On 1st Feburary 2021 long time Nottingham Panthers player, coach and legend Corey Neilson was relieved of his duties as the head coach of German second tier side, Lausitzer Füchse; a club based 2 hours south east of Berlin in the city of Weisswasser. The former GB international defenceman departed with the club in 12th place in DEL2 ending with a run of 1 win in the last ten games. Neilson’s name enters the club’s history books but, despite his best efforts, his name sadly won’t be listed amongst the greats there. What many British fans who have followed Neilson’s career overseas won’t be aware of is that his former employers are multiple time national champions and once played in the smallest top flight ice hockey league in the world.
To start the story we need to go back to the end of World War Two. In late March 1945 the Wehrmacht blew up a railway bridge on the eastern outskirts of Weisswasser but it couldn’t stop the inevitable. The Red Army swept in to occupy the city. They never properly left and by 1949 the city of Weisswasser was in what was poorly titled the German Democratic Republic, better known in our history books as East Germany.
Post war life saw everything slowly return to normal, sport included, and ice hockey returned on both sides of the allied controlled divide. Weisswasser was no different, albeit things were organised very differently in East Germany to how we would understand things. There were technically no professional sportsmen or women in the GDR (this was of course nonsense, elite sportspeople had nominal jobs). With no large financial backers and top class sport supported by the state, all sports teams of a decent standard were attached to a local industry. Weisswasser was a city of glass making so 1950 saw the founding of BSG Kristall Weisswasser.
East Germany however was a place where teams changed their affiliation and their name a lot. The following year saw Kristall become BSG Ostglass Weisswasser and they won the 1951 Oberliga. The league itself was held over the space of about 3 weeks between 4 teams. Weiswasser went undefeated to win their first title.
The next year the club became affiliated with the national Chemie sportsclub which encompassed chemical and certain manufacturing sectors. (Ostglass as a club didn’t technically disappear but the team operated under a different name. This confusion and changing of names and affiliations is typical of East German sport.) The Oberliga expanded slightly but it made no difference as Chemie picked up the mantle and won the title in 1952 and 1953, losing only 1 game in the process albeit they only played 17 games to do so.
After the 1953 season, the local communist leadership decided that the glass manufacturing industry had seen enough glory. Ostglass and Chemie were officially “fused” (read forced to merge) and the club’s affiliation swapped to the sports club of the police and the secret police. Dynamo Weisswasser was born.
To say that Dynamo were dominant is an understatement. Weisswasser was Hockey Town GDR. Including the league titles dating from Kristall’s maiden win, the club won 15 Oberliga titles in a row.
The league would grow as big as 8 clubs and be as small as three during that time as teams were admitted and removed by the powers that be but it didn’t matter. In 1959/60 instead of a single league they had 2 groups of four then a final group of four. It didn’t matter; Weiswasser dropped 1 point in the entire competition.
Then suddenly from 1962/63 onwards there’s a familiar name nipping at their heels; Dynamo Berlin.
Older fans of sport will be familiar with the name Dynamo Berlin. The football section of the same sport’s club won 10 consecutive East German championships in the 1980s. If you thought Scottish football in the 80s and 90s was repetitive then you would have hated East German football. Dynamo Berlin’s footballers were the darlings of a very powerful man in the form of Erich Mielke. Mielke was the Minister for State Security, the head of the infamous secret police known as The Stasi. Mielke loved sport and (though it’s never been proven) it’s believed that he actively influenced East German football so that his team won. His influence in this story starts with the fact that Mielke also loved ice hockey and whilst he didn’t give it as much attention as he did the football, his influence was far reaching in terms of resources.
From their inception as multi sport’s club in the 1950s, Dynamo Berlin were a decent second tier side then a perineal Oberliga side then suddenly in the early 60s started nipping at the heels of Weisswasser. They would get close but not quite close enough. Despite both being part of the larger Dynamo sports club, and the strides being made in Berlin, the title was staying in Weiswasser.
However eventually the air of invincibility broke. The 1965/66 season ran the same as the previous campaign as the top 3 teams from the season before (Weiswasser, Berlin and Vorwärts Crimmitschau) automatically made the “championship round” to allow the national team players to get rest and prepare to play for the national team and the other 5 teams had a play in. The play in round was won by the unfashionable TSC Berlin. TSC would win one solitary game in the championship round but their one draw decided the title race. A big enough win would have given Weisswasser their 16th championship in a row but instead that draw saw a first every East German title for Dynamo Berlin. Berlin would go back to back to back as they also won in 1967 and 1968 before Weiswasser claimed the title back in 1969.
It’s hard not to notice that there’s a lot of repetition and that since 1951 only two clubs have won every league title in that 18 year period. The problem on a larger scale was that the quality of player domestically wasn’t bad but they weren’t amazing which made for a not bad but not amazing national side. The East German national team was the definition of mid-tier as they never finished higher than 5th at worlds and even on occasions found themselves in the B pool. The national side finished 8th at the 1968 Olympics in Grenoble, France and won the 1969 world championships B pool in Yugoslavia. Why was all the above an issue? The East German communist government were obsessed with international sporting success and good, not great wasn’t what the leadership wanted.
During the Cold War when capitalism and communism weren’t at actual loggerheads, soft power was the order of the day. One big way to show superiority was the space race, the other was sport. The communist government of East Germany were no different. Being that they were on the front line of the iron curtain and not in a place to launch rockets into space themselves, sport was a big showcase of the communist German way of doing things.
With the 1972 Olympics to be held in Munich and West Germany also due to host the 1974 Football World Cup, the East German regime decided it needed to focus its resources into where it was doing well so it could win medals and do better than the hosts. In the spring of 1969 the powers that be sat down to decide which sports would get a boost to be all conquering and which would miss out.
The big Olympic sports that you can think of all got their funding increased; athletics, boxing, cycling, rowing and more got extra money as of course did football ahead of the world cup. Given at the time winter and summer games happened in the same year sports like figure skating and speed skating also had an increase but ice hockey, due to its mediocre standing on the international stage was set to get all of its funding removed. However this meant more than just no central funding for the national team, it meant no funding for the sport at all. In a communist country with no independent business or sponsors to prop up teams, it effectively would have made the sport amateur overnight.
Here is where Minister for State Security, Erich Mielke returns to the story. Mielke was a really powerful man and literally saved the sport in the country. His other honourary position? The head of the national Dynamo sports club. Mielke made sure that Berlin and Weisswasser would continue to be funded.
The 1969/70 season would be the final season played with other teams involved. TSC Berlin made the championship round along with Empor Rostock. TSC would actually manage to take second place above Dynamo to be the best of Berlin as Weiswasser took the title at a canter.
The government edict took effect and it reduced the funding to the two Dynamo teams. This then led to a very important question of who would the sides would play. Discussions were held with the two teams joining the Polish league but nothing came to pass on that front. Instead it was decided that the two teams would just play each other. The smallest ice hockey league in the world was born.
For the next 20 years, the top flight of East German hockey was contested as a two team league where the winners were declared champions of the German Democratic Republic. Initially the league was done as just that, a league format. The teams played each other 8 or 6 times across a season and the team with the best record would be declared champions. Weiswasser won the first 5 championships, Berlin won the next 5.
In 1975/76 the championship expanded to 10 games in a season and again to 12 in 1978 before inexplicably dropping to 6 games the following few seasons.
Weiswasser won the 1980/81 title but amazingly (says the author with a mild amount of sarcasm) around the time the football team started their run of consecutive titles in football so did the Dynamo Berlin ice hockey team. From 1981-88, Dynamo won seven league titles in a row.
The biggest upheaval in all this came in 1986 when, to try and inject some more excitement into proceedings, the format was overhauled. Draws were ditched and games started using sudden death overtime, in line with other leagues around the world. Each season would have three playoff series between the sides and each series would be a best of five games. Win two of these five game series and you were champions. The 1986-87 season saw Weiswasser win the first series with a 3-2 win in game 5 in Berlin before the team from the capital won series 2 in four games then swept Weisswasser in series 3.
As mentioned above, Berlin won till 1988 before Weiswasser won the 1988/89 season.
For the 1989/90 season it was agreed to increase the number of series to five from three. The season was to begin in November 1989. With discontent and revolution in the air the last ever season of the DDR Oberliga started and shortly after, the Berlin Wall fell. The season did continue and on the 18th February 1990, Weiswasser won 5-3 in Berlin to become the last ever champions of a country that wouldn’t exist by the second week of October that year as Germany became one country again. Weiswasser finished with 25 titles to Berlin’s 15. Despite their funding the clubs were in very different positions in terms of support. By the end Weiswasser were regularly selling out their arena where Berlin were averaging gates of about 500 people as more people went to see their footballing counterparts.
With every structure they’d known slowly falling apart, both teams needed to effectively cut themselves loose from the larger Dynamo sports club to become independent businesses like sports teams we recognise today. Weisswasser became PEV (Polizei Eissport Verein, Police Ice Sport Club) Weiswasser whilst Berlin kept their name though amended it to EHC Dynamo Berlin and started using a polar bear for a logo instead of the iconic Dynamo stylised D.
Given by the time the next season would start there would be one country rather than two, the German Ice Hockey Federation wondered what to do with the team teams. Initially discussions seemed to be leaning to putting the two teams into the 2.Bundesliga North but eventually both ended up being placed into the 1.Bundesliga, the forerunner to today’s DEL. In a 12 team league, Weiswasser finished 11th and Berlin were 12th. Weisswasser and Berlin played in a best of five playdown series that saw Berlin lose 3-0 and were relegated. Weiswasser lost a subsequent relegation playoff against Krefeld but stayed in the top flight after Eintract Frankfurt withdrew. After decades of just facing each other with a title on the line, life in a new and bigger Germany had been a shock for the two old foes.
Despite relegation that first season, Berlin would return to the top flight after one season in division 2 and have remained there, albeit by the skin of their teeth at times, ever since. The club changed its name to EHC Eisbären Berlin in 1992. In 1999 the club was bought by the Anschutz Entertainment Group who also own the LA Kings of the NHL. They are now 7 time champions of a united Germany.
Weisswasser hung around a bit and yo-yoed between the first and second tier including a brief spell in the newly minted DEL before withdrawing in 1996. Bar one season, Weiswasser have been in division two ever since and have never once won a league title since German unification. The club changed names a couple of times before finally becoming EHC Lausitzer Füchse in 2002. The two teams have gone in different directions but the link remains; Weisswasser are a development partner of Berlin, regularly taking younger players on dual registrations.
I wasn’t a huge fan of the recently departed broadcasting legend, Larry King but always respected his style. Whilst King never hammered or harangued his guests, what he was good at was asking simple questions to elicit long answers. So let’s try it.
Do we get a season?
If we’re honest, we’re not getting a season till September, or more likely October 2021. Ultimately the spike in cases and a national lockdown in England at the start of the year which is due to last till the middle of February means that any sort of attempt of a season that doesn’t mirror what the NWHL are doing for women’s hockey and cramming it into a short space of time, won’t work.
It is beyond frustrating to have to admit that. The optimist in me that something was achievable had to give way to the crushing weight of evidence that a league campaign has to be let go. We need to turn our eyes towards the autumn for a full campaign of all ten teams and that’s the best result.
What happens between then depends heavily on the infection rate in the country. The variant that caused the skyrocketing rate in the south east of England is starting to be beaten back. With 8 teams having elite status from the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport to allow them to train, a late season short cup competition isn’t 100% out of the question but isn’t likely. Holding your breath on that one isn’t worth your time.
What would an NIHL cup look like?
If you get an 8 team cup competition then you do two groups of four; Basingstoke, Bees, Romford and Swindon in one with Leeds, MK, Sheffield and Telford in the other or you have a straight knockout; 2 legs, 3 weekends and a two legged final. You leave Hull with their rink issues and Peterborough who have stayed quiet to come back later. I venture the later of the two suggestions is more doable.
What about the EIHL?
It seems highly unlikely that there will be an EIHL season or anything at all until the autumn. Guildford Flames recently opted to reject the money offered by the DCMS to focus on a return to playing in the autumn along with Dundee opting to not play this season either. The EIHL playing before the autumn is about as likely as Donald Trump apologising.
Ultimately (and I’ve had a similar discussion with Jono Bullard for the next issue of Fresh Cut Magazine) I personally don’t think that post a return to the sport from COVID that much changes in the main for the EIHL. There will be adaptations for everyone of course and finances will be interesting for teams but a league that mostly obtains imported players from North America via work permits is not going to see a large change in the sort of players it gets. Former Guildford forward, John Dunbar recently said that the EIHL has more veteran players and that the game is slower than on the continent as guys look to playmake a bit more rather than a speed based game. Smaller finances might see teams go for younger players with fewer commitments who are on smaller wages so that potentially changes but it’s impossible to tell at this stage.
So what do we do?
On a basic level; follow the advice, stay at home for the moment, wash your hands regularly and do all you can to look after yourself and your loved ones.
From a hockey perspective it’s a case of looking to other countries and seeing what you can find.
So what is there?
The NHL is back though the cost of GameCenter is prohibative for some. BT Sport, Premier Sport and Freesports have occasional games. Getting Freesports on TV is an issue in some parts of the country but Freesportsplayer.tv is an option as well for this.
Premier/Freesports also has KHL games as well as the Swedish SHL. Having watched the SHL live, this is a very good league that I recommend checking out if you get the chance.
If North American hockey is more your style then the American Hockey League, the premier development league for the NHL has its season starting soon and has its own version of Gamecentre with not terrible prices. It’s a fun league and you get to see your NHL team’s prospects in living colour. https://theahl.com/ahl_videos/watch-every-game-live-on-ahltv
Also in North America, the National Women’s Hockey League (NWHL) is streaming its truncated season at twitch.tv/nwhl
If you can stand foreign commentary, the German DEL streams its games on Magenta Sport. Magenta is a subscription service that is 10€ a month for foreign customers. For that you’ll get all the DEL as well as the German 3rd division football.
There’s fewer games available but for free is the ICE League based in Austria. They do live games on a Friday or a Sunday on Puls24.tv. It is in German but it’s a decent standard and you’ll get to watch Ben Bowns when Graz are on.
Got any podcasts?
So there’s billions but hockey wise I recommend:
NHL – Face Off Hockey Show. I’ve said before that there’s no BOTW without them.
AHL/junior hockey – Hockey Across the Pond
European Hockey – Euro Puck Podcast
Hockey stories – 4000&Counting
Amazon Prime has a really good one called “Bar’s to Bears” which is about the history of the Hershey Bears that’s totally worth checking out.
What about the rink in Basingstoke?
Little at the moment. Standard Securities who own the freehold and Planet Ice as operator want the council to contribute to repairing the rink. The council don’t think they should have to. It’s frustratingly dull at the moment.
We wait. We try to keep sane and we wait. If you’re struggling then please reach out. There’s people who love you and you don’t need a permanent solution to a temporary problem. If nothing else, there’s hockey to be watched when all this ends.
We didn’t mention everything that happened. We didn’t talk about the EIHL or Bracknell closing. We don’t do much in detail but let’s sum up this dumpster fire of a year.
See you in 2021.
Ahead of the EIHA’s online forum on the 28th November and the AGM on the 12th December, we spoke to Andrew Miller about funding from the government, the streaming series, the EIHC and the big question of the AGM; a unified governing body for British ice hockey.
There’s an argument that being an ice hockey netminder is the most high pressure position in sports. Your stats are scrutinised to a higher degree, in the minds of many games are won and lost on your performance; it’s arguably an unenviable position. Yet we forget at times that there’s two of them in each team.
What British hockey arguably doesn’t have a lot of, compared to other countries at least, is netminders who are a proper duo and split time with each other. Yes, each team will have a number one and a number two goalie but how many teams can you think of where a split of time happens regularly? How often can the number one goalie be rested or displaced?
The NIHL sees this happen much more than the Elite League. For example Bracknell have Adam Goss and Danny Milton, Peterborough have Jordan Marr and Ryan Bainborough, Milton Keynes and Sheffield leant on a couple of goalkeepers this past season as well. However this blog was born out of Basingstoke hockey so we wanted to take that step into the minds of a goalie tandem in the site’s own backyard as we spoke to Alex Mettam and Dan Weller-Evans.
“I’m just Dan’s backup”
That’s how, with a Yorkshire accent dented by too long in the south, Alex Mettam starts our conversation.
You don’t become a goalie on a whim. Goalies generally know each other and you two had been around but had never played together. In 2018 things in Basingstoke and Bracknell get turned upside down and you’re on the same team. What happened the first time you met after that?
Dan Weller-Evans (DWE): Was that in the gym?
Alex Mettam (AM): It was in the gym with Hallam Wilson in tow. We’d not practised together at that point.
DWE: It was at that point where you’d signed but not been announced. We knew each other, had spoken to each other but hadn’t properly met. Otherwise it was conversations when we were both backups on a night and Mettsy asking me to fight!
AM: And Dan refusing!
You do have a bit of a reputation for loving a scrap.
AM: I don’t even really like scrapping. (DWE laughs). I’m done now after my four.
It was relatively clear when you both signed who was the number one and who was the number two. How do go forward from that point? You have no goalie coach, you’re essentially thrown together. What do you do?
AM: As for practice it’s standard; stand in the net and try to stop some pucks. I was coming in and yes it was a new team for me and a lot of people but I felt it was Dan’s team because he’d been here for so long. It was trying to settle myself into that. During practice we’re constantly talking about how we could to the next drill or next thing better. We kind of coach ourselves. Ash (Tait, Bison head coach) will mention something if he sees it, from a shooter’s perspective. That said about a month into our first season together we got the start of a Thursday practice where we got some time to ourselves to practice drills. We’d work on things we wanted to work on and we’d put together drills off the back of that.
With that in mind, would you want a goalie coach?
AM: I would.
DWE: Mettsy is effectively my goalie coach. He’s been modest on those Thursday practices, he puts most of it together. I’m not great with drills and he has a drill for everything. He’s effectively the coach.
AM: I think that’s because I’m older though more than anything. Equally if Dan’s seen something that he thinks will help we’ll use it. If one of us has let a goal in at the weekend then we’ll do something on that. Same as I enjoy the gear, I enjoy the skating drills. I know Dan hates those. I’d be happy just doing those. That said, we’re a team. Team Goalie. It’s that more than me coaching him.
If that’s how you are Alex, I think of some of the other goalies you’ve played with like Barry Hollyhead. Were any of them like that with you?
AM: Barry is a great guy. In terms of actual technical coaching and drills, that wasn’t Baz. The best thing he did for me was the mental side of things. I’d gone from being in Guildford where I was really nervous before I’d play, really set in a routine and had all these superstitions to being in Milton Keynes and before Baz is about to play he’s sat there with a cup of tea and two custard creams, asking me what I’d done that day and reminding me to try and stay loose and not overwork myself before games. He was a lot more relaxed and I’ve taken some of that. Not all of that mind you, I do more gym work. However his attitude was the same whether you were 5-0 down at Peterborough or 1-0 up in a playoff final. How I actually play is down to Mark Kavlin who played for London and Belfast in the Superleague. I went to some of his goalie camps and he pretty much put my game together.
Have you tried to do a similar style thing, Dan? Are you a mix of guys or was there one particular guy who you model yourself after?
DWE: I never really leant on anyone in that way. I grew up watching Skinnsy (Dean Skinns) and Tony, his dad took me to games but I don’t think I model Dean. He’s much smaller, more flexible, more a textbook goalie. For me, Tomas Hiadlovsky was a great guy. My first practice, I turned up to the rink and my gear was there. Having never met the guy he was there stuffing foam into my equipment. But no, I don’t really model anyone. I started at 15 and didn’t do hockey camps or the like. I’ve always done what feels good if you see what I mean. I taught myself a bit how to skate, how to play in goal and that’s because I didn’t play at a young age.
I’ll ask this even if it seems obvious; you both want to be the number one goalie, right?
AM: Yeah, of course. We wouldn’t be playing if that wasn’t the case.
DWE: I don’t have to hide my ambition since I was a kid is to be the Bison goalie. At the same time, it’s unique I think that we’re happy whichever one of us is playing. There have been times when I’d come to the rink and know however well I trained, I wouldn’t play. Last year I had that month where I was starting and there was nobody happier than Alex. If he’s playing better than me, he plays. All good goalie duos have both guys wanting to play but you support the other guy. You help them out and vice versa. There’s only one space and you know that when you start out.
AM: When I signed, yeah I expected to be number one and that was having not really seen Dan play but I watched him practice and I went “he’s a lot better than I thought he was”.
DWE: Then I played and got hurt.
AM: I realised that I was going to have to work for starts though. One of my favourite games last season was watching Dan win in Bracknell.
In some ways though arguably the two best goalies in the league in Renny Marr and Sam Gospel were in similar situations of needing to carry to load but were at opposite ends of the table.
AM: It’s an easy argument to make that Gospel was the best goalie in the league. He could and did steal games for them last season. He did it against us. When we did beat them it was 2-0 and I barely faced a shot but I had to be on the entire time, had to be perfect or we’d have potentially lost points. That way of playing every night is very traditional in British hockey; one guy plays 99.9% of the minutes and they have a backup. In a perfect world you’d have three lines of top level forwards, three lines of d and two starting quality goalies but there hasn’t always been enough goalies to fill those spots. Some have been sat on the bench when they should be playing at a lower level.
DWE: Yeah that’s true for me to a point. I went to the Isle of Wight and I was “I’m playing for the Raiders, it’s a big deal”. Looking back I should have arguably played more at lower levels. My first season with the Raiders we won the league, I played 9 minutes all season. Some kids see that they’re going to get some money or your equipment bought for them and they drift towards that.
Isn’t that short term-ism symptomatic of British hockey though? Albeit some like Euan King (head of the EIHA’s netminder coaching programme) are trying to change that for goalies in particular.
AM: Kinger’s doing great work with his goalie coaching programme. When I did my level one and two, the documentation on goalie coaching still mentioned skate saves! The stuff they’re doing is moving in the right direction so they get more support and we get more Ben Bowns’ in the next ten years. That said coaches need to give them the chance. Dan played well and Ash gave him a run. I was fortunate that I had coaches that gave me a chance to play. It definitely helped me.
What’s the biggest misconception that fans have about what you do?
AM: That all goalies are crazy. What would you rather get hit by; a puck or a 6’6” defenceman running you through the boards?
DWE: People just don’t quite understand the position. People yelling us to get in our net and the like can grate. The other one is stats. Shots on goal; everyone looks at it and bases loads off of it but where are the shots taken? A guy can have a 95% save percentage on a strong team but all the shots are from miles away. Another guy has a lower percentage but is facing a much higher number of shots from danger areas.
AM: It’s not just fans some times, the other players don’t know.
DWE: Yeah, they can’t relate to it. It’s all the mental stuff that goes with it. That lack of understanding of what makes the position so unique amongst all sports. If you lose, goalie’s terrible and if you win you’re great but it’s not like that. You can think you’ve been terrible and made 50 saves on 52 shots.
AM: A lot of people think that it’s just getting in the way of the puck but there’s method to the madness across a lot of different bits to stop that puck. Ever watched a player in goalie pads? (chuckles)
DWE: I know for me the mental bit feels 24/7 for me during the season. Our other halves will vouch for that. You never switch off. You get to January and you’re exhausted mentally and physically. Your coaches can pick up on that when things aren’t going well.
AM: For me, the older I’ve got, the more I try to leave hockey at the rink. I’ve found that easier to do with age. I can’t rectify anything till the next time I play.
Now you know each other as goalies and personally, what’s the best bit of each other’s game?
AM: I’ll say Dan’s size and how he uses it. He plays really calmly, doesn’t bounce around too much.
DWE: Glad it looks that way (laughs)
AM: When he’s on, he’s really smooth and holds his net well.
DWE: I’m glad it looks controlled, I have no idea sometimes.
AM: It does when you relax.
DWE: With Mettsy, it’s an all round thing but it’s the big games. I don’t enjoy those games but he loves them. There’s times when he’s just unbeatable. There were times in Swindon last year where you couldn’t beat him. It’s also his work ethic. He works himself to the bone, we’re giving him glucose gel and tablets as he looks like he’ll fall over. He powers through it. He loves the game still, the dedication to work hard for the good of the team to the point of exhaustion is huge. I envy that.
Alex; as a northerner, what’s the worst thing about living in the south?
AM: You go to the chippy and nobody knows what a bread cake is.
DWE: You’ve been down here too long.
AM: I know, I’m losing my accent.
Dan; what do you miss most about Wales?
DWE: It’s so much more chilled there. I don’t love the hustle and bustle down here. That and Welsh Cakes. They’re not the same outside of Wales. Adam Harding’s gran bakes them for the team. They’re amazing.
If you get to play this season, what’s the goal for you two?
AM: Win something as a team. The reason I play is to win the league and win the playoffs. The goals I set for myself are geared towards that.
DWE: Same. As a partnership that’s the goal we have. Yeah it’s good to play well but that’s what we’re here to do. If the team are doing well, we’re happy.
28 year old Andrew Jarvie opens his curtains every day to a view of Ice Arena Wales. The country’s newest ice sports venue is a state of the art facility and a focal point for the South Wales hockey community. Jarvie is one of a growing number of ice hockey officials who live in or near Cardiff and last year he regularly refereed in the newly minted NIHL National Division just about 6 years into his officiating career. He’s come a long way in a short time; literally and figuratively.
Originally from Ayr in the west of Scotland, Jarvie was aware of the Ayr Scottish Eagles as a child but never paid much interest. His first outing on skates came in his teens as a result of his older sister, Jacqui. She was learning to inline skate for a trip to Vancouver and the two would drive to Glasgow to learn. “We’d learn from the oldest inline skating coach in the country, Don Morton. He’s still coaching now, he’s brilliant. I’d whizz around and bump into people, be the young kid that everyone hates.” From there the Jarvies would progress to the ice, skating nearly every week at the East Kilbride rink in the Olympia Shopping Centre.
It’s at this point the story takes something of an odd turn;
“My older sister and I were approached on the ice by a group of elderly guys…”
I audibly laugh, unaware of where this story is going and how much I’ll need to edit.
“…who played hockey out of a tiny curling rink in Port Glasgow. They asked ‘do you play?’ we said no. They asked if we were interested and it sort of spiralled out of control from there.”
The elderly guys turned out to be the Greenock Piranhas, a local team for the over 50s who were looking for some younger folks to train with. A recreational team in the truest sense, the team can’t play competitively as nobody will insure them due to their age and array of health issues, the Piranhas play for a bit of exercise and a bit of fun. Jacqui decided that she wanted to be a goalie and Andrew transferred his whizzing about from inline to ice. At least he tried to before he hit an issue. “Because I’d learned to inline skate, I wasn’t familiar with hockey stops so was just dragging my feet about. It was about 4 sessions in with these guys before they said ‘you can’t keep skating about doing that because you look like an idiot’. I decided to learn to stop properly.”
After that point, things get a bit more familiar sounding. Eventually Jarvie moved out of home to attend university in Glasgow. He’d play at 7:30am on a Friday morning with the Piranhas and then play more regular rec hockey on a Sunday morning in Kilmarnock before bouncing about local rec teams during his four years at university studying for a masters in Business Economics. “I was still approaching hockey like a kid and kept my head down and away from the political fights in rec hockey. I’d only get involved in the actual fights if someone did anything to my sister” he says, readily admitting that doing so generally ended badly.
The spark to swap playing for officiating, Jarvie admits was partly born out of his competitive nature. Having tried many sports as a youngster, Andrew would go full steam until he was advised that he didn’t possess the talent to progress. Having taken that attitude into hockey, he realised he wanted to be a referee when his competitive nature took over. “I was a Braehead (now Glasgow) Clan fan and watching the refs made me want to be a referee. It was that simple idea of I thought that I could do a better job. At that time it was 100% ego. There was no realisation of all the stuff that comes with being an official. I thought I’d be in the Elite League within a month.”
At the time Scottish Ice Hockey were desperate for more officials and when they announced that they were running a level one officials course in Dundee, Jarvie got himself there. The course was a day; an on ice session with the 4 participants and two instructors and a rules test. Having passed the test Jarvie was told he was signed up and he’d hear when he had a game. “I didn’t hear from them for a year”.
“What I didn’t comprehend at the time was how assignments got done in Scotland then. You had to have an “in” with teams in Scotland because they wanted officials that were close. Having never played juniors I didn’t know any of that or anyone.” Having sat idle, Jarvie went through another camp over a year later. This one was much better attended, twenty people instead of four, but the same thing happened; no assignments came.
Work is what took Jarvie away from Scotland. Having applied for a role in the Civil Service, Jarvie didn’t list a location preference on his application. In true governmental fashion, he waited three months before getting a phone call whilst at a rec player camp in Sheffield. “They said they could start me in January 2015 in Cardiff. That was that. I’d been to Cardiff a few times as a fan so I knew it was a good place to be for hockey but that didn’t play into my decision. It was just a bit of luck really.”
Dejected but still determined to give officiating a go (“I thought if I just had my chance I’d be in the Elite League”), Jarvie got involved with coaching the juniors at Cardiff and he signed himself up for the EIHA’s training course.
“I headed over to Bracknell, got fantastic instruction and we actually lined a game. It was an under 14s game and we all lined it, changing every stoppage. The first time I had to go out and stand on that blue line was the first time that I realised that my timetable of ‘do it once and be in the Elite League’ wasn’t realistic.”
I ask what seems like an obvious question and enquire about the first real game he officiated. Jarvie laughs, “oh I do. It was under 14s I believe. I felt so out of my depth. I spent that entire game skating around wondering, and even occasionally saying out loud, ‘what am I doing?’ I don’t remember much about the game about the constant sense of dread that what I was doing was wrong.”
It was a feeling that stuck with him for a bit. Injuries and drop outs due to other commitments meant that Jarvie got a call to officiate at the junior conference tournament. “I was certain that I’d not got a call right all tournament and ended up lining the u17s final. I chased Ken Riddell (then head of officiating) down the corridor to make that point. ‘You skate well’ I was told. He also said to me ‘the fans don’t know more than you do but you know if you’re making a mistake and you can do something about it’ so I kept trying to get the calls right.”
He was rewarded by getting to line the under 18s national final. “My skate lace snapped and I fell over in front of everyone”. Pure fluke or not, only 10 games into his career and heading towards the first proper campaign it seemed that Jarvie was flying.
However at the end of his first full season as a linesman, Jarvie felt a bit lost. To his mind he’d had a poor season. He’d struggled with the consistency of his calls and ultimately he felt that he knew what the problem was. “I never wanted to be a linesman, I wanted to be a referee. This was just after the EPL folded and I emailed Joy Johnston and asked to be a referee instead. She told me I’d have been promoted as a linesman but I could go straight into reffing u18s and u20s.”
Whilst he admits that ego is what drove his entry into officiating, speaking to Jarvie shows that his ego has been put firmly in check and mostly by himself. “In my first season of NIHL 2, I was really quick to hand out misconducts. I took the line I’d been using in juniors like u18s and u20s and was applying it to senior hockey. I couldn’t do that. There’s different expectations, different rules and different, more experienced players. I think I know where that line is now. A few officials that I really respect had said to me that I should consider going back to being a linesman. I had a conversation with Dave Cloutman (legendary British hockey referee, current officiating manager for Ice Hockey UK) about everything and as down as I was on myself, I wanted to stay as a ref.”
It was also in that conversation with Cloutman that he learned a better approach to finding that line. When I asked what he’d said, what followed is a story that regular watchers of British ice hockey could best describe as a Cloutman-ism; “he said to me that you want to be like a chef and keep the game on the simmer. You don’t want to let it boil over or freeze it but keep it going along nicely.”
Clearly those in charge feel that Jarvie made the requisite progress. 2019/20 was his first season in the highest tier of EIHA senior hockey but it had also seen massive changes for officiating in the sport as all officiating started to fall under the umbrella of IHUK. The one thing that emerges is that things are still developing but it feels like a real step forward, at least according to Jarvie. “If nothing else I’ve actually be able to referee games in Scotland now and speaking to the guys up there, the changes have been significant…we’ve got the various different levels working the set type of games that they’re supposed to be doing, knowing how many officials we’re meant to be having etc.”
I initially announce my surprise that he’s not had something akin to an appraisal in the summer but the feedback comes back in other ways. “Our managers are always available and in some ways the ones I’ve had, have known that they may not necessarily get loads from me in those situations but the feedback comes in other ways. There’s lot of communication, our referees’ section email for example is very good. There’s a lot of experience in the officials that we have so even if you’ve not been in a certain situation, you will find someone who has.”
We approach the elephant in the room for many fans of the NIHL National League which was the adoption of the four man officiating system. Jarvie and I had chatted during the season about the feeling that some expected too much from something new, his view hasn’t really altered. “It’s different for a lot of officials. Many had not officiated in a four man at all. I’m lucky; I’d been able to pay to go to North America and do officiating camps where I’d done it so it was familiar to me. Apart from all the technical stuff (who stands where, who looks for what) it’s working with people who you’ve never worked with before…I’m not going to tell someone how to do their job but you can’t officiate a four man game like a three man game. You can’t question what someone’s calling. That part takes longer because it’s all those soft skills and that takes more time and you need to be actually working with that person. It’s not a five or twenty or forty minute conversation with that person. I worked a lot with people like Paul Brooks or Stephen Matthews and I know both guys well. (Both are also Cardiff based, Ed.) I did one game with Will Hewitt and it went OK but it won’t have flowed the same way as with one of those other guys because we don’t have that level of interaction. It’ll keep improving over time as we all spend more time refereeing together.”
As we’re talking, we oddly trip over a similar sort of idea about Jarvie’s personal path through the process. We end up having a bit of a chat about Freudian psychology and the ideas put forward in the title of this piece. That being said we’ve talked a lot about the ego which is meant to be the part that sits between your id, your desires, and your superego controlling your morality.
Is it really his his ego therefore that has pushed him to get to where he has as an official? Jarvie obviously doesn’t downplay his own desires or feelings but he gives an answer about a balance between the two and a degree of his own determination. In a nod to his weekday work, it feels like a civil servant’s answer.
After our lengthy conversation it feels like there are elements of all three; the rush of blood to the head drove him to attempt it, the acceptance that there was more to actually doing it and doing it properly cooled him down and what he was left with was a determination to be as good as he can be and to do it well. There feels like a little bit of that fan shouting at the referees from the stands at Glasgow hasn’t left him, it’s just he harnessed that knee jerk reaction into driving himself to be better. “If you think you can do better, you have a go” is what some say when people abuse a referee. 6 years on, it’s hard to argue that he’s not made a pretty decent attempt.
BOTW would like to thank Simon Kirkham and the officiating section of Ice Hockey UK for their assistance.
Hockey Stories – “We just couldn’t get away from each other” – Deakan Fielder and Josh Kelly on friendship, taking their chances abroad and coming home.Posted: 07/10/2020
“He’s going to have to get used to the refs again” says Josh Kelly laughing when asked about what Deakan Fielder will need to do upon his return to British hockey. “I’ll have the most penalty minutes (out of the two of us)” comes the acknowledgement back.
After two years playing in the United States for the Fresno Monsters in the Western States Hockey League, 20 year old Fielder is heading back to Britain to play for the newly renamed Bees IHC. His best friend Kelly, also 20, remains unannounced at the time of writing having had it confirmed that he will not be returning to the Basingstoke Bison.
Fielder, originally from Telford and Kelly, born in Basingstoke with time in the Bison and Guildford junior systems under his belt met at conference tournaments and playing youth age hockey for England. Both defencemen, as I chat to them it’s clear that there’s a real double act feel about them and it’s clearly been borne out by the amount of time they’ve spent together. During our chat Kelly tells the story of how when in Sweden he played his first game wearing a visor, took a puck to his face and broke his jaw. When asked how he reacted to the news of the injury, Fielder gave the answer you’d expect of a best friend, “I was absolutely rinsing him about it.”
Having met playing in the England u14s team Josh and Deakan became really good friends during their time at the British location of the Okanagan Hockey Academy in Swindon. Deakan joined in 2015, a season before Josh did. “It’s like you’re a pro” says Fielder. “You get treated like a pro, you’re on the ice every day…you weren’t alone for very long even away from the rink. We just couldn’t get away from each other, even if we wanted to” he laughs.
Whilst neither of them spoke in gushing terms about the schooling aspect of being with the OHA (because what young man likes school that much when you get to play hockey every day? Fielder’s exasperated sigh tells a story in itself) both credit the Okanagan experience with preparing them well for the rigours of potentially being a pro-hockey player and playing on the same team helped friendship but also their sense of friendly competition they have with each other as they strive to get better. However nobody in the call keeps a straight face when Kelly asserts himself as the attacking one of the partnership.
Outside of the OHA setup, both got the opportunity to play within the Swindon Wildcats system with games in the NIHL 1 and 2 side. “It helped push me further” said Kelly, “once I got that chance it was worth every second being in those Wildcats sessions…(Aaron Nell) is definitely in the right place. He’s a good coach and he knows what he’s doing. With him being a player/coach when you were on the ice with him you wanted to do that bit more to show him what you could do.”
I can’t skip past the end of their OHA time without asking Josh about his place as a footnote in Wildcats history and his addition to the roster for Swindon’s 2018 playoff semi final first leg with Peterborough. Having not iced he requisite amount of games in the regular season, the decision to leave Kelly on the game sheet for the game saw a Wildcats win overturned to a 5-0 defeat.
“I think they were planning on having Deaken on the gamesheet instead (Fielder had played enough games to qualify but was injured and watched the game from the stands). I was asleep at my billet and I missed Aaron’s call to come down and when I woke up and Ryan (Aldridge, head coach of the OHA) called me and asked if I wanted to be there I threw a suit on, ran down and I did warm up and had a nice view of the game. When the announcement came out that it had been overturned because of that and they’re on the way to Peterborough it was heartbreaking.”
“I quite quickly came to terms with it. I had messages from Aaron and Steve (Nell) and some of the boys saying it wasn’t my fault. It was annoying because it wasn’t an issue in the EPL but into NIHL 1 it was a rule.”
It was a junior player showcase in Sweden that was meant to set the two of them on the path towards pro hockey. “OHA put us in the right environment. They put it in our hands to impress and get a spot somewhere” said Josh. “Ryan got four of us to Sweden. We were on the ice every day in front of a load of scouts. They’d come up to us and give us their information. Personal preference saw me stick with Sweden. It was a perfect situation, I’d always wanted to play abroad and learn a language. It looked to be good for me”.
Fielder’s path to California was a bit less direct. “There were a few American teams and one of them was in the WSHL. My dad got a message off of someone from the states that the coach of Fresno wanted to talk to me. I used to go to Canada all the time so moving away was fine for me.”
Having been in each others pockets for a couple of years they then had a 9 hour time difference between them. Distance sometimes strains friendships but the wild world of hockey saw little impacted. Chuckling, Fielder remarked“our schedules were all over the place. You forget about the time difference when you’re playing on the Playstation at three in the morning”.
Both achieved their goal of playing abroad and both would eventually come back to Britain though Kelly would return much sooner than either of them expected. After just 5 games in the under 20s league with Österåker, he would return to Britain. “I was sort of left on my own to deal with everything when I got there. It became quite a tough atmosphere. I broke my jaw, I was dealing with all this stress of moving and dealing with doctors on my own. I was trying to work my way back in, I thought playing well and they started bringing over aged players in to boost the team…they were pushing guys to be a forward and I didn’t want to do that.” Did he feel the situation had been mis-sold to him? “A bit, can’t say anything bad about the boys though.”
Fielder, who would regularly rub it in to Kelly that he was living in California, adapted very well to live in the States. His two seasons in Fresno say him score 43 points from 89 games whilst on defence, finishing 11th in team scoring for the Monsters in their final season in the WSHL before moving leagues. He could have had another year in Fresno but chose to return.
“My two years in Fresno were the best of my career but I felt that my name was fading and I wouldn’t be able to get a team. Cost to get over there was tough too and I wanted to be able to help my family, get some money for hockey and go pro. If I did another year it would have been at the same level and I want to progress.”
I feel the need to interrupt. My experience is that rather than being forgotten, his name would have added value. “I agree to a point but it was about progressing for me. The next step up would be college, ACHA or NCAA division 3 but the cost would be ten times as much as I’d paid in my career. They push people that route but as a foreigner it would have been that much harder to get a scholarship anywhere. I also wanted to play pro.”
“Deakan’s good enough to have stayed in North America” says Kelly “but the progression up the lower ranks like the SPHL is risky and Europe is seen as above that, a better standard. I wouldn’t play in that. I understand why he’s back.”
Kelly’s transition back to Britain obviously went well. A conversation with Ashley Tait led him back to Basingstoke and the better part of two decent seasons with the Bison where he earned a reputation as a hard hitting defenceman before the two sides parted ways at the end of the COVID shortened 2019/20 season.
The conversation moves to what Deaken will need to do to reintegrate into British hockey. “It was more physical out in the states so it’ll be weird to tone down the hits and fights” he says. “Shep (Doug Sheppard, Bees’ head coach) contacted me in lockdown. I want to get to the next level and I think he can really push me to do that. He’s going to give me a chance to play those minutes with those top end guys and to be a solid defence at the back.”
We of course discuss the Bees’ summer of turmoil and the impact of the closing of The Hive. “Things were in doubt for a bit but once we were told we’d be playing out of Slough it was just a relief. Bracknell was a great place to play in. Even though it’s been postponed, I’m excited to get started.”
Kelly was more circumspect on his advice to his friend on playing in the NIHL, “it’ll be the finer details for him. Skating isn’t an issue but it’s a bit of a slower game and it’s noticing those little details of how to succeed.”
As the conversation winds down, we talk about the impact of COVID on the season upcoming. Ultimately signed or not, with both of them back in the country and the prospect of playing either against each other or on the same team, they’re both accepting of the situation that they find themselves in. They both agree that if they could, they’d play tomorrow. “I’d move down south today if I could train tomorrow” says Fielder. “I want to get going. I want to improve and want the team to win some trophies.”
Even without a team confirmed Kelly is also set on what he wants and his words sum up the theme that has run through what both of them have said through our hour together. “I want to play top 4 minutes and progress as well. I’ve worked hard this off season, I just want to do well.”
The Basingstoke Bison’s roster building hasn’t stopped in the wake of the Coronavirus outbreak. With the start of the 2020/21 season still significantly up in the air, like many teams the Herd have tried to operate as normal and have continued to make a raft of signings that see the front end of the roster more bulked up than the rear and leave the Herd with some interesting questions.
July ended with the confirmation of Adam Jones’ departure to the EIHL along with the addition of Aidan Doughty. 25 year old Doughty comes to the Herd from the Bracknell Bees. Originally from Ryde on the Isle of Wight, Doughty made his senior debut at 16 in the 2011/12 season where he played for the Wightlink Raiders and Tigers. A highly touted prospect as a youngster, Doughty left the island where he had consecutive 70 point seasons as a junior to join the raft of youngsters from Britain who headed to America to play in the Western States Hockey League. Playing 3 years in Colorado for three different teams, Doughty adjusted to junior hockey in North America as he dramatically increased his points return every season and finished his stay in the WSHL with 75 points in 110 games.
Doughty made it back to the island just in time for the club to fold due to the shutting of the rink at Ryde but found his way to Gosport to join the Solent Devils for the reminder of the season where he made an immediate impact for the south coast side with 37 points in 22 games before Jeremy Cornish tempted Doughty north to the High Road and Streatham. A productive 21 points in 30 games in the 17/18 campaign and some persuasion from Doug Sheppard saw Doughty swap London for Berkshire and the Bees where Doughty has spent the last two seasons. 82 games in black and gold yielded 63 points and 92 penalty minutes.
Doughty was something of a surprise this off season. There had been talks that he had agreed to join the Bison before Sheppard and the Herd called each other’s bluff and they parted ways but finally the island born man lands in Basingstoke. Before Ryde shut I watched enough games on the Isle of Wight and I became familiar with some of the names. Aidan Doughty was a player that I was told that I needed to watch out for. As Bison fans have seen since the club entered NIHL 1, Doughty is more than capable of playing a variety of roles across the lines for a club but one thing he can do for sure is put the puck in the net and get points. Whilst he’s yet to have a point per game season as a senior, the ability to make an impact is unquestioned. Where he slots in remains to be seen as to what the Bison get in with regards to import forwards. Doughty has the ability to play as a top line forward and I expect him alongside Tait and Roberts at some stage but equally a combination with Sampford and Norcliffe isn’t beyond reason.
Ollie Stone returning to Basingstoke for another season was an announcement that pleased many Bison fans. Stone was not an unknown quanitity but was perhaps an underestimated one. A quiet if solid performer for the Swindon Wildcats spent a year really cutting his teeth with an MK Thunder side that came bottom by some distance and rightly so. They were not good, so when Stone signed for the Bison people were willing to see what happened but weren’t holding their breath. What they got was the team’s standout performer for the first two months of the season.
Sometimes for players that switch goes in their head and they become something else. It can be the slow decline towards the end or it’s the start of the upward trend and up went Ollie Stone. Not a number one defenceman at this stage of his career, what Stone added in a defensively shaky opening part of the season for the Herd was someone who look secure, who looked like he would do his job and not take silly penalties. 9 points and 22 penalty minutes speaks of a player who gets a nosebleed if he crosses centre ice but the Herd wanted a stay at home defenceman and got a stay at home defenceman.
Having come through the junior ranks at Swindon with a brief stop in Bracknell, Sam Talbot headed to Canada and Canadian International Hockey Academy in Rockford, Ontario. Playing alongside players who are now heading into NCAA division one and the OHL, Talbot had 25 points in 30 games for the Canadian private bording school. Briefly on that team (he was in a younger age group) was Bayley Harewood.
Talbot returned to Britain in 2018 and was busy straight away. Initially signing with the Slough Jets under Lukas Smital, Talbot played for both the Jets NIHL 2 and under 18 sides. 35 points in 11 games in junior were impressive enough but the 58 points in 24 games in his first year of senior hockey for the Jets was very impressive. The Jets won NIHL 2 and made their way to the NIHL 2 National Final where the Jets thumped the Widnes Wild. Along with that Talbot made 18 appearances for the MK Thunder in division 1 where he scored 10 points. Last season saw Talbot split time with between the Jets and the Bison on a two way before moving across to the Herd full time at the midway point. Despite only playing half a season in Slough he was voted to the second all star team.
Sam Talbot first came into the conciousness of a lot of Bison fans at the 2019 NIHL Playoff weekend. Everyone talked, rightly, about Sean Norris’ domination and goals but the rumblings many had heard about Talbot were coming true. The young man was a superb playmaker and looked to have a real future. Whilst he was and is linked with Sean Norris, Bison fans saw more of Talbot and were immediatley impressed with what they saw. Able to be used across the lines, Talbot mainly found himself on third line duty as Norris was used alongside Tait and Klejna but that didn’t stop an impressive 15 points in 29 games along with lots of second powerplay unit time. Talbot appears to be the all around package and if used with the correct linemates this upcomingseason then there will be a significant impact for the Herd whether he has his running mate with him or not.
Oscar Evans transitions out of a full time Bison role but remains on the roster as he moves to a two-way deal with the Solent Devils. Evans had a frustrating 2019/20; blighted by injury and limited to only 11 games in the NIHL National, ice time was limited in the appearances he did make. 9 points in 6 games for the Buffalo upon his return from injury showed that the spark was there but with the Bison unable to provide enough ice time for a youngster who needs to develop by playing in those key moments, arguably in a similar way to Bayley Harewood does, this move for Evans makes sense.
Solent ran Streatham close in NIHL 1 South and Alex Murray gets a lot out of his teams. With the Devils losing the services of Ralfs Circenis to a club in the National League, Evans slots into the Devils top 6 as a scoring option if he stays healthy whilst also being able to train and play for the Herd when available.
Hallam Wilson has played in a Basingstoke jersey every season of his hockey playing life. Even the season he spent with the Oxford City Stars saw Wilson play games for the now defunct Bison under 20s side. However gone are the junior days where we saw 99 point seasons from Hallam as the 22 year old appears to be transitioning into a new role for the Herd.
Whether crashing and banging is his forte remains to be seen but Wilson’s love for getting stuck into the grittier side of things really started to come out during 2019/20. While he never really got into fights, there was some delving into the dark arts. Appearing as something of a cross between Michael Wales and Grant McPherson in terms of his play and his chirping, the key thing for Wilson appears to be that he’s carving out a niche for himself. Where Evans has had his injury issues and Tait still hasn’t arguably found the best way to use Paul Petts to the fullest, Wilson stepping into a middle or bottom 6 agitator role is something that the Herd have arguably not had in that mold since the days of Alan Lack. Not every player is going to be a 30-40 point scorer but Wilson cementing his place in rosters as the guy who can play penalty kill, go into the sticky areas and generally just be a nuisance will never see him out of a job.
The ever larger elephant in the room of what sort of season we get, if any, continues to loom large over the NIHL and British hockey in general. To the Bison’s credit they are preparing for something and trying to keep on as best as they can do which is putting together a decent looking roster.
What sticks out for the Herd is the lack of defenders on the roster as forward after forward keeps getting pulled out of the hat. King and Dewey were already back, Baird has been added and Stone has now returned making four but you can be certain there’s at least another two defenders to come. The versatility of Liam Morris to play on defence adds another dimension to the questions at hand because there’s currently no obvious replacement for Adam Jones on the roster currently.
The forward lineup is starting to look very stacked up top with a lot of goalscoring in the lineup but the level of decent British firepower leaves the Herd with options that we’ve theorised on social media. With it looking that even the lower lines are able to score and potentially Sean Norris to be added as well to the Bison’s attacking ranks, do the Bison replace Jones with an import on the back end? It’s unlikely but not impossible though with getting imports into the country it is possible. The other dimension is just to demand that much more offence from the forwards and not replacing Jones like for like though it strikes this writer as arugbaly making the Bison too one dimensional.
The signings will keep coming and Ashley Tait appears to be putting together a roster that looks good even if it isn’t getting the plaudits of teams like Swindon or Milton Keynes. Then again, nobody thought Telford would do what they did.
With the raft of recent pieces here on BOTW following the Bison’s announcement of departures last week, there was a discussion here as to how we covered all seven departures. The site had been aware of Adam Jones and Josh Kelly’s departures for some time but waited for confirmation of their departures before releasing them. It then became a choice of how to cover the other five. The imports were grouped together for reasons previously stated and that left the remaining three players; Bayley Harewood, Tom Ralph and Sam Smith who all departed the club.
We’ll deal with the younger lads in a bit so first…
In this raft of releases there’s been a mixture of top end guys and depth. Ralph is something different because he’s literally in the middle. Between depth and the top end, the Hull born 26 year old did a bit of everything. He logged decent minutes, he played second unit powerplay and penalty kill. He got trusted in a bunch of different situations. He had some injury issues across the campaign but 10 points from 36 games is decent from a defenceman like Ralph and it’s hard to knock him on that front.
He did garner criticism from the fan base who felt he was caught out of position on too many occasions. The statistics and the evidence of the eyes seem to contradict a bit on the Bison’s 2019/20 campaign in the sense that it does feel on reflection that the defence wasn’t as good as last season but they were in a stronger league and still tied second for goals against. Ralph wasn’t an all-star last season but he alone wasn’t the Bison’s biggest defensive issue. Would he have wanted to do better? Yes, because we all saw the moments he came off the ice swearing at himself after a mistake, I’m also certain he heard me yelling at him at one stage. It’s a swings and roundabouts game a bit with Ralph’s style of play where he’s more positional than physical. I’d actually like to see him take the body more but that walks the line with someone like Josh Kelly who more frequently stepped into the play and occasionally got caught.
Owning a pub in Hull and having commuted for two years, it’s been decided that it’s time for Ralph to be closer to home and that’s a respectable and admirable choice.
Which leaves us with the two young Welshman (neither of whom I could find a really decent picture of in the immediacy). Bayley Harewood exploded onto the scene and whilst his stats don’t speak of early domination, they do speak of a lot of promise. Tait very clearly managed Harewood’s icetime across the season so as to not overexpose the young man in his first season of senior hockey. Aside from making all of us feel very old, you could clearly see that Harewood was a young man playing out there. At times he very much went charging about heads down and didn’t seem to look for the play. The inexperience did show.
The flip side of that is Bayley Harewood might be one of the most exciting prospects in the country right now. Utterly fearless as most teenagers are, that utter determination to power through defences combined with a skill level that will clearly only improve with time made it easy to see why he was so popular in Basingstoke.
The fact that he’s been released to seek more ice time would initially leave us thinking that he’s heading to NIHL 1 rather than staying in the national league. When you consider that the Bison have a youngish team and will be one of the many teams chasing the signature of Sean Norris and Sam Talbot, Harewood wasn’t going to get ice time in Basingstoke this campaign and that drop so he can get time in senior hockey would make sense. Given the Bison’s recent colaberation with Slough, one could wonder if that’s an option for both Bison youngsters but with rumours of an impending Bracknell move to The Hanger could change plans for the Jets. Harewood in Slough would be an adequately dynamic replacement for Norris and Talbot, neither of whom should be playing division one hockey next year given their talent.
Sam Smith is the one that as a fan I’m personally disappointed about losing. Watching defencemen develop is a rare treat and Smith, whilst very much a work in progress, was a lot of fun to watch. He did make mistakes as seventeen year olds do but he also could be seen actively learning from them and that was a fascinating watch.
As with Harewood though the move does make sense. How will Smith develop? Ice time. What’s he not going to get lots of as the Bison’s 6th or 7th defenceman? Ice time and so off he must go. Given both he and Harewood are Cardiff based there’s the obvious thought of them coming as a package and certainly Lukas Smital wouldn’t look a gift horse in the mouth when offered a good young defenceman though obviously there are options. I personally would have kept Smith or at least moved him to a two-way (and this still might be the case though the wording of the press release didn’t make it seem that was happening with either Bayley or Sam) because those kind of defencemen are rare. Fans rightly talk about the potential with Harewood but for me Smith has equal amounts and it’ll be a shame to see that being put to work away from North Hampshire.
Ultimately none of these three guys are leaving because of any huge error but circumstances and if anything about the present time has taught us anything is that they could be far worse circumstances.
We wish Bayley, Sam and Tom the best for their next steps.