BOTW Special – The D word

I was asked by Stuart Coles, editor of the Coventry Blaze monthly magazine OnFire to contribute to their December issue. As December has gone, I’m allowed to publish the article here on the blog.

Lewis Hook (white) proved popular with Blaze fans in pre-season but what chance do he and others have of cracking the EIHL? (c) 5 Hole Photography

Lewis Hook (white) proved popular with Blaze fans in pre-season but what chance do he and others have of cracking the EIHL?
(c) 5 Hole Photography

Your erstwhile editor of this fine publication and I have been friends for a long time and when he dropped me an email asking me to contribute to On Fire again, I naturally agreed. When he asked me to write about development, I was tempted to take him off of the Christmas card list.

Player development in British hockey is one of those things that we could argue about till all of the cows not only come home but build their own housing estate. As someone who spends his time supporting his club that now plays in a “development” league and used to be an EIHL member club, I suppose in some ways I’ve seen the good and bad points of both sides of the equation.

Take last season’s IHJUK best young British player, Zach Sullivan of Braehead; Sullivan worked his way through under 16s and 18s in Swindon and Guildford, went to Invicta in the old ENL before moving to Slough then onto Basingstoke where he was part of the Bison’s double winning side then got himself a 2 year contract at Braehead. Sullivan has never played abroad, was well coached by coaches in Britain, got given chances, proved himself and now I don’t think many would disagree with me when I say that Sullivan is an Elite League level defenceman. The problem is that Zach Sullivan is one of a small number when he really shouldn’t be.

There are players who are playing in the EPL right now who could and probably should be playing in the Elite League; Lewis Hook, Matt Selby Tom Norton and Ciaran Long are four who immediately spring to mind but the longer term issue is even bigger. What about players like Ivan Antonov, Macauley Haywood, Harvey Stead, Jordan Hedley, Cole Shudra, Josh Tetlow, Declan Balmer, Cam McGiffin, Tom Stubley? I’ve rattled 9 names off there, all 9 have potential. How many should get a look at in the coming years? All nine. How many will actually get a look with serious consideration of playing in the top league in this country that you all get to watch on a weekly basis? How many of them won’t be tempted to stay in the EPL by promises of more money or more ice time?

Even the above mentioned Sullivan was really lucky; a few games into his debut EIHL campaign Ryan Finnerty said “we didn’t expect him to be this ready” when anyone who’d watched Sullivan for more than five minutes just rolled their eyes.

What I’m about to say will not be a popular opinion for some, including many reading this magazine right now but I’m going to say it because I believe it to be true;

The Elite League, all 10 of its member clubs and its coaches have a responsibility to develop British players. The British national team and ultimately British ice hockey is not sustainable without British players. EIHL member clubs need to find ways to bring players into their training sessions and onto their rosters, develop them and get them playing regularly at this level.

People say to me that the EIHL’s responsibility is they need to provide entertaining hockey. I hate to break the bubble for some people but it’s ice hockey! It’s always entertaining but the EIHL severely risks painting shut the door of an ivory tower if it won’t reach out its hand to give players a goal to shoot for. It might even mean someone has to breach the subject of actually lowering the import limit.

Now don’t get me wrong, this is not one place or person’s problem. The Elite League is not the big bad wolf here by any stretch of the imagination. The EIHA and the English Premier League in particular deserve a hefty amount of criticism. The EPL is a league with an identity crisis where it seriously needs to decide if it’s going to be an actual development league or ice hockey’s version of The Championship. Two way contracts between EPL and EIHL clubs are clearly not worth the paper they are written on if EPL clubs insist on having first call over the players that are meant to be being developed. North America manages to make that process player focussed but we can’t? It’s madness personified.

I don’t have all the answers and I don’t doubt I’ll be told that I don’t understand the practicalities and the problems. The problem is that I do, we all do. The problem is that both sides of the equation need to move closer together to solve this issue but can’t or won’t. When the club that calls itself the “biggest” in British hockey takes so few players out of a superb junior system that is literally next door, I can only scratch my head. Development is one D word, another is direction. Until we get all sides providing some of the later, the former will be nothing more than an afterthought.


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