Save the Day (aka BOTW throws out four ideas to try and improve British hockey)

So Anthony, you’re doing one of “these” blogs are you?

Yes, strange disembodied voice on the blog, I am doing one of those blogs.

And we’re just ignoring you totally stealing the hashtag from the Doctor Who 50th anniversary for the title, right?

For a disembodied voice, you’re a bit chatty aren’t you?

There’s been some very heated discussion recently after Deeside Dragons forward Shaun Kippin published his thoughts which included some minor and some very radical changes. I don’t agree with Shaun on some of the practicalities of what he’s suggested but I admire his attempts to produce a coherent strain of thoughts as to what could be done. It’s more than some of those in the higher management of the sport have managed recently.

In that spirit I’m going to throw some bits out there. I’ve tried writing one of these things loads of times and never seemed to really articulate what I want to say but as a friend of mine once told me, “publish and be damned.”

“Won’t somebody think of the children?”

Back in April, prolific hockey blogger and former Peterborough Islanders and MK Thunder goalie Rob McGregor published this piece (link) about what he thought was wrong with British hockey. Now I disagree with Rob on some of his ideas about coaching at the higher levels of the game here; Britain’s a small hockey market and player/coach and rookie coaches isn’t necessarily a bad thing at the highest level because a bit of realism is needed there. We’re a place to start out for coaches on the way up and that’s not necessarily a bad thing in my mind. Where Rob and I do agree is we need to sort out junior hockey and its coaching.

Lots of moaning does get done about import limits and them being too high. I agree, the import level in the Elite League is too high but we can’t cut that until we sort out what is coming through to replace it. The EIHL is wrong on many things (*cough* nonsensical conference format *cough* and put down that hammer Patrick Smyth of A View From The Bridge) but at the moment the import limit being around 10 or 11 makes sense to provide the quality required and desired.

One thing I’d scrap if I could right away, though I appreciate it’s probably impractical, is having junior sessions being banned after a certain time of night on a sliding scale depending on age. The South West Conference had a training session at 11:15pm on Saturday in Basingstoke. At least one player had come over from the Isle of Wight with their guardian so that’s finishing at 12:15am, shower and change then home with a ferry journey. Probably not the world’s worst experience for a 15 year old but that still seems excessive to ask that of them.

What we need to help junior hockey in Britain is Pete Russell and a Clone-a-matic 6000! Failing that we need find a way for us to make more people in that mould; good, experienced coaches focussed on junior hockey. There’s tons of people, parents and helpers across the country that help week in, week out with junior hockey; the EIHA needs to change their model of how they invest in them to improve them as coaches. McGregor mentions Switzerland a lot but speaking to other federations and the IIHF has to give some ideas as to how things can be improved. (The “workshops” section of the EIHA website under “Coaching Centre” is blank if that tells you anything.)

By going out, investigating options used by hockey nations higher up the echelons of the sport to provide a coherent and easy accessible development policy for junior players which is then followed through with to the best of the governing body’s ability that 10 or 11 imports number can, in time be looked at being reduced.

That said, the EIHL needs actively engage with the process as well and want to decrease the number of import slots when the time comes rather than looking to maintain the status quo but that’s another story.

Who am I? What am I?

Now this one is one of my own little hobby horses that I’ve explained in private to people but I’ll make it put it into the public domain here.

For my money, the English Premier Ice Hockey League suffers from something of an identity crisis; caught between this development league tag that is attached to it and its place as the second tier of British ice hockey. We have teams trying to develop and bring through youngsters into the EPL, some teams playing to win the league and paying a passing eye to development and some attempting to do both. We have a league where teams are giving young players minimal ice time whilst charging over the odds sums for tickets and vice versa. The waters as to the objective of the league is, have become muddied.

What is needed is a concrete and firm decision as to what the EPIHL is. To try and make the discussion as clear as I can, I’ll present it in two ways as to what the EPL could do;

1. The EPIHL is really a development league; the league stays true to what it is designated as. This means the teams (and to a large extent the fans as well) buying into the idea that players shouldn’t really be hanging around for years on end but be actively seeking to improve them with a view to them stepping up into higher leagues.

A veteran’s rule limiting the number of players over a certain number of games and a hard salary cap limit the clubs simply holding onto players as they can pay them more due to their price in the false market that’s been created for them. Young players get ice time to develop. The better ones move upwards and those who don’t have a chance to stay or move sideways into the NIHL. The question of imports remains problematic here but there’s no reason a 4 import league couldn’t have similar or slightly amended import rules applied to it that there are now. The development league tag means only EU passport holders can play currently anyway so why change it? That’s a point for further discussion.

Some teams won’t want to partake in that and they should be afforded a chance to step away and create a new 2nd tier league below the EIHL similar to a reborn BNL and they can then focus on forging links with teams in this new model EPIHL to give players good enough, a place to step up to between this development stage and the EIHL.

2. The EPIHL is to ice hockey what The Championship is to football; the league becomes more of what it currently is without the developmental label attached to it.

This doesn’t absolve the clubs from the development of junior talent (make your own jokes) but it opens the door for an expansion of what the EPIHL currently feels like; DEL 2. The developmental tag and all it implies then falls to the NIHL leagues and the EPIHL carries on pretty much as is bar a few changes.

Losing the developmental tag could open the door to non EU passport holding imports, even an increase in the import limit and these are options that could be investigated if that’s a road taken. I also feel that it wouldn’t hurt the league to have a soft salary cap/luxury tax. If teams can afford to spend over, they can and then part of the overspend is put back into the junior/junior coaches development fund for the ideas above. If nothing else given the change that the league

Could players move up and down between the EIHL and this new look EPIHL? Of course, just as they do now but if the EPIHL was more of this natural second tier, it wouldn’t be a slot taken from a “developing” player because the league isn’t beholden to such things.

That’s just two ideas but either way, there are probably tweaks that could be made to the EPIHL format to improve it.

Have a break

We need to give the national team more of a team ethos. There’s a couple of ways of doing this but it all amounts to the same thing; we need to properly use the IIHF international breaks to allow GB to play in them and improve the national side rather than just throwing them together at the end of the season.

I can hear some of you already, “Anthony, my club can’t afford to have a Saturday in the middle of the season without the revenue” and maybe British hockey could do what rugby does and have clubs playing during international windows but just because there’s no league fixture doesn’t mean there’s nothing to be done. Supporters club events, challenge games, training camps open to the fans, organising a flashmob game of dek hockey in the local shopping centre; it’s not like because there’s no game for 1 weekend in November and 1 in February that teams have to twiddle their thumbs.

I’ve put this idea out there before; name a national long squad at the start of the season and have a training camp before clubs get together. When the international breaks come, host games, play the imports select again, go to tournaments, even just training camp but get that squad back together in the international break. The focus should be getting a team, a proper team together for the world championships and that long squad is whittled down by injuries and form over the season till we have a GB side that knows each other and is ready to roll. We can’t magically make all of Team GB into Wayne Gretzky overnight but if you give GB a chance to be a better team, it follows that they might perform better in a team sport does it not?

Cost is the big factor here but sponsorship of national sides isn’t unheard of. It’s obviously easier for the bigger nations (Germany’s national team for example has a large sponsorship deal with Bauhaus, the country’s version of B&Q) but a couple of smaller deals combined could do no end of good. If GB Sledge Hockey can get BT on board for their Sochi qualifying tournament, there is no reason that the other national teams can’t attract sponsorship.

The person in the middle:

Find a way, any way, be it sponsorship or a £1 increase in members fees at every club to find a way to have some money to spend on giving the best training possible to the officials.

Now I’ve given some referees stick at games, we all have. There’s a general agreement that everyone wants things to improve, so let’s find a way to do that. Here’s a thought; fans seem keen to fund the officials’ worthwhile efforts for Movember, would they do so for their training? Each club picks a Saturday in the season when they get a decent crowd, ask everyone to donate £1 or 50p and half to their Movember efforts/charity of their choice if it’s not November and the other half to an officials training fund. Sound like an idea? We need officials and the ones we have we need to keep so let’s make an active effort to find a way to keep them about and improve their skills.

I’m not saying this is any definitive list that will magically solve all the problems but these are the four areas that really ticked over in my mind reading stuff recently. There’s the comments section below, do your worst.

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