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.
The BOTW Podcast; the news, action and views from the EPIHL and all levels above, below and in between.
#?? Jake James (JJ) Pitchley
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.
#86 Joe Rand
Born: Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Announced as signed: Basingstoke Gazette, 11th June
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.
#63 Aaron Connolly
Born: Northfleet, Kent
Announced as signed: Bison season ticket night, 4th June
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.
#17 Grant Rounding
Born: Johannesburg, South Africa
Announced as signed: Bison season ticket night, 4th June
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.
#94 Stuart Mogg
Born: Basingstoke, Hampshire
Announced as signed: Bison season ticket night, 4th June
Bison coach Doug Sheppard pulled out three signings on season ticket night to add to the Herd’s 2015/16 roster; 3 returnees and a new captain for the club but we’ll start with the two time most improved player and newly minted defenceman, Stuart Mogg.
20 year old Mogg enters fourth campaign with the Bison since his return from the Toronto Attack in 2013. The former Bison junior changed clubs to Slough in 2010 and made his senior debut that season with the old Jets’ NIHL side and played his first EPL game that season. After 2 seasons in Slough playing EPL, NIHL 1, NIHL 2 and under18s Mogg took up the offer to move to Canada and join the Attack of the GMHL. He spent half the season in Canada before returning home and spent the rest of the season with the Bison and the Buffalo.
Mogg signed his first full season contract with the Bison the next year playing 50 times and scoring 3 goals and 2 assists as the Herd landed their first two trophies for over a decade. After winning the most improved player, Mogg returned for 2014/15 icing for the full league and cup campaign scoring 9 points in 54 games which saw Mogg spend the back end of the season on defence.
The Southampton Solent University student (and as a Southampton graduate, I don’t hold that against him…much) also helped the Southampton Spitfires retain their British universities national championship last month.
This is something of a pleasant surprise from a writing perspective. I think, if we all asked ourselves the question hard enough, that we knew Mogg would likely return to the Bison for this season. The change of position however is certainly very interesting.
Mogg has played forward for the large majority of his career in juniors and seniors including his stint with GB at the Universiade. He’s never been the most natural of goal scorers but over the last couple of seasons really seemed to be moving towards developing into a very good two way player; being that centre who would never score you 60 points but might get you 30-35 points and be incredibly good at both ends of the ice. Mogg obviously wasn’t at that point yet but the potential was certainly there.
Then the injuries in the Bison defence hit and there was a hole that needed filling which saw Mogg and Michael Wales both end up taking shifts on defence. Mogg looked a bit shaky when he first went out but grew into the role to the point that when both Baird brothers returned from injury, Wales moved back to forward but Mogg remained on the blueline with Baird the Younger being relegated to the bench which says something about the trust Sheppard placed in Mogg and his adaptability.
It’s a brave move for Mogg but also a smart one. In the last couple of seasons, the Bison have had a glut of depth in the forward positions. Whilst this has been good in terms of the Bison being able to run 4 lines, it’s meant that bar injury opportunities for the younger forwards to play more minutes have been limited. Whether the Bison were going to run 5 or 6 defencemen, the original plan appeared to be finally seeing Simon Hobbis in the EPL but with the Isle of Wight youngster moving to America for 2015/16, an opening has appeared and Mogg has seen his opportunity to carve out more of a niche for himself.
Already a very defensively responsible player, Mogg now gets time to focus on honing the skills needed to play as a defenceman full time whilst being able to step into the forward ranks should something go awry. Mogg doesn’t need to be higher than a 5th defenceman at the moment in the regular rotation and it’s a defensive corps that’s been playing together for a fair amount of time already. Add the newly signed Hiadlovsky into the mix as netminder, Mogg is obviously taking something of a step into the unknown but that’s a cracking support network to have if you’re going to make such a step.
Stuart Mogg was, in a way, at something of a crossroads in his career; he could have kept on with keeping on and possibly got lost in the shuffle. Instead he’s taken something of a risk that could ultimately really help the team and his hockey career.
Welcome back, Moggy.
We’ve got another off season bumper show this episode; InGoal Magazine, the man behind One Puck Short and former NIHL goalie Rob McGregor joins Anthony on the show to go over the last month’s worth of British hockey news from signings to the new under 20s league and more.
All that and Anthony gets some stuff off of his chest about the Red Hockey/Silverblades fiasco in Manchester.
The BOTW Podcast; the news, action and views from the EPIHL and all levels above, below and in between.
WARNING: There is one useage of adult language in this episode. It’s once, that’s it. I’m not sticking adult language all over this but you’ve been warned in case you’re sensitive to such things.