Running with the Herd – Bison vs Bracknell Bees 21/1/17

EPL

Basingstoke Bison 5-0 Bracknell Bees

Antonov x2 (1pp, 1ps)

Towalski

Jarolin

Rounding

Sticks up for the win:

The current in joke amongst the Bison roster when they score is to grab the stick right at the butt end and raise it high in the air after scoring or winning. It’s weird and quirky but then so are the roster so there’s no surprise there. It also happened a fair few times on Saturday evening as the Bison, without some of their top end players, cruised to victory over the Bees.

No Declan Balmer, Aaron Connolly, Dan Davies, Joe Miller or Joe Rand in the line up for varying reasons (the Bison rarely comment on small injuries though word is of a small flu outbreak in the camp) but a successful and uneventful debut in the senior side for defenceman Kyle Goddard and forward Paul Petts. Both have played regularly for the u18s, u20s and Buffalo over the last little while and with gaps in the roster against a team struggling for its playoff live without some of its more senior players this was a sensible game to give the two of them an outing. Neither did anything spectacular in either direction nor did either get tons of minutes but they certainly gave a good account of themselves. They weren’t babied or mollycoddled but when it was needed, the more experienced players did their job of supporting and protecting them, such as Ciaran Long stepping in to have a word with James Galazzi after some unintentional contact by Petts on Alex Mettam. The two didn’t race out and try to set the world alight but went out and did what was asked of them. It was a debut of promise for both young men.

With some of the top end players out for the Bison, this game could have been a banana skin for the Herd but it actually followed much of a similar pattern to the game a few weeks ago against the Bees; the Bison just had too much in them. The Bees did have spells of pressure and outshot the Bison in the third but the majority of the game was controlled by the Herd and they had the better chances.

The story of the goals was an array of ex-Bees finding the net against their former club. Vanya Antonov took man of the match for one very well taken goal and a lovely penalty shot in the first period combined with the generally looking like he could score at a moment’s notice. On a line with Rene Jarolin, the only goalscorer to have not played for Bracknell, the young Russo-Brit tormented his former employers at times.

Matt Towalski’s goal was very fortunate as Alex Mettam was down on the ice at the time. Rene Jarolin had crashed the net with a Bees defenceman trying to mark him out of the play, the Bees defender seemingly made the last bit of contact with his own netminder and the loose puck was laid up by Jarolin for Towalski to fire in to the empty net.

A big cheer as well was reserved for Grant Rounding’s first goal of 2017 and his first for a while. The British forward has been snake-bitten since late 2016 but found a vein to race through, shrugged off getting high sticked on his way through and managed to slip the puck past Mettam for the Bison’s 5th. Rounding’s effort has not been matched by his offensive output but that one goal saw the confidence of the South African born forward instantly lift. Rounding’s industrious nature has never been in doubt but he now needs to find a way to turn that into more points.

Tomas Hiadlovsky’s third shutout of the season was not without incident as the visitors did have moments of being on top offensively but the Bison defence operates on a very simple premise that the defenders will try and stop any and all shots that they can but they trust Hiadlovsky to stop the ones that get through. The only shot that beat him from Josh Smith rang off of the post; they do say you have to be good to be lucky.

Ultimately the Herd’s only game of the weekend was not one played in the highest of intense states but it was another job done for the Herd. With Peterborough’s crushing win over Hull, the race for third place remains on.

A word on our opponents:

I’ve said before that I like Bracknell and I do. They do lack the quality edge of other teams in the EPL, they do need to grind their way past teams and be more than the sum of their parts to do it. They skated hard last night and played Bees hockey, I can respect that. Arguably what they lacked most last night was two of the players who were out with injury.

Aside from the fact that Matt Foord and Scott Spearing are veteran players in this Bees lineup, what would have served the Bees well last night was being that little bit more physical and trying to agitate the Bison. A home side lacking some of its physical presence would have been ripe for Scott Spearing to crash, bang and cause mayhem. Sadly nobody else was able to really do the business on their own or stepped up to do that which was odd given some of the physical players on the Bees roster.

The man of the match choice for the Bees was not a massive surprise and I have a lot of time for Shaun Thompson but I think there were two better options for man of the match for the visitors. One was Alex Mettam who despite conceding 5 goals made a string of very good saves and gave a decent account of himself but my choice would have been Rio Grinnell-Parke. Recently selected for GB’s u18s side, the former Romford junior was a constant thorn in the side of Derek Roehl and in a side that sets its stall out by being full of energy and working hard, Grinnell-Parke skated and worked the hardest for Bracknell on the night for me.

It’s another tough game for the Bees tonight against Milton Keynes but with Sheffield also in action, the Bees need to start finding ways to sneak wins against any side that they can. They sprung something of an upset against Hull last week, can they do it again? Form says no but this is hockey. Form is relative.

Lowlight of the night: Young player on debut makes inadvertent contact with netminder and gets chased by senior Bees player. Not sure what James Galazzi was hoping to achieve with that.

Highlight of the night: Antonov’s penalty shot was pretty but I’m going to give it to Grant Rounding for finally finding the back of the net. It’s been a long time coming.


BOTW Breakdown – January 2017 owners announcement

Banners On The Wall is here break down today’s announcement from the EPIHL owners. We’ll go piece by piece through the release then comment on the whole.

Despite being top of the league, EPL owners have excluded Doug Clarkson and the Telford Tigers from the playoffs following a recent owners meeting. Telford did not attend. (c) 5 Hole Photography

Despite being top of the league, EPL owners have excluded Doug Clarkson and the Telford Tigers from the playoffs following a recent owners meeting. Telford did not attend.
(c) 5 Hole Photography

The owners of the 10 clubs in the English Premier Ice Hockey League met last Sunday for a scheduled league meeting.

Representatives from Basingstoke Bison, Bracknell Bees, Guildford Flames, Hull Pirates, Milton Keynes Lightning, Peterborough Phantoms, Sheffield Steeldogs and Swindon Wildcats were present.”

So the owners of the 10 clubs didn’t meet as there were only 8 there. What they actually meant to say was that a meeting was scheduled and representatives from Manchester and Telford did not appear. Why did no representative from Manchester or Telford go to a scheduled management meeting? Manchester may well be scrambling to get a rescue package together so that’s reasonable but Telford, the league leaders to the way that’s written have no showed the meeting. Do Telford have a response to this?

The agenda sent out to all teams prior to the meeting comprised of 2 main topics these being:

EPIHL v IHUK League – bearing in mind the meeting being called for the 25th in Manchester and how we approach that individually and collectively

League rules and way forward to include:

How we deal with teams being liquidated in season and out of season.

Discipline / Penalties and Supplementary evidence.

Players being approached in season.

Teams for next season.

League / Owner management Committee / Group.”

OK, so a clear setting out of what they meant to discuss which is a good start; surprisingly organised for British hockey.

It was agreed at the start of the meeting that Harry Howton would be installed as the Acting Chairman of the league moving forwards.”

I am not that familiar with Harry Howton but he has been involved with hockey for a long time and has a lot of knowledge so that’s a good start.

Following a very positive meeting the team representatives present have voted through a variety of rules, aimed at maintaining the integrity and credibility of the competition going forwards. A unanimous decision was made by all clubs attending that no member club will participate or attend the meeting on the 25th January 2017 convened by IHUK and it is intended that the league will continue for season 2017/18.”

This is an utterly puzzling and counter-productive announcement from the EPIHL owners. Whatever individual owners of the EIHA’s feelings on Ice Hockey UK’s plans for a new second tier, for not one single person at that meeting to agree to even go or send Harry Howton as their representative to at least listen to what the direction of progress is with those plans is, frankly, stupid. Even if it was a case of “know your enemy”, you’ve been invited to go. Again it seems that rather than attempt a bit of collaborative working with a stakeholder organisation, it seems like a chunk of British hockey wants to paint the door shut on itself. This is quite literally insane.

The main focus of the meeting was how to deal with turmoil and unrest caused by clubs not playing within their means and having to liquidate or bankrupt a company, leaving unpaid debts to creditors and its staff whilst potentially gaining an advantage in on-ice performances. As a result, it was unanimously decided by all member clubs present at the meeting that the Telford Tigers and Manchester Phoenix will not be invited to participate in the end of season playoffs, following their well-documented liquidations in the previous 12 months. Furthermore, going forwards any club who enters into administration/liquidation or bankruptcy during the course of a season will be placed on the same points as the bottom placed team in the league standings plus an additional ten point deduction, the league will also request that no further ITC cards will be issued to the team in question by IHUK for the duration of the current season. Whilst the new operating company will undergo an extensive due diligence check with a panel made up of the Chairman and current team owners.”

Hang on; playoff exclusion, points deductions, no further ITC cards that season, increased due diligence checks, this is a really good strategy for the league to do. I like this a lot and kudos to the league owners for getting it passed.

The only problem is why wasn’t this sort of thing organised back in June at the league AGM rather than slap bang in the middle of the season when it directly affects the team that is currently top of the league. Asking the officials to change an emphasis on an in-game rule during the season is one thing. Changing the rules of competition mid-season that directly affect one of the major contenders arguably devalues the playoffs (let’s be honest Phoenix fans, banning you from the playoffs this year isn’t a massive punishment) and could well be challenged on a legal level. Changing these rules for next season is reasonable but the owners made their bed on this issue by not passing these regulations in June 2016 so for 2016/17 and basic fairness, they need to now lie in that bed.

We believe these punishments underline our commitment to ensure a fair competition, as well as providing a sustainable future for our sport.”

Going forward I agree with that sentiment. For this season, I await any challenge that Telford make.

With regards to on-ice issues, all teams have been concerned by the rise in major injuries being sustained by players across the league, especially with regards to head injuries. With the issue of concussion becoming a pressing concern across the sporting world, the league owners have agreed that dangerous play must be dealt with and with this in mind the EPIHL have agreed a “zero tolerance” policy for hits to the head and dangerous play. This will also be supported by video evidence where required.”

This is really good to hear. What this needs to come with is additional training for the officials about management of such incidents and recognising head hits and the like. In fact, they just need more investment full stop so let’s walk before we can run on that. It will be interesting to see what “zero tolerance” will look like though. Hopefully guidance for the clubs will be published as to what sort of suspensions can be expected.

It was also agreed that Supplementary discipline can also be requested and EIHA Officers are currently formulating these processes which will be communicated to match officials, coaches and players alike, with both of these policies taking effect from all games played over the weekend of 21st and 22nd January 2017.”

So it appears that the EPL is moving towards having a more DOPS style approach to player safety. The EIHL DOPS is one of its elements with the most potential but the application of their penalties is inconsistent to say the least and is a frequent source of club, player and fan frustration as is the lack of transparency. I like the premise and that it’s being worked on quickly but hopefully the EPL learns from the EIHL mistakes on this one. The hope that video evidence will be used will hopefully encourage all teams to improve their videoing of games. If they’re improving their equipment for the videoing of games this then it means there’s a greater potential for streaming as a viable thing. That needs to move away from clubs doing it individually and towards a league wide set-up. If they can move fast enough to kick Telford and Manchester from the playoffs then surely they can work together on that would be the hope.

Harry Howton commented, ‘It was a very positive meeting with great input from all teams present hopefully these measures will ensure that the EPIHL can now be stabilised and grow into the future. I look forward to working with the teams as we develop the league’.”

Hopefully so, Harry but change your mind and get to that meeting on the 25th. It’s embarrassing to have nobody there.

This might be the most British hockey press release of all time in a lot of ways.

There’s a fair bit of positive action in it that should give heart to some whilst subsequently shooting itself in the foot. All of the positive moves on new financial rules and player safety will ultimately get somewhat lost in the quagmire that the owners have made for themselves. One team confirmed as leaving and one team that has openly applied for membership of another league has been allowed to vote on future rules and direction of league policy despite actively wanting to not be there for next season. Rules that directly affect two current league members have been voted on and confirmed without them being present or a chance to argue otherwise. The overarching governing body has effectively had two fingers shown to it by the league owners.

As I’ve said above a couple of times, there is absolutely no good reason in my mind why one person as a representative of the league isn’t at the Ice Hockey UK meeting next week. The EPIHL owners clearly believe that this is a reason to not attend. Given that IHUK, the IIHF recognised governing body, are doing something of this nature to try and change the structure of the sport in this country I’d argue that the EPL owners should be forthcoming as to what that reason is. The IHUK plan that Richard Grieveson has proposed is not perfect by any stretch but rather than engaging with the process, rather than attempt to work collaboratively with IHUK and try and shape the process, it’s a big fat “no, we’re not playing” with no real explanation as to why.

The league is confirmed as losing one member, another has applied to leave, one is in severe financial strife, one entered the season with a shoestring budget, the team at the top of the table will arguably be sat with their nose out of joint because they’ve been expelled from the playoffs at a meeting they (albeit possibly through their own choice) weren’t present at. If the EPIHL doesn’t engage with the process and all the dominoes fall, what do those teams have left to turn to? It could be a structure they had a hand in or going cap in hand to IHUK on unfavourable terms. That is not a sensible strategy. If they want the EPL to remain without its development tag then fine. Let’s face it, the development tag on the current EPL is a smokescreen in many ways but surely that development of players will aid the remaining EPL teams going forward. How does it help to be outsiders to that process?

We need to separate out the fact that there is good stuff in here and the fact that there will now be sufficient penalties to entice clubs to operate within their means. We need to applaud some serious efforts to protect the safety of the players on the ice and be able to review and apply reasonable penalties after the fact. These are good things for the now but as always the bigger picture is not of interest. It seems that the EPL is suffering from the same issue that the EIHL has suffered from for years. They need to stop staring at their feet before they walk into a lamppost.


Running with the Herd – Bison vs Sheffield Steeldogs 14/1/17

EPL

Basingstoke Bison 5-3 Sheffield Steeldogs

Antonov x2                   Bosas

Long                             Kirk

Karpov                         Bosas

Rand pp

Pedigree shown to the chums:

img_20170114_183224

Much like last week, the Bison were faced with an opponent with a depleted roster but one that could prove tricky. However much like against Peterborough last week, it was a professional performance from the Herd to put the opposition away.

The first person we need to start with is Ciaran Long; for a 25 year old to have played 500 EPL games shows not just longevity but also his quality. Some will wonder why he has not had a crack at the Elite League but on this night it was a celebration of a player that went from the rough and raw to this current spell with the Bison where he’s been part of that core of players that have been so pivotal to the Bison’s success in recent years. From face cage at The Link to dressing as Santa to having won every trophy in the EPIHL, it is not hyperbole to say that Long is a top level British player in the EPIHL.

Of course, on his special night Long was given the man of the match award and he actually really deserved it. For the first half an hour or so nobody could touch or keep up with Antonov in terms of end product but Long’s effort and performance across the 60 minutes was outstanding. In some ways, Sheppard’s usage of Long on the night was very good. Long generally gets a lot of ice time but got big early minutes. With so much attention on him, Sheppard may well have iced Long a bit more to help work out that nervous energy that comes from a night focussing on you and having most of your family there. To be fair, it worked eventually. Long seemed to go as close as you possibly could without scoring and then with the Bison having conceded he went on one of his trademark little darts up the middle, dangled and scored a beauty of a goal to cap the night. Long remains on pace to equal last season’s total of 63 points.

The rest of the Bison roster also gave a good account themselves. As mentioned above Vanya Antonov scored two very well taken goals albeit one was much prettier than the other. The lines were juggled around a bit but the combination of Long, Antonov and Dan Davies seemed to yield some results.

Declan Balmer got the ire of the opposition bench and coaches. Along with being at his agitating best (he drew an absolute beauty of a charging penalty out of Arnoldas Bosas) Balmer and Dan Scott were very solid in defence.

We also can’t go too far without mentioning the netminding and the first competitive home appearance of the season for Dan Weller-Evans. Having gotten the final period in Bracknell last week, Weller-Evans came in after a solid if not heavily worked 44:30 for Tomas Hiadlovsky who only faced 20 shots in that time and picked up another assist. Weller-Evans stat line will be stung by the two goals, the second of which was a superb shot from Macauley Heywood, but otherwise it was a composed performance from the young Welshman who the home fans are keen to see do well. The hope is that with the run in to the playoffs very much in view that Weller-Evans will be given more ice time to aid his development as much as give Hiadlovsky a rest as you’d expect the Slovak to carry the workload.

With a big game away at Telford this Sunday, this was a “job done” for the Bison; a comprehensive win, no additional injuries and two more points on the board. It wasn’t a spectacular win but it was a win and that momentum we spoke of last week will remain important.

A word on our opponents:

With now 1 win in the last 5, I venture games like this are sadly becoming something of a theme for the Sheffield Steeldogs fans. They didn’t play badly but they didn’t play that well. It’s very much a mixed bag for them as a result.

The scoreline flatters the visitors slightly because they were well beaten across the 60 minutes but it’s easy to see why this Steeldogs roster is on the cusp of being able to challenge more than they currently are.

The issue for the Steeldogs is the quality in depth across the roster. There are some cracking players on that Sheffield roster and luckily for them are young Brits. Liam Kirk and Cole Shudra are obviously under contract to the Steelers but them, Liam Charnock and the recently added Macauley Heywood are all very good players. When you add in imports like Arnoldas Bosas and Tomas Brcko then you’re on your way.

However on this night they still have no replacement to Pavel Mrna, no Donatas Kumeliauskas or Greg Wood in the line up made for a bit of a tough ask for the Yorkshire side. Short bench, bit less depth on the bench and most games in this league are going to be tough.

That lack of depth also influences the game plan. You can’t blame Greg Wood for focussing his game plan around his top guys on the side but the problem is that they have limited options there. Budget and location obviously plays a part in who you can recruit to those positions but take a side like Telford as a comparison. If Davies’ line can’t score then you go to Kolena’s line. If Kolena doesn’t score you maybe go to Rick Plant then to a more Doug Clarkson physicality inspired approach. At the moment Sheffield have Bosas then Kirk then Charnock and 5 or 6 times out of 10 it will work but that’s not enough when the other sides have more options. It’s easy to say that Greg Wood needs to be more creative in his coaching but his roster is built to be that physical spearhead with additional skill.

In terms of the game, Liam Kirk was superb the whole night as was James Hadfield. The Sheffield born netminder will want a couple of goals back but on the whole I think it was a very good performance from him. I quite like Hadfield and ultimately we need British netminders being given a chance. You can argue the success of Sheffield as a roster on the whole but the decision to have Hadfield in net is one that I put on the plus column for Wood at the moment.

What do the Steeldogs need to do? Get as full a roster as they can at the moment and grind out results to secure 8th spot. If they get a bit of a run together at the business end of the season then the Steeldogs could so some damage.

Lowlight of the night: Dan Scott taking a puck to the head standing on the bench was a bit of a heart stopper.

Highlight of the night: There can be only one; 500th EPL appearance, immediate response to the side conceding, beautiful goal, congratulations Ciaran on a stunning career so far.


The BOTW Podcast – episode 48

(c) 5 Hole Photography

(c) 5 Hole Photography

So…bit of a busy period in British hockey. The news from Manchester and the mild case of insanity in Sheffield are on the agenda but so is a top quality guest.

EIHA referee Stephen Matthews joins the show to talk about just why he decided to get into officiating, what makes a good referee, his goals going forward and the best story about his travelling buddy James Ions that he can repeat in public. It’s a cracker!

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 and all levels above, below and in between.


Running with the Herd – Bison vs Peterborough Phantoms 7/1/17

EPL

Basingstoke Bison 6-1 Peterborough Phantoms

Jarolin x4 (1pp)            Archer

Balmer

Karpov pp

Four-wards:

After a mixed bag over the festive period, the Bison start 2017 looking for that extra bit of consistency that eluded them in the first half of the season and a big win over depleted opponents will help add that confidence to help get that going which is what was served up on Saturday night.

It was something of an odd atmosphere in the rink as the Phantoms, missing a raft of key players, didn’t offer their usual amount of resistance (more on that in a bit) but the old adage states that you have to beat what’s in front of you and the Bison were professional in their job of dispatching their visitors from Cambridgeshire.

That the Bison had the more of the puck in the early stages was not a massive surprise; the usual Phantoms road game is based on disruption, a sort of “come and get it past us if you can” kind of mentality but the problem for the Phantoms was that the Bison were able to get the passes off and were able to get the cycle going which paid dividends early with Jarolin’s goal after four minutes and the Bison never really looked back.

That’s not to say that there weren’t some usual Bison hockey on display with shots from all angles that might have made better passes and some passes that might have been better off as shots. Come the end of the first period it was something of a familiar story with the Herd 1-0 up having had the better of the play but probably should have been further in the lead which always leaves the fans in Basingstoke somewhat uneasy. They’ve seen it too often before.

However the Bison actually pressed on a bit. Despite giving up a goal just after the half hour mark it never felt like they would lose the game. The visitors offered spells of pressure but could never get enough together to really turn the game towards them. This was also helped by one player having one of those nights.

Everything that came near Rene Jarolin this night seemed destined to go in and it’s hard to argue against that point when the team wins 6-1 and the Slovak goes 4+2. Jarolin took all of his goals well with them being a mixture of things that the veteran has in his locker. He scored from in tight in a scramble, he scored low on the breakaway thanks to a lovely assist from Roehl and he scored high on the one timer. Jarolin sometimes doesn’t get the plaudits of other players in the league but there is no denying his talents even if he isn’t exactly a spring chicken. One of Jarolin’s skills is that he makes most of what he does look effortless, including scoring. With the Bison not short of set-up men they have needed someone to put those quality shots into the back of the net and if they need to lean a bit more on Jarolin to do that rather than be the pivot to set them up then that’s a course to take, at least temporarily.

The game wasn’t a super entertaining classic but if was a good all round performance for the Herd. Tomas Hiadlovsky made a couple of unheralded big saves and produced a solid game, only being beating by a very good strike over his shoulder. Declan Balmer and Tomas Karpov took their goals well, Balmer’s seemingly hitting the back of the net in slow motion. Whilst it didn’t produce much in the way of points on the night, the combination of Ciaran Long, Joe Rand and Dan Lackey is one to keep an eye on. Whilst Rand still appears to be getting back to full speed and a replacement could still be incoming, it’s a line that appears to have a bit of everything. It’s also a good use of Lackey who whilst not in the same skill bracket of the other two will be more than able to create space for his linemates to work their magic. Also Dan Scott; the man you should never notice has been such a quality addition to the Bison defence and made an already solid defence feel that little bit more solid.

Players down or not, a win over the Phantoms who have proved a tricky opponent for the Bison in recent times needs to be built upon. With a trip to Bracknell and home to Sheffield to come for the Herd, two fixtures that are entirely winnable, the chance to put a solid run together starts now for Doug Sheppard.

A word on our opponents:

The headline is the score but the substance on this one for Phantoms fans is there to see; no Auzins, no Norton, no Levers, no Weldon. Yes, those players are big losses for the visiting side and it showed though that’s not the whole story on this game for Peterborough.

The disappointing side of it was with some big players out how some of the others didn’t step up. Pliskauskas, Stepanek (who bizarrely got man of the match), both Ferraras, none of the big names really seemed to step up when required.

The two players who gave a good account of themselves were Adam Long and Wehebe Darge.

Australian forward Darge was everywhere for the Phantoms last night and seemed to be constantly trying to make things happen. Darge is more an import forward in the Joe Rand style than the other import forwards for the Phantoms but he seemed to want to try. His tape to tape pass for Archer’s goal was certainly pretty enough. I was amazed when he didn’t get man of the match for the visitors, there seemed to be nobody else close to him.

The other impressive outing came from Adam Long in the net. Letting 6 goals in doesn’t really tell the story of Long’s night as he made some very impressive saves including a diving stop on Aaron Connolly that will be a gem for the highlights. He didn’t get a great deal of help defensively but a defence missing arguably the best blueliner in the league will hinder any side and a few rebounds might have caused a few palpitations but I think that Long is at the stage where Slava Koulikov has a decision to make next season about what he does in net. If the financial demands of Auzins become too great then Long is potentially a starting option for them if they give him a defence to give him some protection.

Short on top end guys, others didn’t quite perform, it was a bad night at the office for the Phantoms. How long those guys are out for, Auzins and Norton especially, will be the big concern though rumours of additions are lingering. With a cup semi final to come and something of a demon to exercise in the cup after last season, if the Phantoms play like the did here then it will be a rather one sided semi final.

Lowlight of the night: The atmosphere was a bit flat but that’s about it really. The whole game had a very odd feel to it.

Highlight of the night: Tomas Karpov’s hip check was certainly a surprise but I’ll say Jarolin’s breakaway goal; setup was great, finish was great.


Back to War – how a hockey great, a man of medicine and a small British town crossed paths in World War Two

Please note – all references are at the end of this piece

Great Britain is a sporting nation, however Basingstoke would certainly not be a place that springs to the mind of many when thinking sport nor would ice hockey be considered part of the British sporting mainstream. Situated about 50 miles south west of London, Basingstoke is regarded by many as an unexciting place, more famous for its roundabouts and sometimes uninspiring architecture, than as a place of athletic prowess.

However one thing Basingstoke does have is an ice hockey team; one that after a few years in the wilderness in terms of results and at times even flirting with oblivion is currently atop the mountain. The Basingstoke Bison won their first league title in over two decades in March 2016. The club is arguably in something of a golden age as the league title combined with a cup and playoff success in 2014 which means the club has won every trophy on offer for clubs in the British second tier, the English Premier Ice Hockey League in the past 3 seasons under current head coach, Canadian-born Doug Sheppard.

The club was established in 1988 in large part thanks to former US International University player, Don Yewchin, who helped found the club. However 40 years before the then Basingstoke Beavers took to the ice, Basingstoke had its own brief brush with worldwide ice hockey royalty in a tale that mixes the town’s role in World War Two with a man responsible for the development of a branch of medicine in the 20th century and one of the most influential figures in the sport’s existence.

The National Hockey League is the pinnacle of the sport of ice hockey and one of its most famous organisations, the Toronto Maple Leafs would not exist without Constantine Falkland Cary “Conn” Smythe. If you’re unfamiliar with ice hockey, Smythe’s importance to the NHL isn’t just shown by his 1958 induction into the Hockey Hall of Fame but he once had a division of the league named after him and the trophy awarded to the most valuable player in the Stanley Cup Playoffs is the “Conn Smythe Trophy”. However all that was yet to come.

Conn Smythe in uniform in World War Two

Conn Smythe in uniform in World War Two

By the start of the 1940s, Smythe was a man at the height of his powers. Having enlisted in the Canadian Army whilst a university student in 1915 he came back from the Great War having joined an artillery battery, earned the military cross, transferred to the Royal Flying Corps, got shot down by the Germans at the end of 1917, reported dead and spent the rest of the conflict as a prisoner of war. He then finished his engineering degree, started a sand and gravel business and in the evenings he coached the University of Toronto Varsity Blues.

His successes with the Varsity Blues saw him hired to help construct the first ever New York Rangers roster in 1926 but was fired before the season started in a dispute over pay and a player Smythe wanted to sign. He returned home and applied to coach the Toronto St. Pats but was turned down. Shortly afterwards with the St Pats doing poorly and seemingly about to be sold and on its way to Philadelphia, Smythe managed to get a group together to keep the team in Toronto, got himself put in charge, changed the name of the team to the Toronto Maple Leafs and the colours to blue and white.

In the middle of the Great Depression of the late 1920s/early 1930s with the world’s economy in the basement, Smythe managed to secure enough financing to construct Maple Leaf Gardens to replace the club’s old arena and won the Stanley Cup in 1932. He’d also managed to keep the gravel business going, own a lot of thoroughbred race horses, get married and have 4 children.

Much to the chagrin of his wife and the military authorities, Smythe wanted to re-enlist in the Canadian Army in 1940 despite being 45 years old and technically too old to do so. He felt it his duty to go back into the forces and not just to sit on the sidelines but to be in a combat position. His superiors felt that a public figure like Smythe was of much more use on the home front for morale purposes but for Smythe, fighting meant literally fighting so he tried to force the army’s hand. Using his own time and (more importantly) his own money to put together his sportsman’s battalion in the hope and probable knowledge that a fully formed unit, volunteering to go overseas and fight would give the army no choice but to send him into the fray. Smythe was still in Canada when the Leafs won the 1942 Stanley Cup, Toronto rallying from 3-0 down in the series to beat Detroit 4-3 but he would eventually get to Europe, arriving in Britain in October 1942.

While Smythe was rising the ranks of the business and hockey worlds, another former member of the Canadian army was also making advances in his own field. Dr Colin Kerr Russel volunteered as a medic in the Canadian army in World War One and ended up being regarded as something of an expert on shell shock after his work in a military hospital in Ramsgate, Kent. After the war he became professor of neurology at McGill University in Montreal then in 1934 he joined the Montreal Neurological Institute as one of the chief neurologists.

Colin Russell (seated) was called back into the army when war was declared and was instrumental in the Canadian Army Medical Corps being in Basingstoke.

Colin Russell (seated) was called back into the army when war was declared and was instrumental in the Canadian Army Medical Corps being in Basingstoke.

When war broke out in 1939, Russel was called back into the army and was put in charge of a project to organise a specialised neurological unit for the army overseas. Whilst by today’s standards Russel’s theories on how to treat certain neurological issues are somewhat outdated, at the time they were widely read and together with his colleague in Montreal, Dr Wilder Penfield, this new project was going to do things differently and that meant the neurologist were in a team with neurosurgeons to treat the wounded soldiers who came to them. Established thinking was that during war, you kept surgeons of all sorts together. You never knew what could come in so you had access to all as needed. This was also the position of another prominent neurologist, Dr Kenneth McKenzie of Toronto General Hospital. Whilst the team would be led by a Montreal man, they needed the doctors from Toronto to function. Russel and Penfield were insistent on what they wanted but a compromise between new and old school thinking was eventually reached.

They got agreement that the mobile hospital would take to the field with Canadian troops heading to France. Some of the team were in England by Christmas 1939 and based at Aldershot. Stuck in the “phony war” that defined the start of conflict, the enemy wasn’t bullets or bombs but colds, flu and an outbreak of German measles. By the time Colin Russel arrived it was May 1940 and Dunkirk was being evacuated. Instead of looking to head to France as a field unit, Russel hunted for a premises to house the hospital in a more permanent setting and the owner of The Daily Telegraph, William Berry, the Viscount Camrose offered his home at Hackwood Park.

Hackwood Park was about 2 miles out of the centre of Basingstoke, at the time a town of about 25,000 residents compared to around 107,000 today. The original house on the site was razed by Oliver Cromwell and rebuilt in 1683 after the restoration of the monarchy. During World War One whilst Smythe was firing artillery shells and Dr Russel was working in military hospitals, the property housed the Queen of the Belgians after the Germans invaded her homeland. The then Sir William Berry acquired the house in 1935 and he agreed to lend it to the Canadian Army for free on the proviso it was returned in the same state in which it was first given to them.

The move to Hackwood got its sign off from all sides and the Canadian No.1 Neurological Hospital was started with 200 beds in September 1940 and up went the Nissen Huts. Everything had come together at such a pace at Hackwood that Wilder Penfield reported to Russel “I hear a rumour that you are living in the stable. At least that will doubtless keep the rain off, and not even a Bosche (a term used to describe the Germans) would bother to bomb a horse”.
The plan for a long time remained move operations to France when the time came but it was eventually abandoned as an idea in 1942, around the time a 65 year old Russel returned to McGill University to be replaced as consultant neuropshyciatrist by Colonel FH Van Nostrand. In 1943, Hackwood was re-designated as Basingstoke Neurological and Plastic Surgery Hospital.

Russel left Britain as Smythe arrived in the country. His self-made unit, the 30th Battery spent time in Eastbourne supporting the raid on Dieppe as defence against Luftwaffe air raids. The raid on Dieppe, seen partly as a way to probe German defences and partly as a way to involve the Canadian forces in a major engagement was a disaster with nearly 1000 Canadians killed and nearly 2000 taken prisoner.

1942 rolled into 1943 into 1944 with no front line action that Smythe craved for. All the while he was micromanaging the Leafs from Britain by telegraph and letter; sending back instructions for his subordinates with regards to signings and contract negotiations.

However the call for him to enter the fray wasn’t far away. In the wake of D-Day the order finally came for the 30th Battery to head over the channel. Just before departure, disaster struck as Smythe broke his ribs in a collision during a game of softball. By a mixture of cover up and threatening a senior officer with his service revolver he managed to get himself onto the boat over to France on 7th July 1944. Conn Smythe was finally going back to war.

A few weeks later on the night of 25th July 1944, a German plane dropped a flare to light the way for the following bombers to do their damage. The flare landed on an ammunition truck and set fire to the tarpaulin sat on top of a large amount of high explosives. Smythe ran out of his trench to try and get the tarpaulin off before anything could explode but he couldn’t manage it in time. A chunk of shrapnel lodged itself in Smythe’s back and he couldn’t feel his legs. After a nightmare plane crossing back to Britain where he had someone dripping blood on him for the entire journey, Smythe ended up at Hackwood. His eldest son, Stafford managed to get leave to come to see him. The sight of his father covered in bandages and tubes reportedly caused Stafford to faint on sight.

Taken from a postcard sent to Colin Russel's colleague Wilder Penfield, Hackwood House in Basingstoke was quickly transformed into Canadian No.1 Neurological Hospital.

Taken from a postcard sent to Colin Russel’s colleague Wilder Penfield, Hackwood House in Basingstoke was quickly transformed into Canadian No.1 Neurological Hospital. It was here that Conn Smythe was brought after shrapnel was lodged in his back.

However Smythe was in a good place to start his recovery. The hospital was more than adept at dealing with his kind of injury (it saw over 150 of this kind over the course of its operational life) and the problems that came with it; the largest being that it was a huge issue for the patient to relieve oneself and the risk of urinary infections was high. This was coupled with other potential problems like pressure sores. However the work done at Hackwood was vital not just in terms of getting troops back to the fighting but making sure people had a life left to live

Smythe’s stay in Basingstoke was short, only 6 weeks. In September 1944, he was transported first by boat back to Halifax, Nova Scotia before returning to Toronto and started recuperating at Chorley Park Hospital. Never one to ever really rest, one of his first guests upon his arrival was George McCullagh, the publisher of the famous Globe and Mail newspaper. Smythe relayed his own story and that of others he had met in a statement that was published on the front page of the 19th September 1944 edition. It caused something of a political crisis in Canada, nearly bringing down the government of the day. Smythe would eventually regain the use of his legs though would walk with a limp for the rest of his life as he embedded himself as one of the most important people in Canadian sports and hockey history. The Toronto Maple Leafs organisation is currently its 100th season of active play.

More than 16,500 soldiers were treated at Hackwood Park before the Neurological and Plastic Surgery Hospital moved to Park Prewett Hospital in nearby Rooksdown and the site was eventually returned to its owners. The current owners of the 260-acre estate put it up for sale in April 2016 with an asking price of £65 million.

Dr Colin Russel left his role at McGill University in 1945. A lifelong son of Montreal, he passed away in the city in 1956.

References:

Information on Conn Smythe: The Lives of Conn Smythe; From the battlefield to Maple Leaf Gardens: a hockey icon’s story by Kelly McParland, Fenn/McClelland & Stewart Press, Toronto 2011. Ch12-14

Picture of Conn Smythe in uniform access from Interesting Canadian History: https://interestingcanadianhistory.files.wordpress.com/2013/11/conn-smythe.jpg

Information on the life of Dr Colin Russel and the history of the setting up of Hackwood Park as Canadian No.1 Neurological Hospital: Canadian Health Care and the State: A Century of Evolution, edited by C. David Naylor, McGill University Press, Montreal, 1992 – “The Development of Neuropsychiatry in the Canadian Army (Overseas) 1939-1943” pp67-81 by Terry Copp (https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=GaYZg51npnkC)

The image of Colin Russel, Wilder Penfield’s full letter to Colin Russel and the image of Hackwood House are part of the McGill University Digital Collection in the Osler Library of History of Medicine.

http://digital.library.mcgill.ca/penfieldfonds/fullrecord.php?ID=10113

http://digital.library.mcgill.ca/penfieldfonds/large/pen_a_n_11_1_item60.pdf

http://digital.library.mcgill.ca/penfieldfonds/fullrecord.php?ID=10101

General information about the Royal Canadian Medical Corps and the treatment regime at Hackwood House: Official History of the Canadian Medical Services; https://www.royalcdnmedicalsvc.ca/virtual-museum-3/virtual-museum/historical/world-war-ii/

The history of Hackwood: The Story of Hackwood; – http://www.friendsofwillis.hampshire.org.uk/story_of_hackwood.htm

Thanks to Jen Conway and Scott Wasilewski for fact checking help and Jono Bullard and Stuart Coles for editing/checking of general sense.


The BOTW Podcast – episode 47

podcast logo

British hockey has potential. It also needs change and it’s time to look at those who are benefitting from the status quo.

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 and all levels above, below and in between.