciting player; a natural goal scorer who plays with an edge was the initial scouting report that I had on him from folks within NIHL circles. People have called his style of play somewhere between Ciaran Long and Joe Greener in the sense that he likes to score and he’s not afraid to throw some hands if the situation calls for it with his scrap early in last season with former Bison defender, Elliott Dewey as proof.

The key question of course is does all the talk and high numbers in lower tiers translate to the EPL? Circenis has ripped junior leagues apart and has made a rather decent stab at NIHL 1 South. He was just under a point per game last season at 17. The face cage comes off for the start of his first EPIHL campaign and Circenis’ skill set will be used in a much more focussed and high pressure environment (and one slightly bigger) than usually seen at the Gosport Ice Arena.

One word that comes up a lot when you speak to people about Circenis is “attitude”. Now attitude has negative and positive connotations in hockey depending on what way you spin it; it can be the difference between confidence and arrogance on the ice. Bison hockey under Doug Sheppard has never been short of playing with an edge, the Herd have never been afraid to be physical with their opponents. They won a playoff semi final and final in 2014 by doing so but it’s that controlled aggression that will be key if Circenis is going to hang with the bigger boys here. Solent Devils are known for their tenacity more than their skill level so an average of around 3-4 PIMs a game last season shouldn’t be a big surprise to anyone. Whilst critics accused Circenis of hiding behind his face cage at times last season, he won’t have that luxury this season and will find many more willing dance partners than he would normally find in the third tier. Then again, the lad is 17 going on 18. Why are surprised that he’s ready for a scrap and full of youthful exuberance? This is Basingstoke after all, remember how much many enjoyed Matt Selby and Declan Balmer fighting? It’s not like they are grizzled veterans.

At times, especially in junior games, Circenis was also accused of trying to do too much on his own; Viktor Kubenko Syndrome as we know it here at BOTW. This is one of the things that will probably be reigned in faster than the others for the very simple reason that Circenis isn’t going to be expected to carry the team. He’s a depth forward for the Bison, here to improve and learn alongside some very good forwards. Might be break out in a similar way to Ivan Antonov? Maybe, hopefully and Doug Sheppard’s record for getting the best out of young forwards is a good one but it’s not necessary for him to come in and go a point per game right off the bat in his first season at this level. Don’t get me wrong, I won’t argue with it if he does but if the Bison intend to run 4 lines then we can’t expect Ralfs however promising he may be to go a point per game from the third or fourth line.

Where Circenis’ signing leaves Cameron Wynn remains to be seen but if this does indeed end up being a swap, then a junior international for a junior international is not a bad swap by any means. It’s a young player joining a roster that will challenge that Circenis can hopefully integrate himself into quickly. Whether he breaks out or remains part of the supporting cast to the more established stars, the opportunity is there for the young man to really push on in his hockey career.

Welcome aboard, Ralfs.

BOTW Breakdown – Dissecting the EPIHL 2015/16 changes

We'll see a multi coloured Tomas Karpov this season but how much of overtime will he see with the new rule changes? (c) 5 Hole Photography

We’ll see a multi coloured Tomas Karpov this season but how much of overtime will he see with the new rule changes?
(c) 5 Hole Photography

After no news for so long due to teams not having anywhere to play and a new team magically appearing in the league, the league board has announced some changes to format and structure of the league. Let’s take a look at the changes from last season to this and examine them in better detail;

League and Cup Structure: With the addition to the league of the Hull Pirates (welcome aboard me hearties) the league reverts back to the structure we’re all used to of a 54 game regular season with 3 home and 3 away games against each of the other 9 teams.

This means the cup reverts back to its more traditional mode the top 4 in the cup table advancing to the semi finals. Semi finals and finals will be two legs as par normal.

This is the instant upside of the addition of our new friends from the East Riding. Whilst I have to confess to having enjoyed the games against the NIHL sides, the results and competitiveness of those games showed the gulf between EPL sides and NIHL 1 sides, even those at the upper end of the respective leagues. From the Bison watching perspective, we certainly saw some good individual performances from players like Chelmsford’s Brandon Ayliffe and Invicta’s Billy Phillips but despite a couple of scalps of EPL sides former Slough match night DJ, Mark Denholm’s description of the experiment as the “carnage cup” was relatively well founded.

We don’t know what sort of team the Pirates are going to be able to cobble together in such a short space of time so the level of competitiveness in this year’s EPL remains to be seen but we have a more sound structure and a cup competition back to being to the liking of the majority.

3 on 3 Overtime: This one I confess to being slightly bemused about rather than having any direct objections to it. For the 2014/15 season, the American Hockey League (one level below the NHL) played a 7 minute overtime period; 3 minutes of 4 on 4 skaters followed by 4 minutes of 3 on 3 before heading to the shootout. The NHL’s response to this experiment has been that the 2015/16 season will see 3 on 3 skaters in overtime for 5 minutes before heading to the shootout if the scores are tied at the end of overtime. It’s this model that has been adopted by the EPIHL.

The first problem is the lack of clarification regarding imports that should have been put in the initial press release. Given the general rules of the EPIHL, most people are making the fair assumption that this means only 1 import on the ice for the duration of overtime. I’ve seen some comments this morning grumbling about that overtime would be dull with fewer imports or that the majority of a team’s skilled players are imports which I have little sympathy for. The simple argument is why suddenly change the rules for overtime? Excitement factor or not, why muddy the waters when you’ve already played 60 minutes of hockey? If your team’s British players aren’t the most “skilful” or your team has gone down the import netminder option then that’s the coach’s choice and your team has to live with it.

From a Bison perspective, Basingstoke have some very skilful British players and an import netminder but it leaves arguably one of the most skilful players in the EPL on the bench for the duration of the extra frame. I wouldn’t object to them allowing two imports on the ice for overtime but I don’t think it happens and I think that’s fine. This also has to be one of the reasons for the Bison’s continued negotiations with Dean Skinns; if the Bison end up in an overtime situation you have a solid EPL level netminder to step in, albeit cold, for situations where the Bison get a powerplay for example and can swap Hiadlovsky for Karpov on the ice for added firepower.

If I’m honest, I’d rather have seen a format where OT goes from 4 on 4 for a couple of minutes to 3 on 3 for the final few minutes but understand why if they were going to make this change, why they did it. If it’s good enough for the NHL then it’s probably good enough for the EPIHL.

Whether it leads to more results in OT or not, I don’t know but I don’t object to the shootout as vociferously as some. As an aside, please don’t start bleating “it’s a skills contest” at me. We’re watching a sport where 6 feet tall, 200lbs men move across ice on a knife edge at around 20-30mph whilst trying to manoeuvre something the width of an orange with a stick into a net; the entire sport is a skills contest. Object to the shootout because you have no issue with a draw but the “boo hiss skills contest” card is weak and over played.

For my money, if they want to incentivise winning “in game” rather than the shootout, then move to a European style 3-2-1-0 points system where winning in regulation earns you more points than in OT or the shootout.

Playoff format aka pick your poison: This one has drawn a lot of criticism from people being called “pointless”, “crazy” and a variety of other adjectives. Some people have even accused both Red Hockey and Silverblades/Planet Ice of potentially wanting to conspire to get certain teams to finals weekend over others which is a great start to things; do you really think you’re going to convince either Doug Sheppard or Pete Russell to get their side to lay down for the other? What about Tony Hand or Tom Watkins?

Let’s also make sure we’re clear here, it’s not a free for all. The league champions get first pick of playoff opponents, then second place of what’s left, then third and that’s it. Whilst this system was trialled in rugby league’s Super League with little success (I personally think playoffs in rugby are a waste of time but that’s another story), it’s a format that’s worked well in sports like speedway and in hockey leagues in Europe like Denmark and Austria.

Is the current playoff format broken? From an administrative standpoint, no. It’s simple enough, everyone knows where they stand.

Is this a reason not to try something different? Also no.

The length of the playoffs in this country isn’t ideal. I’d rather we were playing 3 or 5 or 7 games series like other leagues in other countries manage to do. We can’t do that here for a mix of reasons both good and stupid so we have what we have. Why then, if we can agree that our format isn’t ideal, are we concerned with something that simply changes potential quarter final opponents and actually makes it a bit more interesting?

Out of all the new ideas coming out of this press release, this is the one I’ve had the least issue with, possibly because I’ve paid attention to Austrian hockey for a bit. We’re incentivising teams to keep trying in the run in because there’s something to play for. Second and third become useful because you get a right to pick. Teams towards the lower end of the table can’t tank anymore to try and avoid a potential opponent because you’re always a potential opponent. Want a local derby so your fans can pack their barn and vice versa with your record against them is 5-1 across the season? That’s your team’s right to choose if you finish high enough. I can’t see what people’s issues with this is, as long as we don’t give out £5000 cheques for coming second again as that was just silly.

Shirt colours: This is the one I just don’t understand.

Aside from causing a nightmare for clubs that had already organised own and loan shirts on a home and away basis, this is the one that seems to be the “what’s the logic behind this” decision. Whether you agree with the reasons or not you can find a reason for the structural changes, you can find a reason for the playoffs bit and the overtime but this is the one that feels like it was done on a bit of a whim. It’s the least important of the changes, don’t get me wrong, the impact is relatively minimal but it just seems weird.

In some ways, given how silent the league has been over the summer when you had major stakeholders at each other’s throats over the Manchester Phoenix issues, it’s nice that the respective people have managed to hash something out in terms of moving forward together on a few points. Now, give us those fixtures! There’s planning to do.

The BOTW Podcast – episode 18

June was crazy so now July’s starting, let’s catch up with all the latest British hockey news, BOTW style.

We have a great guest for this show in the form of Jono Bullard, of The Cats Whiskers; the best website and podcast covering the Nottingham Panthers. TCW is one of the best fan media outlets in British hockey and Jono is a superb guest as we talk Hull, Manchester, netminders and more from Jono’s exclusive holiday resort that might be a caravan.

Remember to subscribe to The BOTW Podcast on iTunes HERE (go on, leave us 5 stars) and make sure you let us know what you like on Twitter or the BOTW Facebook page once you’ve listened.

The BOTW Podcast; the news, action and views from the EPIHL and all levels above, below and in between.

Building the Herd – JJ Pitchley

#?? Jake James (JJ) Pitchley

Position: Forward

Born: Romford, Essex

Announced as signed: Basingstoke Gazette, 18th June

Off the back of 3 British returnees to the club, Doug Sheppard released a new British name to join the Herd for the 2015/16 campaign in the form of 21 year old, JJ Pitchley who spent last season split between the Bracknell Bees and Hornets.

Romford born Pitchley began his hockey career in the town of his birth and was well established in under 16s hockey in his early teens, going over a point per game before leaving for Bracknell in 2009.

2009/10 saw Pitchley split his time between the under 16s where he scored an insane 47 points in 18 games and the under 18s where he scored 13 points in 10 games. Staying at Bracknell, Pitchley made his senior hockey debut for the Hornets the following season with 10 points in 27 games alongside a monstrous season for the under18s where he bettered his under 16s totals with 47 points in only 16 games.

For 2011/12, JJ headed back to Romford where he spent the majority of his time with the Romford Raiders in the ENL, tallying 11 points in 32 contests. He also played 9 times for Romford’s ENL2 side at the time, the Fury scoring 15 points in 9 games. The impressive last few seasons earned Pitchley a GB under18s call up for the division 2A world championships, earning 5 appearances.

Eyes were on Pitchley and he made the most of an opportunity that came his way as he traded Essex for Texas, joining the Dallas Snipers of the Western States Hockey League for 2012/13. Pitchley finished joint 2nd scorer on the Snipers with 32 points as the team finished 3rd in their division which saw them qualify for the playoffs. Unfortunately the best of 3 series didn’t go the Snipers way, seeing them lose the series 2-0 and ship 25 goals in those 2 games.

After his season in America, Pitchley returned to Britain and had a busy 2013/14 season. Starting off with Romford, Pitchley scored 12 points in 16 games for the Raiders before the crisis at Slough saw coach Craig Moran make use of his services. Pitchley scored 2 points in 29 games but was highly regarded for his physical style as he was used in a checking rather role than a scoring one.

Last season saw Pitchley return to Bracknell where he signed with the Hornets. Playing on a line with former Bison, Danny Ingoldsby, Pitchley was the Hornets’ top scorer as he had a career year with 54 points in 36 games. Pitchley was also called into the Bees line-up 13 times scoring 2 goals and 5 assists in that time.

This has been a signing that has been bubbling under the surface for a while. With Stuart Mogg moving to defence, Grant Rounding likely to miss the start of the season and with no news on a return or a departure of Andy Melachrino or Cameron Wynn just yet, the move to sign JJ Pitchley fills in something of a hole that kept cropping up whenever I tried to guess at Doug Sheppard’s line combinations for opening night.

At NIHL level, Pitchley has been highly regarded for a while. Impressive performances for Slough and Romford combined with last season’s free scoring performances with the Hornets have meant that EPL coaches have been keeping tabs on JJ.

I grabbed a few words from Danny Ingoldsby on the sort of player and person Pitchley is. The response was encouraging if somewhat humour laced; “He’s a good guy, a real hard worker! His scoring ability makes up for his looks. He never fails to rack up points, likes to chisel assists and has a good eye for the goal.”

Pitchley has a lot of the tools; he is a very fast and natural skater, he has good hands, he has a good level of physicality that he (normally) uses in a controlled manner, he passes well, he scores goals. The goal now for Pitchley is refinement at EPL level. He got some good ice time for the Bees last season; whilst Bracknell were not very good last season (and that’s being polite, thankfully the injection of monies from Red Hockey will hopefully rectify that), what it did give was young British players like Pitchley the chance at EPL level ice time. Credit where it’s due to Lukas Smital as a coach; he could have just shortened the bench and let these young guys play bit parts but instead he threw them in the deep end. It obviously didn’t help them reach the playoffs but Bracknell as a hockey town has always been about the bigger picture for the most part.

Pitchley is going to be a depth player in the main; I don’t think there’s much debate about that. He’s going to be asked to be physical and use his speed to chip in points where and when he can. The way he plays however does allow some flexibility and if there are injuries to any of the other wingers then expect him to be moved up the lines to fill a gap. Somebody with his speed will be a natural foil for naturally good passers like Karpov, Rand and Thompson. He is a natural scorer, you can see that in the other levels he’s played at but he is not going to have to shoulder the weight of the point scoring which is the right position for him to be in given the other names on the roster.

I’ve watched JJ Pitchley here and there over the last few years on my excursions to NIHL games, mainly on the island. His name has had that buzz to it (pardon the pun) for a while. I’m personally excited to get the chance to watch his game close up for longer. Given the talent this young man has, we should all be excited. If he clicks, we could be in for some fun.

Welcome aboard, JJ.

Building the Herd – Joe Rand

#86 Joe Rand

Position: Forward

Born: Hamilton, Ontario, Canada

Announced as signed: Basingstoke Gazette, 11th June

Joe Rand completes the Bison's import line-up for 2015/16. (c) 5 Hole Photography

Joe Rand completes the Bison’s import line-up for 2015/16.
(c) 5 Hole Photography

Basingstoke Bison head coach Doug Sheppard announced the final name to be part of the Herd’s 2015/16 import contingent by announcing the return of Canadian forward and Banners On The Wall player of the year 2012/13, Joe Rand.

Entering his 4th season with the club after joining from the Wightlink Raiders, Rand’s no nonsense physical style and impressive two-way game has made him a constant thorn in the side of other EPL sides and a fan favourite at the Basingstoke Arena. In 52 league and cup games last season, Rand scored 21 goals and 26 assists for 47 points. His Bison totals for regular season and cup competitions now stand at 161 games played and 153 points with 9 post season appearances yielding 8 points including a penalty shot goal in the 2014 EPL Playoff Final.

The former Toronto St Michael’s Major finished his time in the major junior hockey to join the University of Toronto in 2005. 5 years with the Varsity Blues saw Rand score an impressive 113 points in 118 games as well as spending time as an alternate captain. Turning pro in 2010, Rand headed deep into Bavaria, an hour away from the Czech border to play for Deggendorf Fire of the Oberliga Süd scoring 35 points in 43 appearances and as the Fire finished 7th in the table and gave a brave showing in the playoffs before losing in 7 games to Riesersee who would eventually be promoted to the 2.Liga.

Rand would make his way to Britain for the following campaign; Jeremy Cornish on the Isle of Wight had an import drop out and Rand was picked up to fill the space proving an instant hit with the Raiders fans. Rand finished the season as an all-star and 93 points from 36 games. Rand’s performances got him noticed by newly appointed Bison coach, Doug Sheppard and Rand has been a mainstay with the club since.

2014/15 was an unusual season for the Basingstoke Bison; in his farewell interview, Michael Wales alluded to the fact that some things just didn’t go the Herd’s way. Injuries at key times, bounces not going their way and a few other things that meant the season didn’t finish the way many wanted it to, some things just didn’t come off. In the last Building the Herd about Aaron Connolly, I pointed out that sometimes the new Bison captain worked hard but didn’t work smart; there were times where things just didn’t come off for him and I feel that was the way last season for Joe Rand. If you take the cup out of the equation, Rand had his lowest points total in his EPL tenure and sometimes the bite in front of goal that he’d had at times seemed to abandon him. There were times when he just couldn’t quite make that play in the defensive zone to stop an opposition forward. The bounces weren’t going his way. However don’t get it twisted; you will find fewer people happier that Rand is back than me, nor was Rand the only person who will probably look back and want more than they got out of last season this time around.

Whilst the season wasn’t a points scoring masterclass from Rand, he is still one of the best two-way players in the EPL. Rand is one of the Herd’s most consistent performers and is the sort of player that is always popular with Bison fans across the years; he isn’t flashy, he isn’t showy but will do what he’s told when he’s told to do it, put 100% effort into doing it then skate off, have a rest then go out and do it again.

Nobody sensible is expecting Joe Rand to go out and score 70 points a season and if you are, please report to the “Danny Stewart plays like Darcy Tucker” school of expectation management. Rand clearly has the skills to score points at this level but he’s asked to do more than simply point score by Doug Sheppard. He scores goals by being the guy in front of the net with a tip in getting hacked and wacked by defencemen. How many times, when the Herd were on the back foot, did Rand line someone up and hammer them into the boards in an attempt to get the side and the crowd going?

Whilst last season wasn’t his or the team’s best, the Bison season wasn’t a disaster by any means. Will Rand want to perform better this season? I believe so. In many ways, I could have written the exact same piece for Rand as I did for Aaron Connolly as their seasons mirrored each other in some ways but like Connolly, we know Rand will give 100% effort every shift and in real terms we can’t ask much more of him. The universally happy reaction from Bison fans to his return speaks volumes of just how important the fanbase think he is to the team and the fans of other teams wishing he’d signed for them speaks volumes too. He may never top the scoring charts but many, and it seems Doug Sheppard is included in that number, believe a player like Joe Rand will bring on ice success to your hockey club.

Welcome back, Joe.

Building the Herd – Aaron Connolly

#63 Aaron Connolly

Position: Forward

Born: Northfleet, Kent

Announced as signed: Bison season ticket night, 4th June

Back to go "bar dizzle"; Aaron Connolly is the new captain of the Basingstoke Bison. (c) 5 Hole Photography

Back to go “bar dizzle”; Aaron Connolly is the new captain of the Basingstoke Bison.
(c) 5 Hole Photography

So we come to the biggest of the recent batch of signings; the most recent returnee to the Bison’s forward ranks and the successor to Nicky Chinn as the Herd’s captain is Aaron Connolly. Speaking to Banners On The Wall, Connolly said “I’m very glad to be back with Basingstoke as it’s such a great organisation to play for. Being captain is an honour and I can’t wait to get started.”

22 year old Connolly returns for his third season with the Bison after joining the club in 2013. A fans favourite and well respected amongst his teammates and opponents alike, Connolly scored goals in both Bison trophy winning games in 2014 capping off the season with the empty net goal in the 2014 playoff final. He has scored 75 points in his 2 seasons in Basingstoke with 20 goals in each season.

Having started playing hockey in the Invicta junior system, Connolly moved to Chelmsford in 2008, making his debut in the Chieftains lineup in 2009 scoring an impressive 36 points in 36 games in his first full season of senior hockey. In his second season of senior hockey and after going over a point per game with Chelmsford, Connolly moved full time across to Berkshire to join Slough where he would stay till 2013. Connolly would play 101 games for Slough scoring 52 points as well as capturing the EPL Cup in 2011 and the playoffs in 2012 before being convinced to come to Basingstoke.

Connolly is also a former GB under 18 international and a former alternate and captain of the GB under 20s.

If you’re an outsider to this situation then it will look a little strange; a trophy challenging team with a raft of veteran players appoints a 22 year old as its captain. Anyone who has ever cast an eye over the Bison in terms of more than numbers on a page will understand why this has been done.

Connolly himself says in the video that this is a team full of leaders which is true. That said leadership has many different facets to it. It’s one of the reasons why I have near constantly said Kurt Reynolds never needed to be given a letter on his jersey because he’s best left to just play. However teams do need an on ice leader by virtue of the rules but also someone to be that voice and that face at the front of battle. I believe that Aaron has been chosen for a couple of reasons;

The first is that his entire senior career, Connolly has been incredibly vocal on the ice and on the bench. If you listen closely enough (and as I sit near the benches I get it nearly every week), the first person to try and gee the team up is Connolly. He is always trying to keep people going, to keep them focused on the job. When Joe Miller departed for Telford, one of the people that was instantly talked about as being a natural replacement as alternate captain was Connolly; a player who actively involved himself in driving the team forward at any opportunity be it by word or deed.

The other factor for me is this; when Nicky Chinn “retired”, the discussion instantly began as to who would replace him. A key thing for Sheppard is generally structure; whilst he shuffles the lines about like a croupier shuffles cards at a casino, there is always a game plan with him. With two established alternate captains, unless Sheppard was able to sign someone so established specifically to take the job of captaincy then it was generally going to fall to one of two men; Joe Baird or Aaron Connolly, last season’s alternates. The reasons for choosing one over the other are Sheppard’s but you get the idea; the logic pointed in this direction.

The captaincy adds a very different dimension to return of Connolly personally but not much to the team as a whole at first sight. Development as a league wide concept aside (though what better way to develop a 22 year old player by throwing him in the deep end as the skipper I suppose), this Bison core is well established now. With someone like Chinn leaving and the culture of the side not needing an obvious overhaul, the decision to look within for its next leader is an easy choice and a natural one to boot. Connolly is respected in the room and one of the team’s hardest working players. Why wouldn’t he be chosen, whatever his age?

Connolly the player, had an interesting 2014/15. There were times where, at least at home, he appeared to be somewhat snake bitten in front of the net. Often a play would not quite come off and Connolly would disappear down the side of the bench in the gap between Block C and Block D, take a moment then come back to the bench. The one thing that was never lacking, and never does lack from Connolly, is effort. It is I venture one of the main reasons why fans and players like him so much; on the ice he gives as much as he can. That’s not to say it’s always the most constructive of efforts. There are times when, like the Bison as a whole under Sheppard, Connolly works hard instead of working smart but at least he’s working. I’d much rather be having a discussion about a player who occasionally is too focussed on going hammer and tongs trying to make things happen with minimal success than someone who doesn’t care about what they’re doing.

I am very interested to see how Connolly reacts to the new pressures on top of his on ice role. Like Rounding yesterday, a lot depends on what he is going to be asked to do and that’s dependant on who Connolly is asked to play with. He is capable of playing as a scoring winger or as a checking line forward which means adjusting your expectations of him accordingly. If he’s put onto a checking/energy/insert your adjective here line, then you can’t criticise him if he doesn’t score 50 points in a season.

This season is going to be a learning curve in some ways for Connolly; yes it’s a well-established group, yes he’s part of the established leaders within that group but there’s a difference when you’re the one at the top of the pile. In the main, I don’t think it will cause him many issues. I am interested to see what happens when the team hits a patch of bad form and Connolly’s reaction to it but so little seems to phase him that I can’t imagine this new position will be an albatross around his neck. The famous saying is that the title doesn’t make the man, the man makes the title. Yes, being the man after someone like Nicky Chinn is a sizeable task but Connolly needs to not worry about the skates he is filling and forge his own path. I have very few doubts that this will be his intention.

Welcome back, Aaron. Sorry, skipper.

Building the Herd – Grant Rounding

#17 Grant Rounding

Position: Forward

Born: Johannesburg, South Africa

Announced as signed: Bison season ticket night, 4th June

Supersonic; Grant Rounding will return for the Bison in 2015/16. (c) 5 Hole Photography

Supersonic; Grant Rounding will return for the Bison in 2015/16.
(c) 5 Hole Photography

After the announcement of a forward turned defenceman, we move onto the return of an out an out forward with the return to the Bison of Grant Rounding.

Rounding, 24, will be entering his 2nd season with the Bison after an impressive if injury hit first campaign. South African born, Rounding started playing hockey in the junior system at Basingstoke before moving to the highly regarded youth system at Bracknell. After some impressive numbers at u16 level, Rounding made his senior hockey debut in the old ENL for the Bracknell Hornets in the 2006/07 season.

After progressing well through under 18s and a good final season in junior hockey where he went over 2 points a game, Rounding joined the Hornets full time for 2008/09 where he stayed for the next 3 years. 2010/11 was a successful year for Rounding as his point per game form in the ENL saw him drafted into playing 20 games and registering a goal and an assist with the Bees.

The following season saw a departure for Rounding as he left Bracknell for the Isle of Wight Raiders. Rounding started the season well scoring 16 points in 16 games before suffering a season ending injury.

Rounding rehabilitated and returned back “home” as he re-signed for the Hornets at the start of the 2012/13 season. Having been drafted in to fill a hole in the Bees roster, eventually Grant’s efforts were re-paid and he was added to the EPL side’s roster full time playing 49 games and scoring 9 points. Since that point Rounding hasn’t played in the NIHL playing the 2013/14 season with the Bees registering a respectable 19 points in 52 games and impressing Doug Sheppard to the point that the Bison’s head coach lured Rounding back to where his hockey journey began.

We should address the elephant in the room right off the bat; how bad is the knee injury of Grant Rounding? I’m led to believe that it will mean that Rounding is likely to miss the start of the season which is naturally a shame. Rounding himself tells me that it’s just a case of getting better and stronger and being ready to go when the time comes.

In some ways I find Grant Rounding really hard to write about and it’s for tow reasons;

The first is that his style of play is relatively straight forward. There’s not a massive amount of nuance to it but he uses his speed well, makes the hits when needed, occasionally chips in points when he can. That’s what he does. It’s good. I could go on and on (and have done in the past) about how clubs need players that add depth to the squad and that’s what Rounding is for the Bison. You can’t and don’t need to go into massively long dissections of his game because the game that Doug Sheppard asks him to play is obvious but also entirely necessary.

The second is I find him so entertaining that his game is really hard for me to analyse objectively at times. If you don’t enjoy watching a player like Grant Rounding then I’m generally going to be at a loss as to what to say to you. I like my grafters and my grinders in hockey; the people that do the unsung and the unnoticed. That’s not to say that Rounding’s talents aren’t noticed, the penalty shot winner against Guildford being the prime example but people will wax lyrical about the Karpovs and Longs of the world whereas occasionally just spend entire chunks of periods watching what players like Rounding will do and sometimes lose track of the play. I’m not trying to blow smoke up Rounding’s backside but what can I say? The guy is fun to watch.

Where Grant goes for 2015/16 hinges on a couple of factors. In a brief conversation whilst writing this, Rounding said he felt he had more to prove which I sympathise with. At times his ice time was limited and a long spell out with injury really put a bit of a cramp on his season and his ability to showcase himself in his best light because he was trying to get into a game or get back into it.

How Rounding gets used as well is very much dependant on who else is signed. I think it’s a relatively safe bet that the season will start with Long and Greener playing together and whether they’re initially centred by Karpov or Thompson remains to be seen but that will be one of the top two lines. If Joe Rand returns for example then it’s entirely possible that Rounding could play alongside Karpov to add speed and space to allow the Czech forward room to work some of his magic or Rounding plays alongside Rand as they go clanging and banging around. If someone else is signed then it throws an element of uncertainty as to where he fits into the even strength rotation. One thing we can likely be certain of is that when fit, Rounding will certainly fit into the penalty killing unit where he speed causes instant pressure on the forecheck as the opposition looks to restart the play.

When we get to see Grant Rounding in 2015/16 remains to be seen. Injuries, especially knee ones are tricky for hockey players so careful management is needed. The young man himself thinks he has a point to prove; how he sets about doing so with the opportunities given remain to be seen.

Welcome back, Grant.


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