Building the Herd – Michal Klejna and Ryan Sutton

#26 Michal Klejna

Position: Forward

Born: Skalica, Slovakia

Announced as signed: Basingstoke Gazette, 16th May

#61 Ryan Sutton

Position: Forward

Born: Basingstoke, Hampshire

Announced as signed: Bison Website, 14th May


Building the Herd – Adam Harding

#4 Adam Harding

Position: Forward

Born: Caerdydd, Cymru

Announced as signed: Basingstoke Gazette, 9th May

Another Bison signs on for 2 seasons as Adam Harding has put pen to paper till 2021.
(c) 5 Hole Photography

The Basingstoke Bison seem to be fully into their announcement season and added to their forward contingent with the signing of Adam Harding for the next two seasons.

Over in Swindon and with the Wildcats side playing inconsistently, Aaron Nell rang the changes. Despite being just over a point per game, Harding was released to make way for the return of Jonas Höög. It clearly worked for the Wildcats as they went on a run after Christmas losing only 1 league game after Christmas on their way to the league title. However the move also worked for 26 year old Harding. Harding’s scoring rate increased and he scored 31 points in 21 league and playoff games for the Herd.

Harding’s history has seen the young man travel across the country and North America to play his hockey. A product of the Cardiff junior system, Harding ended up in the junior system at Swindon for a while playing alongside Ciaran Long and Sam Waller before making his way to Calgary, Alberta, Canada to play for the SISEC Academy for a couple of seasons.

After time in Canada, Harding moved to the hockey hotbed of Simi Valley, California and the California Titans for a season (playing alongside the fantastically named Taylor Crunk) and making his GB under 18 debut before choosing to return home.

Heading back to Wales in 2011, Harding made appearances for the Cardiff Devils in the EIHL and ENL before moving to Swindon in the old EPIHL. After some impressive guest appearances for the Manchester Storm, the Lancashire side made the move permanent for 2016/17 before a move to Dundee Stars beckoned.

In the summer of 2018 with a deal not to be done in Dundee, Harding headed back to Swindon for their assault on NIHL 1 South. The rest is history.

The first question that this signing throws up is a question that hangs over the wider situation in Basingstoke hockey. The Bison now have two British forwards signed up to two year contracts. From a playing staff angle this is obviously promising to have guys who can be part of a solid core locked in for two season but the wider issues of the rink continue to loom large. The old joke is that contracts in British hockey are not worth the paper that they are written on but with the rink in its current condition, will the club be in a position to honour them? George Norcliffe and Adam Harding seem happy enough to have signed them so have likely been given some assurances. BOTW asked the Bison for comment. They have not given one at this time.

The return of Harding to the Bison is a decent response to the loss of Russ Cowley but also the departure of Cowley arguable bodes well for Harding. When the Welshman first joined the Bison it felt like it took a while to properly fit him into the line up. With the Bison facing the prospect of Liam Morris getting a lengthy suspension, the acquisition of a newly free Harding made sense for the Herd but with the two of them together on occasions just didn’t seem to fit, at least not to this writer. Lines got juggled and changed about to try and accommodate Harding and he played with a variety of people depending on the opposition and how they wanted him to play as a centre. Sometimes it was with Norcliffe and Sampford, others with Tait and Klejna, others with Morris and Wilson, others with Bordowski and Norcliffe. It was a real mix if you then include who he played with on special teams, he played on a line with pretty much everyone on the roster.

Whilst the departure of Cowley is an obvious blow, with Harding opting to return it means it becomes easier for Tait to fit Harding fully into the line up. Do not misunderstand us, Harding’s versatility is arguably his greatest attribute. Able to play across the lines and special teams, Harding can grind or crash and bang as he needs to but his game is better suited to being that top 6 centre. He can be responsible in his own end but also be able to set up the attack and put the puck on the stick of the winger or even score himself. A couple of times Harding scored good goals sneaking to the back post when the defence were occupied dealing with the wingers. With the opportunity to either set something up or even recruit other wingers suitable to play either side of Harding, there’s a chance to make a versatile and effective player even more effective depending on how Ashley Tait builds the roster.

Whilst it remains too early to guess at line combinations (we can do that with Peterborough given they’ve announced pretty much the entire roster today like they’re an Australian league side), it’s good to have a talented and multifaceted player committing to the project for the next two seasons. Big import names alone won’t win titles, it’s depth and combined ability. We await the addition of more pieces.

Welcome back, Adam.

Building the Herd – George Norcliffe

#16 George Norcliffe

Position: Forward

Born: Guildford, Surrey

Announced as signed: Basingstoke Gazette, Thursday 2nd May

(c) 5 Hole Photography

Last Wednesday night when the news of the return of Richard Bordowski hit the public domain, fans of the Basingstoke Bison were excited enough. However they were treated to more good news the following day when the club announced the return to the club of George Norcliffe on a two year contract.

The 25 year old former Guildford junior made his senior hockey debut in a 1 game spell with Oxford before stepping into senior hockey fully in 2012 with Solent Devils. After 4 years in Gosport, Norcliffe moved to the Isle of Wight only to have the club closed down due to the closure of the rink. Norcliffe and others moved with Jeremy Cornish to South London and Streatham. The following summer, the EPL collapsed and Norcliffe was tempted away to Bracknell as the Bees moved into NIHL 1 South. In the summer of 2018 with all the changes at Bracknell, Norcliffe was not wanted in the new order in Berkshire and made his way to Hampshire and to Basingstoke where he had a comical start to his Bison career as the local newspaper accidentally credited him as Gordon.

Norcliffe responded by having arguably the best year of his hockey career. Whilst statistically not his best season, the NIHL that Norcliffe scored 43 points in back in 2015 was a thing of the past. Signed as depth, Norcliffe initially formed a promising combination with Danny Ingoldsby and Hallam Wilson before injuries and suspensions meant that Norcliffe had an opportunity higher up the lines and he grabbed it with both hands. He proved to be a useful foil creating space for the skilled players but also proving a goal threat himself either by driving to the net or by being the screen on the powerplay earning himself important goals against Bracknell and in the second leg of the Southern Cup final against Peterborough. His performances saw him named the BOTW Player of the Year for 2018/19.

I’ve taken a while to write this piece because I have to confess to having struggled for a while to gather my thoughts. Who doesn’t like George Norcliffe? Well, goalies he’s scored against and probably some grumpy bloke somewhere but he’s a guy that it’s really hard to dislike. Maybe sometimes guilty of the old adage on here of working hard rather than smart but he’s just one of those players that it’s fun to watch.

To say that George Norcliffe exceeded all expectations that everyone had for him, including himself would be something of an understatement. Word was put forward that the only reason the Surrey born forward ended up with the Bison was because when Doug Sheppard took over at Bracknell, he was advised not to keep him. Whether true or just folklore, it’s worked out well for the Bison and the man himself.

Last season in Basingstoke was good for a lot of players in a lot of ways. A team thrown together meant that whilst there was pressure, it was freer in some ways. Given all the fuss about the changes and the rink many were just happy that there was a team. Nobody was immune from criticism but there was little in the way of expectation from anyone. This site didn’t even predict what sort of player we were getting from Norcliffe, we wrote a letter asking him to turn up and care. We need not have asked something so trivial of him.

George’s performances were something that you needed from the British depth on the roster. When the player of the year panel from this site ended up with him as our player of the year, we were all pleased with it. In some ways it would have been easy to give it to a big name, someone who was arguably flashier in their style but the way we worked it all out, it hadn’t gone to arguably the shiniest piece but one of our workhorses. That he’s been given a two year deal is a reasonable reward for a stand out season and as a means of securing a key piece.

The crux of the matter now for Norcliffe is that he has to deliver on that promising first campaign in Basingstoke. Whilst I hope that sense of freedom remains within Basingstoke, that acceptance from the fanbase and the lack of unrealistic demands upon the roster, there is that bit of expectation now. In our season ending piece we talked about the fact that there was more to the story of this roster to come and Norcliffe as an individual could be a big part of that. He’s now got to step up and be that bit more of a leader, maybe not necessarily with a letter on his uniform but in his play. It’s keeping that level of consistency up where he remains a scoring threat if he’s asked to play first or second line, to convert on the powerplay and to build himself into a consistent 20 point or even 30 point scorer this season coming campaign.

The above comes with the caveat that this season will be different. Whilst NIHL 1 South was more competitive than the northern division last season, this is a step up in quality and without a doubt, the highest level of senior competition that Norcliffe will have played at.

In amongst all the threads woven in 2018/19, George Norcliffe was one of the more intriguing stories. Who he plays with as a line mate remains a mystery at the moment and we’ll work on those as the roster is revealed over the summer. However George has a massive chance to really step into the limelight in this coming season. He won’t lead the line, he’s not a player you sign to be a top scorer but last season showed just how well rounded a performer he can be and the Bison will need that trend to continue. If nothing else, he has two more attempts to secure the most drinkable trophy in sports.

Welcome back, Gordon.

Building the Herd – Richard Bordowski

#8 Richard Bordowski

Position: Forward

Born: Třinec, Moravskoslezský kraj, Czechia

Announced as signed: Bison website 1st May

Richard Bordowski will be returning to Basingstoke to join the Bison’s adventure into the NIHL National League.
(c) 5 Hole Photography

With other some local National League clubs making big announcements and the MK Lightning racing ahead of others to announce big names, the Bison decided to dip their toe into the pool of announcements. With both netminders already secured for the upcoming campaign, Bison coach Ashley Tait decided to fire his own shot across the bow of the opposition by confirming the return of Czech import forward Richard Bordowski.

Bordowksi, who turns 37 in June, came to Britain after a prolific career in his homeland then preceded his time in Basingstoke with 8 years in Poland where he had two silver medals, two bronze medals and a Polish Cup winners medal with KH GKS Jastrzebie from whom he joined the Herd.

Bordowski put in an impressive first season with the Bison, tallying 58 points in 39 league and cup games as well as 7 points in the playoffs. Forming a good partnership with Russ Cowley, Bordowski was able to play a mix of high skill as well as traditional power forward roll where he regularly mixed high quality passing and shooting with trademark dashes to the net. Whilst injury marred the end of his regular season, Bordowski played a massive part in helping the Bison reach the Southern Cup final as well as the playoff semi finals. His season will likely be best remembered for his 4 goal effort that saw the Bison come fro 5-1 down to win 6-5 over Romford in overtime in November 2018.

When the Bison made the predicted jump from NIHL 1 South to a newly devised NIHL National League the usual discussion about roster moves became all the more prescient. One thing I did not think would seriously stick around was the notion of two imports in a new national league. I have to confess to still being slightly sceptical that this idea makes it to the start line but it did immediately throw up a question of whether, if any, of the Herd’s two imports would make the return for this new venture. We obviously don’t know about Klejna but we’re now fully in the know that Bordowski will be back.

Whilst I am surprised to a point, I think this is a positive move for the Bison. Some will question the age and some will obviously be concerned given the games missed due to injury last season but it’s a calculable risk for Ashley Tait to take given the return that we’ve seen that Bordowski is capable of.

People will look back to that Romford game and it’s easy to use an extreme example and over use it to try to make it prove the point. However it did encapsulate a lot about what Bordowksi offers as a player across the season in a short space of time. Teams need skill, teams need grit, teams need players that can do all three. The Bison had guys who could do a bit of everything but what they needed at times was a player that could put the team or the game or both on their back and just carry the team when it needed it. Tait and Klejna were more guys for moments of brilliance, Cowley could do it but he’s understandably left, Bordowksi returning is therefore massive for the Herd in terms of a known commodity on the roster than can split a game or when the team needs to be dragged kicking and screaming back into it.

The question of course now arises for Tait of who plays with Bordowski. The other recent returnee in George Norcliffe becomes an obvious person to mention (and more on Norcliffe to come) though I do wonder if that’s a knee jerk reaction. If you have Bordowski, who’s a better winger than a centre, and Norcliffe who is 100% a winger not a centre, both driving the net are we playing a dual threat game to give space to the centre or overcommitting going forward? It’s a delicate balance.

It’s also a complete hypothetical because at the moment the roster officially contains 3 forwards including Tait and given the amount of time that Tait and Bordowski played together wasn’t massive I don’t think we have our first line combination already set.

Part of me almost wanted the imports to be announced late to see how they would be slotted into the line up alongside all the other Brits but with the announcement of returnees elsewhere including the Malinik announcement at Bracknell as well as the rumour mill starting to turn you can forgive the Bison for doing it. It’s certainly proven to be a popular decision.

Welcome back, Bordo.

Building the Herd – Alex Mettam and Dan Weller-Evans

#28 Alex Mettam

Position: Netminder

Born: Sheffield, People’s Republic of Yorkshire

Announced as signed: Bison end of season awards, 18th April

#25 Dan Weller-Evans

Position: Netminder

Born: Pen-y-bont ar Ogwr, Morgannwg, Cymru

Announced as signed: Bison end of season awards, 18th April

Why write when one of #TeamGoalie wants to chat? Dan chatted to Anthony about last season, him and Alex as well as answering your questions.

Goodnight and Good Luck – Russ Cowley

With comings, there are goings and with a small nucleus of the Bison coming together we take a moment to look at the first departure from the most recent Herd roster as Russ Cowley chooses not to return.

After returning from a year out of hockey, Russ Cowley returned to the ice with the Bison but will not return for 2019/20.
(c) 5 Hole Photography

What have we lost:

With Cowley going, this new look Bison roster loses a number of things all at once; the captain, a point per game player, a veteran, a top line centre, a first team all star and an elite British player at this level. It’s a big hole for the Bison to fill. Cowley’s 49 points in 38 South 1 games doesn’t look immediately impressive to the outsider when you read some of the numbers from North 1 but the leagues are vastly different in their competitiveness and style. Ultimately the people who choose the all star teams felt the same way as many Bison fans in that Russ Cowley is a gem of a player at NIHL level.

Where has he gone?

Russ has signed with the Milton Keynes Lightning for 2019/20. The Lightning are still somewhat embroiled in a variety of issues from their final EIHL from a grievance with their coach from the start of the season to unpaid players to a group but their move back to British hockey’s second tier under new coach Lewis Clifford has already yielded results. Christie’s first three signings are highly touted netminder Jordan Lawday, Cowley and the return to Milton Keynes of popular utility player Leigh Jamieson who returns after time at Peterborough and Streatham.

Who replaces him?

At the moment, nobody else bar the netminders have been announced so that change will come out in time.

Final thoughts:

Having covered this club in the second tier of British hockey since its inception this site has gotten used to a very simple truth about really good players; they will leave. This isn’t more harking back to last summer which was a true anomaly. Very few stay anywhere for a long time in British hockey at all without moving for one reason or another. Players like Kurt Reynolds are the exception rather than the rule in Basingstoke and even Cowley himself, with his jersey hanging from the rafters in the Coventry Skydome from his time at the Blaze, is not immune to the fluctuations of lower league sport and life.

The Doctor wasn’t a fancy nickname; Russ Cowley returned to the sport in 2018 after a season out where he completed his PhD and this site spoke to Russ in the summer about his signing. Ashley Tait coaxed (to a point) the former GB international out of retirement and back into playing a lighter schedule because Cowley wanted to play.

Play he did; from the start of the season Cowley had clearly not lost a step from his year away. Whilst many of us never quite got used to seeing him in a full face cage, it was like the Cowley of old. Playing up front rather than having to flit between centre and defence, Cowley was the team’s first line centre in all but a handful of situations. It worked for the Herd as Cowley was the team’s best distributor of the puck. Whilst arguably at his most effective alongside Richard Bordowski, Cowley would and could play with anyone.

However it’s been a long season for Cowley. Commuting from Coventry whilst working as a university lecturer at Birmingham City University and then having to spend large chunks of weekends away from a pregnant wife and young daughter is not conducive to a good work/life balance some would argue. Whilst the Lightning are making a new start amongst a variety of issues, it’s a much better fit for Cowley if not stylistically (from what we can guess of how Christie coached the MK Thunder last season) then at least personally. Not travelling hours to training but less than an hour meaning its easy to get back home. During the massive snow storms early in 2019, Cowley once drove 12 hours through the snow and traffic to get to Basingstoke to train and play. That’s commendable, that’s what we know of the man Russ Cowley is, but that’s not a sustainable option if something goes wrong with the roads or the car or whatever.

It’s a big loss for the Bison but it’s an understandable one as well as one that the fanbase have readily accepted. Cowley was the right person in the right place at the right time for the Herd. Yes the club needed that top end British player to help lead the line but the club and the fans needed stability after that frustrating summer of 2018 and got someone who personifies stability and professionalism.

All the best, Russ and thanks for being there at the start of this new era. We wish you and your family the best ahead of the new arrival.

Curtain Down 2018/19

As another season has sunk away into the midst of time, it’s time for Banners On The Wall to wrap everything up as we usually do; to close the door on the season before. This is Curtain Down.

Playoff weekend

I always enjoy playoff weekend but I knew something was going my way when I read messages of people having tough journeys to Coventry and I breezed through every major obstacle and rocked up at my friends’ house in just over 2 hours.

Paul and Becky Shipman have always been gracious enough to let me stay at theirs over the playoff weekend and my thanks has to go to them again for putting me up as well as to their young son Sampson for letting me crash in his room when I needed a nap.

After taking part in some Shipman family fun that included watching people run, outdoor gym equipment, a zip line, a podium photo and 11 people sat around a table eating bacon sandwiches (thanks John and Sue), I hit the centre of town and the hockey.

Sometimes the hockey at playoff weekends can be tentative and nervy whether your team are there or not. There was certainly nerves but it wasn’t tentative which mostly came down to the antics of the winners of the weekend, Hull Pirates.

Never afraid to push the play and attack, the Pirates have always played a high press, physical game and they didn’t change for this weekend. During the first period of their game against Bracknell they didn’t play well but adjusted in the first break and then blew an unimaginative and stilted Bracknell side away.

In the final against a Peterborough side who outlasted and punished Sheffield, the Pirates played their game and it worked. Knowing it would be high risk but high reward with a good rather than great netminder in Ashley Smith between the pipes, the Pirates could see what the Phantoms were going to do; get the lead and shut it down. So what did they do? Not allow the Phantoms to get the lead and kept pressing. Allowing the pressure to come to you and being pushed back are very different things. The Phantoms had the quality to score, exemplified by the frankly bizarre sight of Callum Buglass doing a Patrick Kane impression, but this wasn’t the game that they wanted to play. They didn’t want the physicality and they didn’t want the run and gun. Hull didn’t give them a choice. Phantoms forced overtime but, as Bison off ice official Mark Taylor said to me when Smith dropped a shot onto the post, “put their name on the trophy now as they’re not losing after that”. He wasn’t wrong and the winning goal from Bobby Chamberlain was a very Hull goal. It was a fitting end to the weekend from a hockey perspective.

The Coventry Skydome was busier than the season before which was good to see. The Whitley fans were in good voice and putting them next to the Romford fans was a stroke of genius as those guys mixed with beer and a sing-song was a sight to behold. I am unaware of any issues and if nothing else the gin bar appears to have gone down very well, much to the delight of Chris Carpenter who manages the Skydome.

It’s obviously a different weekend with no Bison there but it was also good as I think it allowed me to concentrate more on my friends and the BOTW stuff that I recorded and did across the weekend. Sadly with no wifi for the media in the rink (and between the EIHA and the rink, they really do need to sort that) it meant the somewhat odd sight of a What’s Current Stream from Wagamama’s in Coventry so viewers got a mix of hockey punditry from me and my friends as well as my dinner. I take BOTW seriously but never take myself seriously; it seemed a fitting way to sum up the weekend.

The Bison

On this site we’ve always made a point in this piece of grading the season for the Herd. I initially wondered if that was possible this year or even fair. The roster was built in half the time that any coach would want to do such a thing. Do we give them a pass?

Ultimately, no. We do not give them a pass from being graded but we do need to grade on the curve. The Bison get a B for the season, a solid B but I don’t think they deserve an A. An A season or even an A minus season should be reserved for trophy winning seasons. There are no trophies. Arguably there should have been and some of the officiating decisions in the second leg of the Southern Cup Final not withstanding it could have been but I think a B grade is a fair reflection of what happened this season. It was predicted to be terrible, it could have been terrible but it wasn’t. This group deserve a massive amount of respect for coming together as they did, for showing no care for anything outside of themselves or what anyone thought. They’ve left us wanting more which is advantageous because there is more for them to do.

With a full summer to recruit, good contacts and now as a proven coach with an accolade for that coaching to hang his hat on, Ashley Tait’s goal must be silverware not as a pleasant by-product of a roster built at speed, but as a real goal of a roster that goes into this new national league to do damage. Not every player will come back and in the cold light of day upgrades can and will be made to this roster. However when you consider where we were last season, that B I think is a fair reflection. It’s been good but there’s room to grow. Let’s watch them grow.

The thanks

My wife Emily and my son Nathan always deserve the biggest thanks for their support and understanding. It’s time for some more wrestling shows, guys. I love you both.

The other members of the British hockey blogging and podcast community also deserve thanks for interacting and doing their thing which has challenged me to keep what I do at a quality that I am happy with.

A thanks to John Neville and all at the Bison organisation always needs to be said. We do not and will not always seem eye to eye but I like to think that they understand that we’re all after the same goal.

I also need to thank Craig Simpson at the EIHA for believing in the value of bloggers within British hockey and others as well as asking folks for and providing answers to the many daft questions that I had at awkward times.

All of my friends in Basingstoke deserve my undying thanks for letting this mouthy old man who yells at clouds remain a part of their community. Thank you as always for keeping me honest.

The last thanks goes to you; whether you read the pieces or download the podcast and watch the streams, thank you for supporting this. BOTW is 8 years old. That’s crazy to think of. It’s been and continues to be the most fun ride. I thank you for giving your time to consuming what comes out of this.

The future

I talked about this recently on the What’s Current Stream but it bares repeating here.

This season has been tough for me personally. The podcast suffered due to technical issues which meant it took a long break and then as the year went on, the health of my father suffered badly. Frustratingly in a year where I felt I did some of my best quality analysis, I was short on time to do as much as I wanted to do.

This is a fact that I need to address to keep BOTW being what it has gained a reputation for; being a place where fans get quality content about hockey. I intend to take some time to sit down and think about what needs to be done.

BOTW is not going away; as a minimum the writing will last. It’s some of the other stuff that I need to think about how best to do some of the other bits and whether I do it on my own or at all.

Whatever happens, BOTW will keep going. I know people enjoy the writing but it’s always been for me to help me.

I thank you for sticking with this site and me for the past 8 years. Stay tuned, we’ll stick with it.

See you soon,