A voice to be Herd – Elite League 2012/13 changes

When I heard there was a chance to return to Basingstoke to lead the herd once again I was really excited. I met with John Neville last week who outlined a vision to develop the Bison from being a local team into an organisation which sets the standard both on and off the ice…my intention over the next year is to hopefully bring some silverware back to Basingstoke and to establish a sustainable programme that contributes to the development of hockey in the UK” Doug Sheppard, Bison press release, 26/4/12

The above quote makes interesting reading. I had questioned the goal of the Bison as an organisation at the end of last season. This sparked a few conversations with fans and the odd person within the Bison organisation itself but the above quote in the press release announcing Sheppard gave us an idea as to what the Bison are trying to do.

http://www.eliteleague.co.uk/eihl-press-release-p177636

I read the release from the Elite League last night and wondered what the point was if that was the reaction of the where we’re supposed to be developing players for.

I’ll get the easy bit out of the way; the conference idea is poor, really poor. In one fell swoop the EIHL have managed to massively devalue the league title, the trophy held in the highest regard by the teams and the fans because the playoff format is so badly put together. Conferences make sense in large leagues with 20-30 teams like in North America. Conferences make sense in small leagues over large geographical areas like the 9 team Australian Ice Hockey League which has just introduced conferences for the 2012 season. To drive from suburban Brisbane where the Gold Coast Blue Tongues play to the home of Perth Thunder in Western Australia would take you 2 days. It makes no sense for the EIHL especially when you set the conferences up where teams that finished 1, 2, 3, 4, and 6 in one, with 5, 7, 8, 9 and 10 in the other. On a basic level, countries bigger than this one (Germany and France as prime examples) don’t go for conferences so having it in Britain is just silly.

Patrick Smyth came out of blog exile on the subject which is worth reading as is Jono Bullard of The Cats Whiskers.

http://www.ukhockeylive.com/2012/05/29/ch-ch-ch-changes/

http://tcwfanzine.wordpress.com/2012/05/28/are-the-lunatics-running-the-asylum/

With regards to the conferences, I agree with Patrick and Jono completely. Where I differ from Patrick and Jono is the fact that ultimately the raising of the import limits is just as bad as this insane conference idea.

The Elite League has been successful in developing home grown British talent over recent seasons, this has led to several of the country’s leading players moving to Europe to develop their careers. In recent seasons the EIHL has also grown from 8 to 10 clubs. Therefore the demand on locally trained players has stretched the talent pool available. It has therefore been decided that the import level for the following 2012-13 season has been increased to a maximum of 11 (from 10).” Elite League release, 28/5/12

Ultimately this move by the EIHL is, in my opinion, unwarranted and massively short sighted.

A few people have argued with me recently that the cream rises to the top and the British players worthy of playing in the Elite League will get to do so. I don’t disagree with the notion that the better players should rise to the top. As an example, Robert Dowd signing in Sweden is a testament to his hard work and his talent. He’ll be playing in a standard above the EIHL because he is able to and he should do.

Patrick said to me earlier that in the EIHL development should play second fiddle to sustainability of the league. Again, I don’t disagree with him but without an eye on paving a way for players to come up from the EPL and ENL, the EIHL will ultimately not be sustainable.

Aside from the fact that the days of full import hockey in the Superleague didn’t work, a British ice hockey league should have good quality British players in it. There are good quality Brits in the EIHL currently but there needs to be a clearer path for up and coming Brits to make it into the EIHL. Notice I said clearer, not easier.

I’m not demanding the league mandate a Brit on every line or players not earn their ice time and their spot but an increase in import numbers is another roadblock ultimately in the improvement of the standard of British players in British hockey and hampers the chances of some to get the opportunity that Robert Dowd has had to play at the highest level this country has to offer. The system should work in such a way where if good enough Brits go abroad, the slots should be filled by Brits from the EPL. How many Brits have moved abroad to play pro hockey in the last 5 years? How many Brits are choosing to play EPL over EIHL? One of those numbers will be higher than the other and I’d venture it’s the later. I do accept that the EPL has to accept some blame because it obviously attracts some British talent with its wage offers as well as well and the development aspect of the league is lost on some clubs (well…club) but the EIHL as the top league in the country needs to be looking at ways to further their league as well as the sport as a whole and it’s failing at that.

Raising the level to 11 imports is like putting a cast on a grazed knee. The EIHL is not in a position where there are enough Brits flooding overseas to really warrant this change and the league suffers from a near permanent case of short-sightedness. Rather than keeping the import level at 10 or Heaven forbid drop to 9 for the next 3 seasons so squads look to add talented and ready British players that do exist in the EPL or setting a target date to wean down imports to encourage teams to focus on finding or developing players to fill that gap who are worthy of the chance, it’s a spasmodic reaction of “up the import limit” without looking at the bigger picture or the future of the sport.

Yes, the league needs to be sustainable and that means putting an entertaining product on the ice. I’m not suggesting the EIHL cut itself to 5 or 6 imports but the league will never be sustainable if players aren’t properly given the chance to come through. This upping of import numbers for the sake of it further reiterates that the EIHL doesn’t have one eye on the future at all but both eyes firmly on their own two feet. The only issue with keeping both eyes on your feet is you eventually end up walking into something.

I appreciate that the EIHL has taken a moment to try and address what it perceives as its problems. Too often in hockey the attitude has been to just carry on with the status quo. However they’ve made two massive changes that impact on the future of British players and devalue their own league title in the space of a few paragraphs. The word “confused” never seemed quite so apt.

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