Running with the Herd – Bison vs Peterborough Phantoms 17/9/22

NIHL National Division League/Cup

Basingstoke Bison 2-5 Peterborough Phantoms

Bison: Milton, Landsbergs

Phantoms: McEwen, Mitchell-King, Speirs, Weldon, Sladkovsky

Photo (c) Mike Key

Running with the Herd – Bison vs Bristol Pitbulls 10/09/22

Challenge game

Basingstoke Bison 3-0 Bristol Pitbulls

Bison: Balaz x2, Wilson


A picture of the Basingstoke Bison following their third goal against the Bristol Pitbulls. Left to right is Paul Petts, Marcel Balaz (goalscorer), George Norcliffe, Brendan Baird and Josh Kelly. The photo was taken by Jo Loat.
Balaz was in the building with two goals (c) Jo Loat

Flip reverse: If you’re a Basingstoke Bison fan, it’s hard to be disappointed with what you saw on Saturday evening and across the weekend from the Basingstoke Bison. As has been mentioned, it’s easy to overegg your own pudding when you have a really good pre-season but using it to build some confidence is important and there will be some confidence built on and off the ice as a result of this.

Presented with a fast, aggressive team wanting to pressure at every opportunity it was imperative that the Bison’s defending, and its defence were calm and the attack was clinical. We were presented with both. After years of the Bison pressing too high and then giving up goals because they allowed too much space for the opposition to use behind them, it was nice to watch the Bison punish another team in this way.

The quality of the team defence was a bugbear last year but this game gave some very good signs from the defensive players. Alex Mettam staked a case to be the number one out of the gate was an assured performance that saw him made some very good saves and look thoroughly in command of all around him. There were hairy moments for sure, but he deservedly got a shutout.

His defenders in front of him also played a big part. Jay King has returned to Basingstoke for this season with a chip on his shoulder it seems and shone in this game. His hitting was on point, his positioning was excellent and he seems as switched on as he’s ever been. Josh Kelly also looks to have returned to a Bison jersey with a more rounded dimension to his game. In the off-season he’d mentioned that he wanted to try and join the rush more and he has to start this campaign, but he’s also been making all the correct decisions at the back with it. Tom Banner and Brendan Baird have only been noticeable when they’ve been hitting people which is what you want from your defencemen, especially Banner as he continues to grow into his role.

Then there’s the discussion that needs to be had between Ashley Tait and Oxford City Stars’ head coach Simon Anderson about Marcus Mitchell. The issue is that Mitchell has stepped into the Bison line up having never played at this level before and not looked out of place. Tait has set Mitchell up to succeed by not overplaying him or overexposing him to situations before he was ready for them but his good play 5 on 5 saw him earn penalty kill time and the 24-year-old has looked like he belonged. He’s played with a physical edge, made good choices on the puck for the most part and never once looked star struck to be there. With defenders at a premium, especially solid stay at home ones there might need to a very earnest discussion with Oxford about compensating them. There needs to be serious consideration to making Mitchell a permanent member of the roster based on his performances.

Up front we saw something of a reversal of roles from the import forwards. Last week it was Gael-Mukeba Lubwele who felt like he was doing all the forward momentum and Marcel Balaz the grinding. This week we saw Balaz score twice, both very well taken goals and Lubwele doing more of the grunt work. The Slovakian looked much more potent going forward this week than last and whilst the Canadian posed a thread going forward, we saw much more of his defensive game on display particularly with his shot blocking efforts in this game.

Hallam Wilson’s goal was very well taken, picking the top corner and getting the sound effect to go with it. We all know what we’re getting from that third line and without Ryan Sutton this weekend, Adrian Dusznik got the chance to play and enhanced role. The young Pole/Brit appears to still be adjusting to life at this level but is showing signs of promise.

George Norcliffe and Aidan Doughty are still getting used to being on Lubwele’s wings but the chemistry is forming there and starting to really come. Balaz has been with Zack Milton and Edgars Landsbergs for the last few weeks and the cohesion on that isn’t quite as there yet but it’s coming together.

Four games of pre-season done and there’s that most dangerous of elements back amongst the fanbase in Basingstoke; hope. A lot of people spent a lot of the summer writing off the Bison. Where would the goals come from with Roberts and Harding gone? What about the defence? The whole was less than the sum of its parts seemed to be the feeling. The problem for everyone on both sides of the equation is that what we’ve seen is actually alright. Maybe they’re not world beating right now the potential is very much there. There’s things to work on for sure but it seems, as feels true of many Bison sides, that rumours of their demise might be somewhat overstated. Hope kills but it’s hope that keeps you going. The fan in me always hoped the Bison will be alright. On the strength of these performances I think most would agree. Many will hope for more. Come this Saturday, it’s time for this roster to swap hope for action. The race begins again.

A picture of Bison netminder Alex Mettam in play surrounded by players from both the Basingstoke Bison and Bristol Pitbulls. The photo is by Jo Loat
Alex Mettam kept the Pitbulls at bay as the Bison shutout their visitors. (c) Jo Loat

A word on our opponents: It would be easy after Saturday night, the weekend or the entirety of preseason to be a bit reticent as a Bristol Pitbulls fan. Certainly it feels that people are swiftly re-evaluating their summer predictions about the Pitbulls given they won none of the their pre-season games and this was arguably their worst game of the pre-season campaign. However, I will say to those people what I said to Pitbulls owner Richie Hargreaves and other members of his staff; they’ll be fine.

On a night where the younger players were hot headed, made some questionable decisions on the puck and lacked bite going forward, it was clear to see that they lacked the calming influence of Adam Harding (who took warm up but didn’t ice) and someone with a bit more creative flair in their playmaking like Owen Sobchak to compliment Alex Roberts who tried to do too much himself. There was a lot of intent from the Pitbulls and lots of ideas and energy, but they lacked the execution. At times the very high press made it feel that when the puck went loose that it turned into playground football as everyone was on top of the puck very quickly. This caused an issue for the Pitbulls as it gave the Bison a ton of space to skate in to.

This wasn’t a great showcase for the team as a whole. Will Kerlin tried and made some very good saves whilst occasionally flapping. The youngsters like Josh Shaw, Mason Lipsey and Jay Warren all showed promise. When we get the full Pitbulls experience it’ll be a different hockey game.

That’s not to say that the high pressing game plan isn’t going to have an impact as we saw from Sunday. The very mobile back end that Bristol has is going to generate offence and generate it quickly. They will be relentless going forward however this is a young group. Hull is a new team but a lot of the guys have played together before in Hull at this level. This is a very new project for Bristol and certainly Hargreaves was under no illusion when I spoke to him on the matter after he yelled at me across the bar to come and eat pizza with him.

This is one of the reasons why Bristol will be fine is that they’re positive whilst being realistic. You could hear it in coach Jamie Elson’s post game interviews or when I chatted to some of the players. I felt people had oversold the Pitbulls heading into the season but they don’t appear to be overselling themselves. There’s a lot of confidence but a lot of realism there. I hope the fans stick with them because they are going to be fun to watch. They won’t win ever game, that’s for sure but they’ll be entertaining whilst they do it.

Lowlight of the night: None to really mention

Highlight of the night: Two weeks in a row of solid reffing and Hallam Wilson’s goal was just sublime.

Running with the Herd – Bison vs Bees IHC 03/09/22

Challenge match

Basingstoke Bison 5-4 Bees IHC

Bison: Lubwele x2 pp, Doughty pp, King, Norcliffe

Bees: Rose pp, Lindgren, Gabaj, Walkom

The captain strikes (c) Jo Loat

And out come the Bison: As with the first game back after the summer, it’s really easy to overthink and be overenthusiastic about everything that we see. It all needs to be taken with a pinch of salt as teams get their legs under them, as chemistry is built. Sure, it’s good to win (and for Basingstoke regulars, against the Bees especially) but provided a team doesn’t get utterly blown out then the result doesn’t matter greatly. This is about gaining confidence, on the ice for the guys and off the ice that the fans will believe in what they are going to see. So, what did the Bison offer in their first weekend?

Ashley Tait’s first foray into coaching solely from the bench had its flaws. The giving up of a third period lead was a worrying harkening back to last season where too many goals were given up too cheaply. However, it really felt that this was due to lead in the legs and the head from the Herd, see Gabaj’s OT winner from Sunday for another example. They had outfought and outworked the Bees in the first 40 minutes of the game on Saturday and gassed out at the first attempt. That is fixable with conditioning and time but must be a focus for the Herd. They were guilty last season of losing concentration at key moments and giving up goals and key moments that allowed the momentum of games to swing. The same happened here. Tiredness or not, this habit must be snuffed out.

Jordan Lawday in net provided a very solid game and made a string of very necessary saves. He was unfortunate on the goals, the Bees second in particular where an error in communication between Tom Banner and Adrian Dusznik saw both players track across to leave Juha Lindgren alone in front. Those are the errors that happen in pre-season. Overall, it was a good first outing for Lawday whose reading of the game remains excellent.

Gaël-Mukeba Lubwele proved to be an instant fan favourite, not an unreasonable reaction when you score two very well taken goals. The Canadian has a shot release that is going to cause many netminders a problem with its speed and power. His second goal was particularly well taken, capitalising on an error from Will Stead to intercept the puck and then fire past Dan Weller-Evans, also showing that eye for capitalising on errors that maybe the Herd lacked at times last season. Lubwele was guilty of maybe going too hard too soon as he was less effective as the game went on but that didn’t stop many fans being very happy with his initial outing.

By contrast Macel Balaz had a quieter outing, no points on Saturday and just an assist on Sunday but certainly what Balaz did do was put a shift in. He grinded away, he was solid, he made very few if any errors. His passing and set up play looked very solid. Given he landed in the early hours of Friday morning I wasn’t expecting miracles, nor did we get them but having a centre with more of a two-way game than last season is no bad thing for the Herd currently.

The defence as a whole performed decently despite missing Adam Jones. The addition of former Guildford Phoenix now Oxford defenceman Marcus Mitchell bolstered the ranks along with Liam Morris playing out of the back and the occasional shift from Adrian Dusznik. Mitchell didn’t look out of place and added some decent size and grit. Josh Kelly’s return to Basingstoke saw him only noticed on his forays forward or when he was landing a big hit. Jay King scored which was a mild shock on its own. The lead slipping is a black mark against the whole side but it was a reasonable first outing.

It’s worth mentioning Morris briefly for his superb agitation antics where he ended up playing Alan Lack like a fiddle for large swathes of the first and second before his massive, and it should be said legal, hit on Dominik Gabaj forced Lack into standing up for his team mate to the point he got a match penalty and was ejected from the game.

Given all the extended powerplay time in the first two periods, the flip side of the forwards tiring themselves out was that they got some really excellent time to get rolling together with Tait not afraid to try some different combinations and give people time. George Norcliffe scored the Bison’s winner after a very workmanlike performance from the new captain. Aidan Doughty scored from his office in front of the net on the powerplay as well as using his size well. Zack Milton buzzed about as usual causing a menace and the third line gave a good account of themselves, in particular Ryan Sutton who whilst not as effective as he might have wanted to be certainly made a good effort.

Many came away also very impressed by Roman Cathcart and Ollie Hemmings-Maher. The two sixteen year old Bison juniors were added to the lineup and whilst clearly not the finished products staked their case to not be infrequent guests. Neither looked lost, neither looked out of place, Hemmings-Maher had a very good goalscoring chance and I was particularly impressed by how young Cathcart used his size in the corners to gain good position. With his brother Ty on the Bees for the evening, it was a proud moment for their father Ryan.

The Bison were the better team on Saturday night. They obviously didn’t get the result the wanted the following night against the Bees, losing 2-1 in OT but the weekend has shown some flickers. There was evidence of old mistakes but also some new promise. It’s way to early to judge but it’s definitely not too early to smile.

Gaël-Mukeba Lubwele made an immediate impact on Bison fans (c) Jo Loat

A word on our opponents: The Bees’ lack of defenceman is going to cause them an issue. As with last season, there’s definitely something there. Doug Sheppard doesn’t put together rosters without a sense of purpose and grit to them but they need more defence and a better team defence. Dan Weller-Evans is a decent goalie at this level but he was left all at sea for the majority of the goals. Then, after fighting back to tie the game, they left George Norcliffe standing alone on the doorstep unchallenged inside the last two minutes. If the Bison can be accused of gassing out, someone popped the Bees’ balloon on that one.

The ill discipline is what also put the Bees in the whole. Lack’s match penalty aside, certainly most would have expected him to step in and stand up for a team mate in such a circumstance, it was a raft of dodgy decision making early on that made the game an uphill struggle for the visitors.

They do deserve credit for fighting back into the game, even if they were arguably let back in more than forcing their way through, and that tenacity is what’s going to win the Bees games. They do not have a very deep roster but they’ll play Doug Sheppard hockey; hearts on sleeves, shoulders to the wheel and results will be forced out of teams. They will try to outwork everyone.

Whilst Dominik Gabaj scored a goal on a tip in (as well as getting utterly run over), the talking point of this game for the Bees was Brendan Walkom. The former Bentley University man might be the fastest player I’ve ever seen live and clearly has a skill level well above this level. His issue is after 4 years of NCAA where he played as a grinding forward, to suddenly be a top line guy is a real adjustment for him. He’s not used to having so much time on the puck to be able to craft anything with. When he did notice this, he scored a beautiful goal where he left Jay King for dust and beat Lawday over his far shoulder from a very acute angle. A lot of the offence for the Bees is going to go through Walkom and they will need to adjust their tactics because people will realise this fast. Yes the other potent attacking weapons are there from Gabaj and Lindgren to the more underrated ones like Josh Martin, Josh Smith and Ryan Webb but you wonder just how effective Walkom will be at full flight and what the Bees do if he’s kept quiet. The Bees might have another all-star on their hands or he’ll be in the Elite League by Christmas.

Lowlight of the night: Pre-season or not, can’t blow a 4-1 lead.

Highlight of the night: Toss up between the Morris hit on Gabaj or Lubwele’s second goal. Also, the reffing in this game was top notch.

Building the Herd – Bison add five to complete their 22/23 roster

Sometimes as someone who writes about sport, particularly a small sport where your voice travels further, taking a holiday can put you behind so I’d personally like to thank the Basingstoke Bison for announcing so many additions and a finalising of the roster for 2022/23 in the time where I was five time zones away and then recovering from jetlag.

Irrespective of my own first world problems, Ashley Tait has completed the Basingstoke Bison roster for the upcoming season with three regular and two prospect players.

23 year old Edgars Landsbergs was born in Daugavpils, Latvia’s second city but qualifies as a British trained player after spending a large period of his junior hockey in the Coventry Blaze system. After a year with the Okanagen Hockey Academy in 2015/16 where he went a point per game, Landsbergs moved to Calgary, Alberta to join the International Hockey Academy for two years before moving to Philadelphia in the USPHL junior league for 2018/19.

Edgars Landsbergs faces off with Adam Harding last season in Milton Keynes. The Latvian born forward has traded his Lightning jersey for a Bison one. (c) Jo Loat

Landsbergs moved north in 2019/20 when he joined the Bradford Rattlers of the GMHL, a junior A league not sanctioned by Hockey Canada where a lot of British players have spent some time. Edgars scored 17 points in 38 games before the season was ended by COVID.

He returned to action in 2020/21 in Poland where he iced for Cracovia Krakow’s second team in the Polish second tier scoring 8 points in 10 games as the team finished 9th and missed the playoffs. He returned to Britain in 2021 and signed for the MK Lightning, scoring 7 points in 36 league games and 1 point in the playoffs as the Lightning made the final before losing to Sheffield.

21 year old Adrian Dusznik was born in Poland but in a similar way to Landsbergs, qualifies as British trained due to having played the requisite amount of junior hockey in Slough. Having made it to u18 level with the junior Jets, Dusznik swapped Berkshire for Surrey as he joined the Guildford system in 2016, starting for the u18 Phoenix and u20 Fire Kings where he was productive at both levels. In 2017, again like Landsbergs, he made the move west to the OHA going over a point per game as well as making his British senior debut for the Swindon Wildcats division 2 side and making a loan appearance for the Wildcats first team.

It was then that Dusznik went on his travels, heading to Sweden where he joined the u20 side of Visby/Roma. It was a good first season in Scandinavia, scoring 10 points in 32 games as the side were promoted to the J20 Elit league. He returned and scored 6 points in 30 games as COVID claimed the season.

Dusznik headed back to Poland, signing with the u20 side of UKS Niedzwiadki Sanok in the Polish second tier where he played against Landsbergs. Where Krakow had a poor season, Dusznik was the team’s second top scorer 23 points in 22 games. His side finished 7th but won the playoffs to be league champions, beating 5th placed Sokoly Torun in the final. He continued that success last season when he returned to Britain, signing with the Guildford Phoenix as they completed a grand slam in NIHL 2 South with the league, cup and playoff titles. Dusznik scored 24 points in 14 games.

The addition of 16 year old Roman Cathcart, son of Junior Bison head coach Ryan and Ollie Hemmings-Maher gives two up and coming players the chance to develop as they agree very unique deals. Both will be registered to play u18s in Basingstoke as well as NIHL 2 for the Basingstoke Buffalo, NIHL 1 for the Slough Jets and National Division for the Bison. Both are regular South West conference representatives, Cathcart captained the u17 South Wests last season, as well as trials for England. Cathcart, the Junior Bison u16 captain last season scored 30 points in 14 games at u16 level and 13 in 13 at u18 level. Hemmings-Maher scored 23 goals and 38 points in 14 games at u16 level and 17 in 12 at u18. He also made his senior hockey debut scoring 2 goals and 3 points in NIHL 2 South for the Buffalo.

Gaël-Mukeba Lubwele scores Nipissing’s first goal in the 2022 OUA playoffs against Ottawa. The Canadian swaps his homeland for Basingstoke. Photo by Tom Martineau, from

The final piece of the Herd jigsaw is 26 year old Canadian, Gaël-Mukeba Lubwele. The Montreal born right winger worked his way through the Hockey Quebec system playing for the Montreal Royal u15 and progressing to the Laval-Montréal Rousseau Royal in the QMAAA league. In 2013/14 he stepped in to the highest level of junior hockey in the province, playing 7 games in the QMJHL with the Quebec Ramparts alongside now established NHL names like Anthony Duclair, Adam Erne and Fabian Herzog.

The following season Lubwele played one level below Major Junior for Sainte-Agathe Montagnards in the QJHL scoring 30 then 74 points in his two seasons. In 2016 he took his talents overseas for the first time, joining Springfield Express in the Western States Hockey League. Lubwele was the top scorer for the Express with 76 points in 46 games as they were knocked out of the playoffs in the semi finals.

After his jaunt into the US, in 2017/18 Lubwele played a season for Portage College in Lac La Biche, Alberta in the ACAC, part of the Canadian Colleges Athletic Association, the second tier of university sports in Canada.

After a solid year in Alberta, Lubwele stepped up and joined the Nipissing University Lakers who play in the Ontario University Athletics conference of USports, the top tier of Canadian university sport. In 3 seasons with the Lakers (one was skipped due to the pandemic) Lubwele scored 46 points in 66 games. In his last season with the Lakers, Lubwele was the joint top scorer on the team as they finished second in the East Division and making the conference semi finals. Lubwele scored the opening goal of the Lakers’ first round win over the Ottawa Gee Gees before a 3-1 loss to McGill ended their playoff campaign. Lubwele was the joint recipient of the Dr Dennis Mock award, given to the Nipissing University Men’s Ice Hockey team’s MVP.

Whilst we start in the middle it makes sense to talk at the start at the ones expected to play the least amount of time. Roman Cathcart and Ollie Hemmings-Maher are two names that those involved heavily with the junior system in Basingstoke have mentioned to me for some time. The ability for them to see training time with the Bison at 16 seems innocent enough and their agreement to make them available for 4 teams is great for their development and likely making their parents cry due to the petrol prices. The bigger thing here is that again, having given the chance to Tom Banner, we see Basingstoke developed youngsters being given a look and a chance. Whilst I expect both Cathcart and Hemmings-Maher to feature during pre-season, I am not immediately expecting them to feature heavily in the immediate stages of the season unless there’s an injury. I am looking forward to seeing them both in action.

The easiest of the new additions to discuss is Lubwele because it’s easy to know what is expected of an import winger. One of the big criticisms of the Bison’s roster building as names were released was where are the goals going to come from? Admittedly this was despite Marcel Balaz scoring more goals than assists in 4 of the last six seasons but adding a Canadian winger who knows where the net is, comes off a season in a league that the Elite League has regularly used recently for imports where he was the team’s top goal scorer and MVP as well as having picked up a fair few penalty minutes across his career will spark excitement. This is a very Basingstoke hockey style player, the sort that fans will warm to quickly.

Immediate comparisons will be made to his former linemate in Nipissing, Colby Tower who as signed in Swindon for the season. Tower played more in the QMJHL than Lubwele. Lubwele was arguably more impactful for the Lakers than Tower. Ultimately both will be playing different roles for their respective teams. Tower arguably has the easier deal. Joining a Swindon team with attacking prowess like Nell, Bebris, Pakodzi, Chris Jones and Malasinski means that Tower who has a decent two-way game from the reports I’ve read doesn’t immediately have all the pressure of being the attack’s fulcrum on his shoulders. Lubwele comes to Basingstoke and he will be needed to score early and often. There are goals in this team but if Balaz is to be used as a centre then the initial feeling is maybe Balaz with Lubwele and Doughty or Milton but I wonder if that loads too much attacking pressure onto one line.

Lubwele comes with as good a pedigree as any other forward in the league bar a few and the excitement to see him on the ice will be high.

Where he plays is somewhat down to the other two additions and where they fit into Tait’s plan.

Edgars Landsbergs didn’t pull up trees last season with what can only be described as an underachieving MK Lightning. They had all the tools but as a roster they just couldn’t get over the line. Landsbergs’ 2 goals and 7 points in 36 games doesn’t scream of someone who got lots of minutes (he didn’t) or left a massive impression. Landsbergs suffered from the same issue that a lot of young players suffer from at clubs with larger rosters; they couldn’t break out because there wasn’t the space to. Zaine McKenzie found his way out of the situation by moving to the Bees. Mikey Power stepped into it after leaving the Bees. Callum Field has stayed the course with MK last season as did Landsbergs. McKenzie went back, Field went back, Power moved to Romford and will likely see sizeable 3rd line time and then there’s Edgars.

For me, Landsbergs is the more likely to start the season in the top six out of the two “British trained” newbies. He’ll be more of a known commodity at this level, he’s scored goals at this level.

Dusznik comes with a very similar pedigree to Landsbergs having played in a lot of the same or similar places even down to playing in the same league in Poland. Whilst Dusznik has a greater recent tradition of winning, including as a part of a very good Guildford side that was near perfect all season, he needs to be given time to adjust to the National Division level where Landsbergs knows what’s coming.

I asked then Guildford Phoenix coach, now Guildford Flames assistant coach Andy Hemmings what to expect from the young man and he was to the point, “Adrian is a highly skilled utility player, has great hands and can read the game well. He was a real asset to the Phoenix last season and I think he will do well for Bison.”

This gives both players as well as the rest of the Bison’s British depth an opportunity and an incentive. There is essentially a top 5 for the Bison now; Balaz Doughty, Lubwele, Milton and Norcliffe all of whom will need to step up on a nightly basis. There’s a spot there as well to be in the top six. Knowing what Ashley Tait is like there will be line shuffling. There will be game plans for certain situations, guys are going to get shuffled about but who is going to be that go to guy in the spot? I believe Landsbergs starts there but there’s a fair few guys, Dusznik included ready to step into that gap. The Bison have been criticised over this summer in some quarters for their lack of forward depth. It appears they have some approximation thereof, it’s just how they perform when and if given the chance.

The loss of Alex Sampford from the line up is a shame though the Bison press release leaves the door open to a potential return when his new personal circumstances settle so we won’t say goodbye so much as see you around on that front.

The Bison roster is complete and, as this piece comes out, around the time this goes live we’re just over 24 hours away from the puck dropping on pre-season. The pontificating and questioning will still go on for a few weeks as the kinks get worked out of legs and line combinations but people ask a lot how I think the Bison will do. The answer is simple; I don’t really know.

The roster looks decent, not world beating maybe but decent. The loss of Roberts’ goals and Harding’s quality at centre for two imports who have never played in Britain is a leap of faith but one that Tait has chosen to make and the fanbase has to accept. When on the recent episode of Swindon focussed podcast, “The Wildcast”, Joe Scutts of NIHL Stats (and now the Bees webcast, congrats sir) said he felt it would be a more defensively focussed Bison this season. That was admittedly before the Lubwele signing but it was something that I’d mooted in writing and on the What’s Current Stream; that the Bison might be going ugly this season. I kind of hope that they don’t but after a disappointing year with a 7th placed finish, after a season where the import recruiting saw an utter flop signed and the team poor defensively across the board, there needed to be changes. If that change is a much more structured system then let’s see that system in action.

This is a big year for Ashley Tait for many reasons. It’s his first season off the ice in some time, his first as a head coach in the literal sense of the road. We know that there will be player movement across the league and little is final but the first throw of the dice in this crazy game have been cast. We have the Basingstoke Bison. All that’s left to ask is what do they have for us?

Building the Herd – Baird, King and Sutton all return as the season ticks ever closer

As the calendar has now fully turned over into August and with teams across the NIHL National Division adding to their rosters, Ashley Tait added three more depth pieces to the Basingstoke Bison in the form of defencemen Brendan Baird and Jay King alongside forward Ryan Sutton.

(c) Jo Loat

26 year old Baird, like his older brother Joe, has become a mainstay of hockey in the south. By the end of his junior career in Bracknell where he won an under 18 national champion in 2014, Baird was already slowly edging his way into senior hockey having made his senior debut with the Bracknell Hornets in 2012 and his Bees debut in the 2013/14 season.

After finishing off his junior career, Baird swapped Bracknell for Basingstoke where he played alongside his elder brother. The Bison were unable to defend either of their titles from the previous season and Baird scored a single point in 32 games.

A drop down to NIHL 1 South proved productive for Baird, signing for the Wightlink Raiders and forming a very productive partnership with Chris Cooke who would later play for the Bison himself under Ashley Tait. When the Raiders folded 4 games into the 2016/17 season, Baird moved to the Oxford City Stars before moving to Streatham the following season and teaming up again with coach Jeremy Cornish as the Redhawks dealt with the influx to South 1 of the sides cut loose by the collapse of the EPL.

Baird moved back to Bracknell in 2018 where he was at his most productive points wise, scoring 10 goals and 40 points across two seasons before COVID struck. Baird won a South 1 streaming series title in the spring of 2021 with Slough before finally making his return to the Bison last season where he tallied 1 goal and 15 points in 47 league games.

Also 26, Edinburgh born King is a product of the Murrayfield junior system and made his EIHL debut with the Edinburgh Capitals in 2012/13 whilst still playing junior hockey (in what will come as a surprise to many Bison fans he scored 40 points in his last season of u18 hockey).

The next season for King was balanced out between the Capitals’ SNL side and the EIHL team before eventually King was a mainstay on the EIHL roster which led to King getting a GB under 20s call up in 2015/16 alongside the likes of Alex Forbes, Vanya Antonov and Ollie Stone. The issue for King? The Capitals were not very good, regularly playing short benched and by the end of their EIHL tenure losing by near cricket scores. With the club leaving the EIHL in 2018, this left King with a dilemma as to where to play.

King was the final signing of the first Ashley Tait season in Basingstoke where he literally danced his way into the hearts of the fanbase. Usually used as stay at home player, King has tallied 33 points in his three campaigns in Basingstoke.

By contrast, 27 year old Sutton is as Basingstoke as they come. Born in the town and a former Bison junior product, he made his senior debut in 2011/12 with appearances for the Buffalo and the Bison whilst playing in the u18s.

After a couple more years with the Buffalo where he went close to a point per game, Doug Sheppard called Sutton up to the Bison in 2015/16. Sutton would play for the Buffalo as well, going at a 2 point per game rate whilst appearing as a bit part player for the Herd, adding depth across the campaign as the club won its first league title since 1993.

The following season, Sutton took the chance to travel and headed to Canada to play in the Greater Metro Hockey League, a junior A league. He originally played for the Komoka Dragons who folded midseason and he joined the Tottenham Steam for the remainder of the campaign.

Sutton return to Britain in 2017 and had a career 23 point season as the Bison completed the treble. After following Doug Sheppard to Bracknell for a season, he returned to the Herd in 2019 and has remained since.

I’ve been scratching my head about Ryan Sutton ever since the announcement that Paul Petts was going to be used more as a centre. If I’d finally got some ounce of clarity in my mind about what was happening with Petts after years of confusion, I find myself now confused about Sutton and where he fits in to the Bison roster.

Now a chunk of this is due to the lack of who the Bison’s top 6 actually are. The other part of this is coming off of something of a flat year for him (3+4 = 7 points after 22 points the previous year) it’s just hard to see exactly how Sutton is allowed to rebound from this year given the make up of the roster is likely to see him firmly into the third line and given how Tait used them last year that doesn’t seem likely.

However why were the third line used like that last year? Stuff didn’t work and the team needed a line that just wouldn’t get scored on. Sometimes despite the optimism that the off-season brings and however much we liked the players that the Bison had last season, they finished 7th in a 9 team league. They blew the biggest game of their season when they were 4-2 up in the playoffs. We can’t have been expecting that sort of magic from a line that barely got 10 minutes a night and were sent out with the instruction to just get the puck away from the net. In the last 4 complete seasons, Ryan Sutton has two seasons over 20 points and two below 10. Maybe its confidence, maybe it’s conditioning, maybe it’s just the role he has been asked to play but what Ryan Sutton needs is a chance to cut loose and then he has to be consistent.

Baird and King are a different proposition as defencemen. Similar size, similar weight, both right shot defencemen and both on a team that conceded 190 goals last season. This site has criticised the Bison’s team defence from last year and as a whole, the roster just made poor choices at times last year. File again under “it didn’t work”.

If we work under the premise that the Morris is playing on defence again, the return of Baird and King makes a blueline unit of 6 which is entirely workable for a roster. Stone is swapped for Kelly, Banner plays the full season and hopefully Jones stays fit. It looks OK but people would be forgiven for not doing cartwheels about the blueline off of the back of last season given it’s virtually identical.

King’s attacking output has decreased every season since his arrival and at times last campaign his positioning saw him caught out more often than he should have been. He also took a flying Superman punch at Sean Norris. Baird had solid attacking output but his performances flip-flopped in their consistency at times and even so was still one of the better performing defencemen on the roster.

The proof will really be in the pudding for this Bison defence unit. There’s an argument being made by some that the National Division lacks a glut of top tier defencemen. The Herd have one in Adam Jones and if he stays fit, the new coach will lead the line once again but experienced guys like King with Elite League experience and Baird who has been around a while now must step up this season if the Herd are going to mount any sort of a challenge.

For me, Baird being allowed to wander forward a bit is a better way of employing him as he has the better shot. King needs to be a stay at home guy and just be a pig to get past. Those arguably suit the games of both of them but, like many of last season’s returnees, they just need to be consistent. There will be an adjustment of systems for the defence given Jones’ increased input as assistant coach and hopefully they work. In the same way we couldn’t expect any of the third line last season, no Bison fans wants miracles from either Baird or King as they aren’t those kind of players. They just need to do what needs to be done then start pushing the envelope. Both are decent hockey players both are solid defensive options in this league and there is nothing else that they need to be. We know that Jordan Lawday and Alex Mettam are good, they are arguably the best netminding duo in the league as a 1-2 punch. They need protection, better protection than they got last season. The ability was always there, what is now needed is execution.

Goodnight and Good Luck – Dewey, Roberts and Stone depart the Bison

Photo (c) Jo Loat

Building the Herd – Paul Petts

The Herd’s roster has undergone some changes in the days since this site last posted. I took some time away to celebrate my son’s birthday and my own and a lot changed for the Basingstoke Bison. It would be unfair to bury a returnee to the Herd roster beneath the news and confusion surrounding the departures from the Herd this summer. With that in mind, and to hark back to something I’ve done before, this article is more a letter to one person.

(c) Jo Loat

Hey Paul,

Firstly congratulations to you and your other half on the birth of your son. Having been in your position just about 5 years ago, I can only imagine the utter adrenaline dump that you’ve been on for the last little while. The sleep deprivation is likely kicking in a bit but it doesn’t matter because every new little movement or smile or noise they make makes it all worthwhile. Soak it all in, take all the pictures and make sure you enjoy it. When you need it, I can recommend a really good portable high chair.

However, let’s move away from that and to the hockey for a minute. You see every year you’ve re-signed for the Herd you have consistently been one of the hardest people to write about. That’s not a bad thing in and of itself. I actually quite enjoy the challenge things that are hard to write but on the ice, to me, you remain something of an enigma.

The nature of having done this for a while means that I get to hear a good snapshot of people’s opinions on things. Don’t worry, I’m not about to deliberately shatter your self confidence here, people genuinely like you. Many appreciate the effort that you put in. People have never accused you of taking a shift off. No, why you’re hard to write about is I’m still not sure all these years on that either Doug Sheppard or Ashley Tait has been 100% sure how to use you to the best of your talents.

Having watched you for a while now, you’ve been used in a variety of roles and you have put your all into doing them but very little felt like it stuck. You’ve been moved around more than a grandmaster’s chess piece and all the while it’s been hard to really pin down exactly what the plan was with you. I actually think you deserve a lot more credit that you get for that because you did what hockey players should do; you were asked to do a job, you went out and did it. It wasn’t about points (though I was very happy you got that goal in that Swindon game at the end of the season), it wasn’t about whose face you had to get into or what dirty work you needed to do, you just did it. It’s been mentioned on here before, hockey teams rely on guys who will do what needs to be done.

Then there was a line in the Gazette article about your return. “Last year Pettsy switched from wing to the middle and I felt he did really well” was what Ashley Tait said and it reassured me slightly. It was a hook, an idea that there is something. The way you play screams two-way centre, you were reportedly a very handy one in juniors, and after seemingly having been asked to nearly everything else that idea that there’s a concrete plan feels like a door opened that we’re going to see Paul Petts with a role to grow into over the coming season. Depth and consistency are key for teams in the National Division and someone who can be capable at both ends of the ice whilst providing to be solid in the middle is going to be huge.

So thanks, Paul. Thanks for putting in that effort, thanks for being so tough to write about. That uncertainty as to what’s going to happen is great but I’m looking forward to seeing what a more structured role for you does. There’s an opening at centre on this roster, that door is open. It may not be glamourous but it’s important. I look forward to watching you rise to the challenge.

Now stop reading this nonsense and go play with your son. We’ll see you in September.

Building the Herd – Marcel Balaz

Photo by Yvan Breton

Building the Herd – Bison fire out 4 signings during plethora of news

Tom Banner makes the opening night roster. (c) Jo Loat

After things feeling a bit piecemeal for the last few weeks with one signing a week, the Basingstoke Bison suddenly came lurching to life with an array of news within the space of a few days. Season tickets were released, the NIHL National Division fixture list was released and Ashley Tait added three returnees from last season and one new/old player.

As the only forward in the group announced, the return of Hallam Wilson wasn’t met with no reception but in some ways it was the quietest. A 4 goal, 7 point season with 8 penalty minutes speaks to the role that Wilson played. None of us can sit here and say that Hallam Wilson is the forefront of the club’s attacking output.

As the season went on, the line of Wilson, Sampford and Sutton slowly became more and more focussed on one thing; don’t get scored on. Whenever I talk to people and I’m sure many of us have said that the point of hockey is to put the puck in the net. That’s a half truth. The point of hockey is to put the puck into the net more times than the other team do. That’s the job of a shutdown forward line; to help deny the other team scoring opportunities, draw penalties if you can and to allow the bigger attacking threats time to rest before it happens again. Sure, if the opportunities arise to go on the offence then they are there to be taken but the goal is not the goal here.

In some ways this is a shame for Wilson because, and I maintain this, he has a good shot on him. The issue for him is that his chances to play up the lines have not yielded the results arguably required. Wilson will play up the lines during the season because injuries are a thing and Ashley Tait likes to try out game plans against certain teams at certain times and when those happen, he needs to take them.

Wilson has developed an ability for what some would call “the dark arts” over the last season and developed into quite a nice little agitator. This works for the role on the third line however it is a transferable skill. As and when he gets a look in outside the bottom six, he needs to focus in on taking his chances. There’s no shame in being a depth forward, all teams need them and a team of high end skill guys wouldn’t work but being a depth forward able to play a dearth of roles will only serve him and the team well.

In a similar way to Hallam, albeit on the back end, Josh Kelly’s return to Basingstoke whilst kind of unexpected does fit with what the club needed. The departure of Ollie Stone back to his hometown club left a gap for a stay at home, left shot defenceman and with his recent departure from the Bees it was a relatively straightforward choice to bring the former Bison junior back to Basingstoke.

Kelly’s time with the Bees started promisingly during the pandemic. As the Bees played in the NIHL Spring Cup streaming series he posted an impressive 2 goals and 3 points in 12 games. He followed this up last season in Slough with 6 assists in 43 games which arguably saw Kelly revert more to type. Despite the fact in junior at u18 level he scored 6 goals in 20 games one season and having a self confessed like of joining the rush, he has the numbers of a player who gets a nosebleed if he crosses the centre line.

Flippancy aside, Kelly is into a real proving ground season for him. Having been a depth defenceman on the Bison and having gone to the Bees looking for more minutes, Kelly saw his ice time decrease as he fell out of favour a bit as the season went on. It’s easy to see this as “he didn’t play well” when it could have been a case of odd man out or wrong man, wrong place, wrong time as the season went on. He’s not back in Basingstoke with a chance not just to prove people wrong but to really establish himself as a solid defensive option in this league. Can Kelly add more points to his arsenal? Absolutely but Kelly joins a team who struggled with defensive positioning and overall team defensive consistency across the 21/22 season. Much like with Liam Morris, all the Bison arguably need is Josh Kelly to just do his job. If he wants to get goals too, great but be solid in your own end. That’s literally the job description.

Tom Banner actually makes it into a Building the Herd piece after never officially being announced last year. The 19 year old former u15 and u18 Junior Bison captain started 2021/22 with the Slough Jets where he scored 2 points in 15 games. This was arguably the best place for Banner who was above the level of NIHL 2 and got to play on a very solid Slough side that is turning into a really good place for young players to get ice time. Then Christmas came and a swathe of the Herd roster got COVID. Banner was called up and thrown into the fire. He’d already made his debut for the Bison pre-pandemic as a guest appearance but suddenly Banner was really into the game, usually accompanying a certain player that we’ll discuss momentarily but it was good to have a young Basingstoke prospect make his way through, get onto the roster because there was a need for him and he earned his way not only to staying last season but to come back.

Tom Banner is by no means the finished product. I remember seeing him in his early games with the Herd and to be brutally honest, he looked terrified. He’d stand on the blueline for the anthem and look like a deer in the headlights. Behind dinner plate wide eyes however is a very keen hockey mind.

Every player that I’ve spoken to says that Banner is an eager and veracious learner. As a loud mouthed smartarse, I appreciate this trait. It was obvious at times on the ice that Banner’s key thing that he needs to improve is just that decision making process on the ice. He knows what he’s doing, he’s had it drilled into him but now it’s making that step up. People will get frustrated if he makes mistakes and that’s reasonable but the spoiler here is that he should be making mistakes entering his first full season of second tier hockey. The league is meant to be for a Tom Banner. This is where he should be honing those skills and pushing on. The lad is a project player. He’s not about to go straight to the Elite League by any stretch but this is a season for refining and seasoning his game. He’s likely going to have a very able partner to help him.

Player and player/coach becomes player/assistant coach and just coach for 2022/23. (c) Jo Loat

Injury kept Adam Jones out of the majority of the back end of the Herd’s season. The club’s number one defenceman, powerplay quarterback and arguably best player of the Ashley Tait era was a massive gap in the Bison’s lineup when he wasn’t there. Few had standout years last season in Basingstoke but Jones’ injury woes combined with the team’s wonky defence didn’t help him or the team.

However when he was on, he was on. Whether shepherding Banner on the ice, starting the breakout, joining the rush of just firing a canon of a shot, Jones has all the attacking tools. With his good use of his size, willingness to take the body and being fine defending his team when needed, on his day Adam Jones is a first team all star in this league by a sizeable distance.

It is vital for Jones to stay healthy this season. I’ve said before that he should be playing above this level. He was of course, going to do so having signed for Fife but the pandemic hit and he never made his way to Scotland. Instead we got extra years of a legitimate leading defender. However without him the Bison defence faltered. The pressing forward and breakout responsibilities were easily sorted but the key thing with Jones is that he is, by and large, good at defending. There was nobody who stepped into that role. The blueline corps was unbalanced without him. Nobody was able to adequately fill the void that he left. The Bison shouldn’t hang all of their hopes on one player. They did win games without Jones as well but for the club to improve their lot this season will require their top players being mostly injury free.

The addition of the assistant coach tag to Jones’ job title is intriguing if only to see what he’ll actually be in charge of. You’d assume that the defensive structure would be the bulk of his workload. It does seem a strange decision to make a 26 year old assistant coach. If it’s what was needed to entice Jones back to the team so be it.

Having had zero defenceman last week, the Herd now have three and it leaves more questions as there’s only one pairing and where does Kelly sit in the hierarchy? Wilson’s return is more straightforward though currently is the only bottom 6 style forward on the roster so who joins him remains the source of speculation.

Building the Herd – Liam Morris

Photo (c) Jo Loat