BOTW Breakdown – NIHL 1 South 2017/18

Following the meeting on Sunday 7th May, it’s a new dawn (of sorts) for the Basingstoke Bison, other former EPIHL clubs in the south of England and the National Ice Hockey League. So let’s give the press release the BOTW Breakdown treatment, shall we? We’ll go through the press release then collate some thoughts at the end.

Following the NIHL South section meeting on Sunday 7 May, the EIHA is pleased to announce that the format for 17/18 season has been agreed after more than 6 hours of discussions.

The applications from former EPIHL sides Basingstoke Bison, Bracknell Bees, Peterborough Phantoms and Swindon Wildcats were accepted and they take the place in NIHL South 1 next season.

So the way forward, for the moment has been decided. Many postulated a bunch of theories that EPL teams would be forced to start in NIHL 2 South or that the PIHL would rise like a phoenix from the flames (too soon?) but the easy option has been taken and all the clubs eligible for the south have been accepted in.

In total there will be 12 teams in Division 1, split into two conferences of six teams.

Conference A

Basingstoke Bison, Bracknell Bees

Cardiff Fire, Milton Keynes Thunder

Oxford City Stars, Solent Devils

Conference B

Chelmsford Chieftains, Invicta Dynamos

London Raiders, Peterborough Phantoms

Streatham IHC, Swindon Wildcats

Teams will play others in the own conference twice home and away, and teams out of conference once home and once away.

From what I understand, the conference arrangement was to stop some of the smaller sides in the division requesting relegation to division 2. We also see the addition of the Cardiff Fire who won the South 2 West conference last season. Slough Jets had also reportedly applied for promotion but the choice was Cardiff or Slough and Cardiff were voted in.

When people spoke of it being a compromise deal, I think that seems to be a fair representation of what we have here. It’s gotten teams together and a structure to work with. That said the conference split will cause some perturbation given who has ended up with whom. I understand the desire to split up the 4 sides that have come in from the EPL to lessen the immediate impact of them coming down but I wonder about the geographical and quality split in the immediacy. Conference two now has 2 former EPL sides, long time league titans Chelmsford and playoff champions Invicta in it. That’s adding in Streatham who are always really competitive and London with a revamped coaching staff under 5 time league winning coach Sean Easton who are also on the verge of a move back to Romford. Conference 2 looks much more the conference of death than Conference 1 at first glance. If the Bison somehow maintain a chunk of last season’s roster then they could have some very lopsided games.

You also have some interesting fixture issues in there. Oxford and Swindon, a traditional local sporting rivalry, will meet twice but Basingstoke and Solent will meet 4 times across the season. Whilst a Hampshire derby and a coaching battle between Doug Sheppard and the league’s coach of the year, Alex Murray is a nice addition to the Bison’s calendar; I don’t believe that Solent’s rink in Gosport could sit every Bison season ticket holder from last season.

Also we do need to name the conferences so how about we name one each for the recently departed Bob Wilkinson and Pat Marsh, two servants of British ice hockey that we lost in the last 12 months.

There will also be an NIHL S1 Cup with two groups.

Group A

Chelmsford Chieftains, Invicta Dynamos

Streatham IHC, London Raiders

Group B

Basingstoke Bison, Bracknell Bees

Peterborough Phantoms, Swindon Wildcats

The initial stage of the Cup will have one home and one away against the others in their group.

For folks new to the NIHL, this cup format is not unusual. In NIHL 1 South, the cup has regularly sat as a separate competition to the league rather than the EPIHL format of recent years where the first home and away game against each side was used. Also, we see a mixing up of the leagues and we get an old boys group and a new boys group so teams get a couple of extra fixtures against sides that they’re used to seeing without suffering from the EIHL’s issue of too many games against the same opposition.

NIHL South Division 2 reverts to a single division of 13 teams, playing one home and one away. Discussions on a NIHL S2 Cup will continue.

Basingstoke Buffalo, Bristol Pitbulls

Bracknell Hornets, Cardiff Fire 2

Chelmsford Warriors, Guildford Phoenix

Haringey, Invicta Mustangs

Lee Valley Lions, Oxford NIHL2

Peterborough Phantoms 2, Slough Jets, Swindon Wildcats 2

There are a couple of bits of news in here to note. Bracknell Hornets have stepped aside to allow the Bees entry into division 1 along with the team previously known as the Peterborough Islanders, now known as Phantoms 2. There are also the additions of a second team from Cardiff Fire and Oxford with the addition of a new team from Guildford, designed to provide a stepping stone on the development route for players in the Spectrum’s junior system. Also I am wondering if Haringey have dropped the name “Racers” but that one can wait.

The meeting also agreed that all NIHL South games ending in a draw after 60 minutes will go to five minutes of 3 on 3 overtime and penalty shots if required.

The NIHL season will begin on weekend of 2/3 September and is scheduled to end 7/8 April.

The issue of post season play will be discussed wider following the NIHL North section meeting which is now scheduled for next weekend.

Aside from the structure, the addition of OT and penalty shots is a big change for NIHL South hockey. Some people like the shootout, some hate it but the addition of overtime to the league is one that I think fans will enjoy. Many will say “what’s wrong with draws?” but the prevailing wind of world hockey is towards such things. I can’t think of another league outside of the NIHL that had kept draws for as long as it had. However given that overtime and penalty shots is new to the league, hopefully they will see sense in adopting a European style scoring system of 3 points for a win in regulation and 2 for a win in OT/penalty shots. Let’s incentivise winning in regulation given we have the chance to do it.

Season seems a normal length which is good and a sensible decision to leave the playoffs off of the table for the moment till our friends in the north have their say. Certainly last season, the playoffs in the north and south were radically different with the north taking the top 4 in the league to a Coventry style weekend format and the south having rounds decided on aggregate score. There will hopefully be some consensus. There will also continue to be rumours of the respective winners from north and south meeting but how they do that within the dates set is anyone’s guess at the moment.

NIHL South League Manager Richard Carpenter said: “It was a long day, a difficult meeting but we’ve reached agreement on the way forward for next season and beyond.

“There are no perfect answers or deals to such a highly complicated situation but we would like to thank all teams involved for reaching a deal today to the betterment of British ice hockey.

“There are wider whole-NIHL issues which will be discussed after the North section next week, but we’re pleased to have carried out this task of integrating the former EPIHL clubs into the NIHL Structure and agreed a format.”

We’re hoping to get a chat with Richard soon about the meeting so stay tuned for that.

The Basingstoke Bison and the Bracknell Bees will do battle next season but instead of the EPIHL, it’s as part of a new look NIHL 1 South.
(c) 5 Hole Photography

So here we are; the chips have fallen for the Basingstoke Bison and we’re now into our third different league since I started watching the club in 2005. The days of proper national hockey for the club are at an end. The Phoenix are gone, we got two seasons of games against the Hull Pirates, no more fights with Sheffield; it’s all change again.

Instead we get some more “evocative” names from Bison and Beavers seasons past to contend with. Streatham, Oxford, Chelmsford, Invicta, this is the reality we face now. There was no magic tonic for the EPIHL or the PIHL, nobody wanted to step up and fill that gap and rather than find a way to go as a 7, all teams took Ken Taggart’s advice and the 3rd tier is now the second tier…again. Dave Carr wasn’t joking on the most recent BOTW Podcast when he said that British hockey goes in cycles.

If we’re honest than ourselves, this isn’t what we wanted. The EPL worked for Bison hockey. The Bison as an organisation could not sustain EIHL hockey, certainly the Bison that finished 2016/17 was too big an organisation for NIHL hockey but here we are, suddenly in the NIHL just over a year removed from winning the EPL.

People will talk about the drop in quality and they’re right to be concerned about that. Particularly for the Bison they’ve not ended up in a conference with any of the traditional powerhouses for conference play and get our extra games against the fellow ex EPL sides from the cup. If Doug Sheppard, for whom recruitment has generally been a strength (we won’t mention Jakub Barton), manages to keep his core together than Conference 1 could arguably be rather lopsided unless some hefty player movements happen.

From a Banners On The Wall perspective, this is irrelevant to us. The writing follows the Bison, the podcast follows British hockey and that’s how we will stay though it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to realise that this move will mean some people stop coming.

There’s been talk of people not coming because the NIHL is a glorified rec league from some, talk of “plastic” fans going away from others. If people don’t want to come to games, that’s their business.

Some people come a sizeable distance to games and how they choose to spend their money is not our decision. Do I think the NIHL is a glorified rec league? No, and if you believe that it is then I welcome you having that conversation with Jeremy Cornish but I have wondered how many people decrying the standard NIHL competition have watched more than just the inter-league cup games from a couple of seasons ago. I’ve been to some really poor NIHL games. I’ve been to really poor EIHL games too. The worst game of hockey that I’ve seen was arguably recently in Denmark in a league reportedly on a par with the Elite League. It’s a disservice to the good work and improving quality of NIHL 1 South to immediately decry it as not being “up to scratch” when ultimately all these changes mean that we don’t know what will happen.

Teams from the EPL might keep loads of their players, they might not. Aaron Connolly is a Kent born lad, what if he decides that playing for Invicta or Chelmsford is more for him this year than Basingstoke? What if Stevie Lyle thinks that given he lives in Cardiff and he can now feasibly play in Cardiff that he prefers that over Swindon? The shifting seas are going to throw us a few curve balls.

The message from here would be that we understand it’s not what we’re used to, we understand it might not really be our first choice of where to be but here we are, we must try to make the best of it, we must respect the good work that’s been happening here so at least give it a go first before you go elsewhere.

With that being said, it’s on the Bison as an organisation to sell this new place to the fans as well. The club need to be involved in making things better; use the Buffalo and the junior sides as a source for players, adjust their ticket prices accordingly, sort the rink out so it’s at least somewhere closer to fit for purpose than it was in April and a few other bits besides. The club has done best when it works with the fans and that attitude must not change.

This might not be the league we play in the future but the future is now, it’s upon us and we won’t be going anywhere in it whether Bison team and fans, Bison and its conference rivals, NIHL 1 South and North or British hockey in general if we don’t keep finding ways to work together.


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