Building the Herd – Joe Baird

#15 Joe Baird

Position: Defence

Born: Southampton, Hampshire

Announced as signed: Basingstoke Gazette, 22nd June

Baird on board; veteran defenceman Joe Baird rejoins the Bison for 2017/18.
(c) 5 Hole Photography

The Bison continued their recent run of Thursday signings with the return of another well know face and a veteran presence in the form of Joe Baird.

Baird, 37 is about to enter his 23rd season in which he’ll have made an appearance in senior hockey. Having dressed for 1 Basingstoke Beavers game in the 1994/95 season, Baird has played for the club across both its names and in what will now be its 6th different league competition. A former Bison junior, Baird left the club in 2002 and plied his trade at a number of southern sides in the old EPIHL going from Wightlink (2002-2005) to Bracknell (2005-2009) to Swindon (2009-2013) before returning to Basingstoke at the start of the double winning 2013/14 campaign. Baird will enter his 5th consecutive season with the club when the season begins in September.

Joe has played 652 career EPIHL regular season games together with 65 playoff games for a total of 227 points in regular and post-season play with a total of 1636 penalty minutes in his EPL tenure. Baird’s personal PIMs record came in 2006/07 when he tallied 169 minutes of penalties in the regular season whilst at Bracknell where the Bees won a league and playoff double.

Joe has won the EPL league title twice, the playoffs twice and the cup once. His numbers for the Bison/Beavers organisation stand at 426 games in all competitions with 80 points and 448 penalty minutes. He is also a former GB u18 and u20 international.

I won’t lie; this one is a bit of a surprise for me. I genuinely had an inkling that 2017 would have seen the end of Joe Baird’s hockey career. With all that the off season has thrown at us and all that had been thrown about before the 2016/17 season had even ended, you wouldn’t have blamed him for calling time. I don’t think anyone blamed Matt Towalski from stepping away from hockey, it seems the ideal time to do it. At an outside chance, I thought that maybe a role with the Buffalo would have wetted Baird’s appetite but no. Joe Baird is a Bison once again.

Baird has his detractors; he’s not the fastest of skaters anymore which sees speedier forwards get the wrong side of him. People feel that he also takes too many unnecessary penalties into the bargain down to a mixture of being too slow and being too physical at times.

With 5 trophies to his name, 3 of those since 2014 with this club, it’s pretty easy to argue that Joe Baird should be allowed to go out on Joe Baird’s terms and especially where the Bison as a club are concerned. If Baird feels he can play on then play on he shall and the organisation should certainly take his wishes into account.

That’s not to say that Doug Sheppard should just blindly re-sign players because they were here the previous season. If there are upgrades to be made then they should be made. Sometimes that means putting sentiment aside.

However Doug Sheppard still sees a place for Joe Baird in this team, Joe Baird still wants to play and so Joe Baird is back. It’s as simple as that and I think I can see why Sheppard has brought him back and to my mind, there’s two reasons for it.

The first is simply the style of play that the Bison will be playing. Look at the three defencemen that the Bison currently have on the roster; it’s now Dan Scott (big lad who likes to play the body), Elliott Dewey (big-ish lad who likes to play the body) and Joe Baird (not the biggest lad but likes the play the body). Doug Sheppard is clearly not changing his overall ethos of how he is putting this team together and the blueline are going out to shut people down and make sure they stay shut down. The drop to two imports means a fair few imports who were usually the faster and more skilled players on the team are gone. It means that Baird has a role because the way we’re going to play defensively suits his style and it’s the style that has seen the Bison concede the fewest goals and allow some of the fewest shots in the EPL the last two seasons.

The other reason why Baird is back is the good old mantra of veteran leadership. The Bison has always been a team of multiple “leaders” in that sense. Aaron Connolly is still in his early twenties and is the named leader of the Bison but you can’t beat experience. In the shifting seas that we find the club in, on ice you need a steady head. You need someone who has been and seen and done it all and that’s where Baird will come in. He might be slow, he might take daft penalties but in crunch games who is generally a really solid player on the team?

I don’t propose that Baird is about to be on the Bison’s top pairing for the coming campaign, he likely 4th or 5th defenceman to be paired with one of the younger players to help show them the way. Whether you like him or not, Joe Baird has forgotten more about hockey than most of us. The Bison believe that he has an on ice role to play in their systems and with some younger players coming onto the roster as a result of the move to NIHL 1 South, it makes sense to milk that experience for all that it’s worth.

Welcome back, Joe.

The BOTW Podcast – episode 56

So the summer keeps rumbling on and The BOTW Podcast is back for one of its off-season specials.

Tons has been happening in British hockey; we had a structure then it changed as teams withdrew from NIHL 1 South, one of which was the Oxford City Stars. We speak to Stars’ director, James Schall to get the lowdown on why the Stars made their decision as well as other things going on at Oxford.

Then, we figured we’d talk about some hockey that’s actually being played. Michael Smith and Ellie-Marie Watts from Grassroots Sports and the media team of the Newcastle NorthStars in Australia come on to discuss the sport down under and how you can get your hockey fix this summer.

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

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

Building the Herd – Grant Rounding

#17 Grant Rounding

Position: Forward

Born: Johannesburg, South Africa

Announced as signed: Basingstoke Gazette, 15th June

Let’s go Round-ing again; Grant Rounding is back for his 4th season with the Bison
(c) 5 Hole Photography

With the start of the Bison’s first season coming ever closer, coach Doug Sheppard has continued to add meat to the bones of the Bison roster by announcing that British/South African forward Grant Rounding will return for his 4th consecutive season in the Herd’s colours.

26 year old Rounding had his best season points wise for the Bison in 2016/17 as he tallied 5 goals and 11 points across the campaign from the third and fourth line. Rounding, who has been massively unfortunate with injuries, also managed to complete a full campaign with the Herd.

The former Bison junior moved from Basingstoke to Bracknell for his junior hockey and played the majority of his under 16s hockey with the Stingers before making his senior hockey debit with the Bracknell Hornets in 2006/07 whilst playing with the under 18 Drones. Rounding’s time with the Hornets ended in 2007/08 when he scored 22 goals and 41 points in 18 games as well as scoring 8 points in 11 league and cup games with the Hornets.

Rounding then became a Hornets mainstay for the next few seasons in the ENL playing 63 times across the next few seasons where he scored 59 points as the Hornets picked up the 2010 ENL South title. Rounding also made his EPL debut with the Bees scoring 2 points in 20 games.

The next season saw what started as a productive campaign with the Isle of Wight Raiders as Rounding went a point per game on the island before a broken leg ended the season after just 16 games. Rounding returned home to rehab the injury and returned in 2012 with the Hornets before moving to the Bees full time for the rest of the 2012/13 season where the scored 9 points in 49 games.

2013 saw Rounding sign on for his first full season with the Bees and an impressive 19 points in 52 games caught the attention of Doug Sheppard who lured Rounding back to Basingstoke after the Bison had won the double.

Grant’s totals with the Bison stand at 33 points from 117 league, cup and playoff games for the Herd which includes being part of the 2016 league title winning side.

On his re-signing last season, we wondered what we would see out of Grant Rounding. Having taken two seasons to play just under one season’s worth of games, the hope that Grant would be able to go through a season without serious injury and that we’d see the most of Grant Rounding.

We certainly got one of these. The fact that Rounding made it through the season with minimal time missed is an achievement in itself. Hockey is a short enough career without losing time to major leg injuries. There was a major point of wonder that Rounding wouldn’t have maintained the speed that he had before the injuries but he remained arguably the fastest skater on the team for straight line speed.

Whether we saw the most of the most of Grant Rounding is a bigger question. The piece in the Gazette mentions that he had limited ice time during the season which is entirely fair. The move to 5 imports meant that the bottom 6 were always going to be squeezed a bit for ice time and on the occasions where Rounding found himself on the fourth line, it meant that he got very few chances to do much at all.

When he did get on the ice, it was something of a mixed bag for the South African. He played frequently on a line with Tomas Karpov but the combination didn’t have the same success as the Czech’s partnership with Alan Lack. Then again, it’s massively unfair to expect Grant Rounding to be the same as Alan Lack. They have massively different styles. However for whatever reason, Karpov would set the table and Rounding just couldn’t finish. He seemed massively snake bitten at times and the puck would just miss his stick or go an inch the wrong side of the post of trickle across the crease. They seemed to have a decent enough understanding of where the other would be but just couldn’t get the crucial last touch.

That being said 11 points in a season where he didn’t get tons of ice time is still a good return and, as he rightly points out in the Gazette, he’s going to have a lot more to do this season.

The drop from five imports down to two means that the guys who were on the fringes will have more time and more responsibility. It also throws up a question as to how many lines that Doug Sheppard will choose to run though I believe if the option is there there he will run four and Rounding shifts between the third and second lines depending on the situation and form. With one import allowed on the ice at a time, that’s 4 British skaters on the ice and that gives Rounding the opportunity to get that increased ice time and to hopefully get into that groove of regular scoring. Rounding has said that he wants to get to a point a game and this season and all its changes should provide the best opportunity in recent times for him to do that.

There are currently 6 forwards announced as being on the roster at the moment so it remains to be seen just where Rounding will fit into the lines. Do they retry him with Karpov and hope that the connection yields better returns or try him elsewhere? What Doug Sheppard will do is know where Rounding’s best asset, his speed, will be of most use to the roster. We know he’s going to be a lead forechecker on the roster and see a lot of penalty kill time as a result but just who he does that with is going to remain unanswered, at least for now though hopefully they find a way to keep up with him.

Welcome back, Grant.

Goodnight and Good Luck – Declan Balmer

The Bison has taken recently to announcing departures and signings together. The scheduling that we do here on the site occasionally means that we get to have a bit more information as things go and that’s what’s happened this time. With that, Banners On The Wall wraps up the last few days’ worth of announcements by bidding our farewells to Declan Balmer.

What have we lost?

In Balmer, the Bison lose a physical presence on the blueline. At 6’3” and nearly 200lbs, the Hull born defenceman has been one of the bigger elements to the Bison’s defensive corps. Never one to shy away from the rough and tumble, Balmer has always been prepared to stand up for his team mates as well. Declan has never topped the scoring charts but his upswing in points in the last couple of assists, mostly through assists, has provided an additional edge to his very good defensive play.

Declan Balmer swaps Basingstoke for the EIHL and the Manchester Stor.
(c) 5 Hole Photography

Where has he gone?

When they announced his departure, the Bison mentioned that Balmer was off to the Elite League and Declan was announced today (10/6/17) as having joined the Manchester Storm.

Who replaces him?

At the moment, whether we’ve replaced Balmer directly is inconclusive. In terms of decent stay at home defencemen, both Dan Scott and Elliott Dewey can fill that roll. Scott certainly plays a similar physical style though I’m not sure if Doug Sheppard wants Scott to have that added physicality that Balmer occasionally provides. That element of Sheppard’s roster building remains to be seen.

Final thoughts:

Where the Ciaran Long departure to the Elite League has been a long time coming, the departure of Declan Balmer is a bit more of a natural transition though like Long, it isn’t a surprise that someone has taken a chance on Balmer at the highest level.

The provision for under 23 players in the line ups of EIHL sides means that rosters need those players on the gamesheet but how will the be used if at all? That’s where I think Balmer’s been shrewd in going to Manchester for a couple of reasons.

The first of those is Manchester, who are not a big money organisation within the British top tier are not going to want to carry passengers. Balmer will not be a top 4 defenceman off the bat for the Storm, most likely aspiring for the 5th or 6th spot but he will get shifts.

The second reason of this is that new Storm coach Ryan Finnerty sort of knows what he is getting. A couple of years ago, whilst still the coach of the Braehead Clan, Finnerty signed Zach Sullivan for the Clan. BOTW (and everyone else in Basingstoke) joked when Finnerty said he was “surprised” at how ready Sullivan was for the EIHL but that experience has likely led Finnerty back to the well. Sullivan twice won the young British player of the year but with Sullivan committing to Braehead again, Finnerty has looked at Hampshire again for his next project defenceman. With a need for younger British roster players, a player like Balmer who has hit that point where he’s ready to make that step to the EIHL but won’t be stepping into a top 4 slot, will be useful piece of the Storm’s roster building puzzle.

Balmer has his detractors. During his time in Basingstoke he was accused of being overly physical, an agitator (and that’s the polite version) and a punching bag because whilst he likes to fight, critics say he isn’t good at it.

The fighting part aside (Balmer’s not that bad at it and remember that no fight has ever won a hockey game) I’d say both criticisms are fair to a point.

Declan Balmer, like the Bison as a team under Doug Sheppard’s stewardship, can be overly physical. However you don’t sign Declan Balmer to be a finesse defender. You sign him to hit people. You sign him to go into corners and do the dirty defensive work you need your blueliners to do. That means being physical. Hockey is a physical sport and whilst the penalty minute count might concern certain fans of his new employers, I don’t think it should be a primary concern.

The agitator claim is an interesting one. For me, Balmer is a player that you hate if they play for someone else and love if they play for you. He wants to get under the skin of players because if those skill guys are off their game, they try to play his game and Declan Balmer is better at playing his game than your first line winger. He’ll take the hacks and the whacks, he’ll take the penalty minutes because if it takes someone else out of the game that is a real threat for the other side then that’s going to be a trade off, especially in the EIHL.

The Storm don’t need an out and out fighter, they have that in former Philadelphia Flyer, Jay Rosehill but as a middleweight (of sorts) who can be a solid defender and do some extra work, I think this is a signing that works for player and club. We’ll obviously miss his presence in Basingstoke but the whole point is that we should see our better players head to the EIHL. That’s what should be happening when we’re playing second tier hockey. He leaves Basingstoke with an EPL winners medal and clearly an ability to do the job. The player and the club have both done what they are supposed to.

All the best, Declan; try your best to kick up a Storm. (I know, that pun is terrible but it worked.)

Goodnight and Good Luck – Ciaran Long

Photo (c) of 5 Hole Photography – remember to celebrate the best Bison moments with a print

Building the Herd – Aaron Connolly

#63 Aaron Connolly

Position: Forward

Born: Northfleet, Kent

Announced as signed: Basingstoke Gazette, 8th June

Aaron’s alright; Aaron Connolly returns to the Bison as captain for 2017/18’s adventure into NIHL 1 South.
(c) 5 Hole Photography

With other NIHL South 1 clubs making big player announcements, the Basingstoke Bison threw their own weight around by announcing the return of the club captain, Aaron Connolly.

A product of the Invicta and Chelmsford junior systems, 24 year old Connolly returns for his 5th season and what will be his 3rd as captain of the Bison. Connolly moved to the Bison from Slough in 2013 as a 20 year old and made an immediate impression on his team mates and the Basingstoke fans. Connolly was named an alternate captain in the wake of Joe Miller’s departure to Telford midway through the season and played a major role in the Bison lifting its two trophies that campaign. Connolly scored the first goal in the cup final second leg against Milton Keynes after just 20 seconds as well as the empty net goal in the playoff final victory over Manchester.

With Nicky Chinn’s (short lived) retirement announced at the end of 2014/15, Connolly was named the new captain of the Herd to start 2015/16 and had a superlative laden season as he captained the Bison to their first league title in 23 years as well as picking up the “coveted” BOTW player of the year trophy. Connolly’s season was cut short in the penultimate game of the regular season when a hit from behind from Milton Keynes defenceman, Martti Järventie fractured his skull meaning the captain had to pick up the league trophy in his street clothes.

He was involved in a spot of controversy in October last year as an altercation with Swindon player/coach Aaron Nell led to the Wildcats star forward injuring his shoulder and missing the remainder of the campaign. Although the season yielded a lower points total, Aaron continued to play his game his way as the Bison finished 3rd in the final EPIHL season and made the playoff semi-finals against Telford.

After his development in Kent and Essex, Connolly landed in the senior hockey proper with the Chieftains in the 2009/10 season where he went a point per game. The next season, a promising first half of the season saw Connolly move full time to Slough where he helped the Jets to EPL Cup success. Connolly played the next two full seasons with the Berkshire side, adding an EPL playoff success to his cup already won with the Jets.

A former GB under 18 and under 20 international, Connolly has played 297 games in the EPL regular season and playoffs. In 211 league and playoff games for the Bison, Connolly has tallied 164 points with 216 penalty minutes.

As soon as the Bison ended up in a league with Invicta and Chelmsford (albeit for a hot minute in the case of the later) there was always going to be rumours of a departure back that way for Connolly. Thankfully after a fruitful 4 years in Hampshire, Doug Sheppard has convinced the man sometimes called the heartbeat of the Bison to stay with the club on its newest venture.

From a Bison perspective, this announcement is good and easy to do PR. Arguably the most popular player in the team in the eyes of the fans, Connolly has a good reputation with his team mates as well. Given that the Herd announced the departures of Declan Balmer and the equally popular Ciaran Long yesterday, this is news that will very much soften the blow for the Herd’s fans.

Some people I know who aren’t Bison fans don’t like Aaron Connolly. They say that he’s over rated or, after the altercation with Nell, a thug. I think both of those are wrong. Firstly because the altercation with Nell started after Nell ended up interjecting in a fight he was the third man in to. The injury was unfortunate and the league was denied one of its best British players as a result.

As for Connolly being over rated, that’s a different kettle of fish. People who have had Connolly play against them seem to get two versions of him; they either notice him or they don’t. Bison fans (and Jets fans before them) waxed lyrical about his talents.

Some aspects of Connolly’s game are easy to see. He’s vocal, he’s high energy, he’s got a decent shot on him in a bit of space. Some aspects though mean that you have to watch him regularly to appreciate him. He’s not vocal a bit of a game, he’s vocal every game, all the time. He’s not high energy once in a blue moon; he’s constantly trying to make things happen every shift. I’ve accused him at times of working hard rather than working smart but he’s always working. He doesn’t score 25 goals every season, he has had quiet spells the last couple of seasons where points didn’t seem to want to come but out of nowhere he will score.

When he was made the captain back in 2015, we theorised on BOTW that hopefully it wouldn’t change Connolly’s game too much, that he wouldn’t feel the need to play “like a captain”. Thankfully for most Bison fans, Aaron Connolly’s way to play like a captain was to play like himself. The Bison as a unit have run off of his influence since he joined the club. When he was injured at the end of the title winning season, the Bison visibly missed him in the playoffs. When he was ejected in the semi-final this past season, the Bison visibly missed him. You don’t have to like him but you can’t deny the impact he has on one of the league’s best sides.

Welcome back, skipper.

Building the Herd – Ryan Sutton

#?? Ryan Sutton

Position: Forward

Born: Basingstoke, Hampshire

Announced as signed: Basingstoke Gazette, 1st June

Steaming back in; after time in Canada with the Tottenham Steam, Ryan Sutton is returning to Basingstoke.
(c) 5 Hole Photography

Alongside the return to Basingstoke of Elliott Dewey was someone who went a bit of a greater distance than Kent to improve his hockey career as Basingstoke born forward, Ryan Sutton was announced as signing on for 2017/18.

A former Bison junior, 22 year old Sutton has worked his way through the ranks of the junior club, through the NIHL to the senior Bison team.

Sutton started with the Bison under 16s in the 2008/09 season before progressing onto the under 18s in 2010/11.

The following season, alongside a productive 40 point season with the under 18s, Sutton made his debut in senior hockey. 5 points in 6 ENL2 games with the Buffalo were complimented with 5 appearances for the Bison in the EPL under Steve Moria.

It would take Sutton a bit of time to make it back into the Bison lineup with the majority of the next 3 years spent finishing off his junior career with the under 18s and starring for the Buffalo.

A couple of appearances in the 2014/15 challenge cup against NIHL sides and some impressive work ethic saw Sutton make it back onto the Bison roster proper in 2015 as he played a depth role during the side’s EPL title run, scoring 4 points and tallying 6 penalty minutes. This was combined with 26 points in 13 NIHL 2 South games for the Buffalo.

In 2016, Sutton decided to try his chances further afield and headed to Canada. Like many British players before him Sutton headed to the Greater Metro Hockey League, a pay to play junior league in Canada that boasts Stuart Mogg and Craig Peacock amongst its alumni. Sutton started with the Komoka Dragons but with the side folding just 12 games into the schedule he moved to the Tottenham Steam, the previous season’s champions. Sutton split his time between playing forward and defence but still scored an impressive 20 points in 24 games for the Steam before heading home.

Sutton has played 66 times for the Buffalo for 73 points and has 5 assists in a combined 48 games for the Bison.

When Ryan Sutton picked up his 2016 EPIHL winners medal, he was part of the supporting cast. I don’t think it’s unfair to say that; limited ice time, used sparingly, generally in a third or fourth line role and very few points speaks to that. However he must have gotten something right to be there in the first place. Doug Sheppard doesn’t keep people around who aren’t doing something right. If he didn’t think that Sutton wasn’t doing his job, he wouldn’t have kept him on the roster. His appearances in the line-up would have been more sporadic.

Sutton left as a depth forward and returns from Canada as a depth forward in this roster but it’s a depth forward role with the added experience of that year in Canada behind him. That year in Canada benefited Craig Peacock who was the league’s top scorer when he was there. We’ve seen the player that Stuart Mogg has turned in to as well. That’s not to throw tons of pressure onto Sutton but it bodes well and the player himself certainly thinks that he’s improved in his time in the GMHL and this bodes well.

At the moment, we’re somewhat at a loss as to how many lines that the Bison will run. Initial thoughts for Sutton will be to be a 3rd line winger with space to get some good penalty killing time but we need to see how the rest of the roster pans out. Crucially what we have is a player that has always wanted to be a Bison who has gone away, taken a chance to improve themselves and comes back wanting to be a Bison.

Welcome back, Ryan.