BOTW Breakdown – The NIHL National League is born

Having done well in NIHL 1 South, Ashley Tait will now lead the Basingstoke Bison into the new NIHL National League.
(c) 5 Hole Photography

As teams prepared to start the final weekend of the NIHL Division 1 regular season, the owners of member clubs across the country met to finalise a new format for the National Ice Hockey League. We’re going to break down the EIHA version of the press release bit by bit. We’ll also touch on a bit that’s come out elsewhere.

The English Ice Hockey Association are pleased to announce that there will be a new structure of the men’s senior league for the 2019/20 season.

At a meeting of NIHL clubs in Warwickshire today the creation of a new ten-team division was approved to sit above the existing Division 1 in North and South.

So the worst kept rumour in British hockey for at least 6 months comes out of the bag and we see the return of a national league as the second tier of the sport. Since the collapse of the English Premier Ice Hockey League when the 7 remaining teams couldn’t find an 8th to join them and were advised to apply to join the NIHL regional sections, people have been unable to agree as to whether it’s been a good or a bad thing. The perspective of this writer has been that it’s a thing that has happened.

It’s been good in some respects as it shook up some things and challenged some clubs to adopt more professional methods in an order to compete. It’s provided (in the south at least from what I’ve seen week in, week out) some entertaining and competitive hockey games. It’s also been bad because those more professional clubs dropping down arguably shook things up so much and challenged teams that couldn’t really compete with them to do so. In a race to keep up with the Joneses teams either chose not to and got beaten badly or tried to, put themselves into financial strife and then been badly beaten.

Some will have said that a new national league has always been in the offing but for me it’s never been as straight forward as that. Nobody can have that much foresight, especially in British hockey which has always had a habit of lurching from crisis to crisis with the odd success in the middle.

The National League will comprise Basingstoke Bison, Bracknell Bees, Hull Pirates, Leeds, MK Lightning, Peterborough Phantoms, Raiders, Sheffield Steeldogs, Swindon Wildcats and Telford Tigers.

Some of the teams in this will be of a surprise to nobody but there’s a couple that immediately bare speaking about.

The Hull Pirates, having asked to defer entry to the Elite League by a year last year, have decided against joining the top flight to remain at the second tier. This begs the question of what circumstances led Hull owner, Shane Smith to not take the option of stepping up.

Raiders coach Sean Easton revealed on the BOTW What’s Current Stream a few weeks ago that he wanted the Raiders to step up and play at the highest level possible and it seems that chief executive John Scott has obliged him by taking the Raiders up into a national league for the first time since they left the EPL in 2010.

A new team in Leeds is an immediate “x factor” but comes with a variety of questions. After a hold up to building works in November 2018 due to high winds, Planet Ice says that the rink will open in “mid 2019” which is great but what is the contingency if the rink isn’t ready on time. The other big question is where will the players come from given Sheffield and Hull will be in the league? Are they hoping to sweep up the best of the rest from players who are arguably too good for NIHL 1 North? Who will coach them? Questions abound.

Then there’s the Milton Keynes Lightning. As the Lightning won the 2017 EPL playoffs and sailed off into the sunset, there was song that was sung across the weekend. MK fans have long used “Hi Ho Silver Lining” but some fans changed the words that weekend to “Hi Ho EIHL, for a year or two now baby”. Some people were alarmingly prescient.

Planet Ice took the Lightning into the Elite League but since Graham and Monica Moody took over the club it’s been a tough season for the Lightning who sit 21 points adrift at the bottom of the league. Not 21 points adrift of the playoffs, 10th placed Manchester Storm.

Graham Moody says in the Lightning’s release on the move that “the long-term financial viability of the Lightning franchise is incredibly important to us – and it became unsustainable to compete at that level” which whilst a shame does make me wonder why the Lightning were taken to this level in the first place.

Who will ice for the Lightning also becomes a big question given that players requiring a work permit will not be permitted meaning that everyone including current player/coach Tim Wallace cannot return. Will British players currently on the roster like James Griffin drop down? Will old faces like Leigh Jamieson return for one more ride? One player who won’t return is Adam Carr who has signed up to be Streatham’s player/coach for next season which is one veteran who could have proven very useful not available to the Lightning.

One other bit that Moody touches on in the Lightning’s release but isn’t mentioned in the EIHA release is the mentioning that this new league will have two imports. This has immediately run alarm bells for many as with the EIHL seemingly in no hurry or desire to drop the import numbers in that league, the issue of a gap between the two remains. Whilst we have no sources for this, this writer would be incredibly surprised if the import number remains at two. On the most recent BOTW Podcast, Doug Clarkson believed that any new national league should remain at 2 imports but that meant it being tied into a bunch of other factors like the teams being affiliated to EIHL teams. There is that 10 and 10 split now but who seriously would partner with Belfast or the Scottish teams given the distance?

I personally believe we see 4 imports next year but I’d also be wanting the EIHL to reduce its numbers to 12 imports. The chances of the later are small because the top tier continues to show minimum attention to the levels below it, choosing against proper engagement with the development pathway on a wider level. I don’t want to spend this piece bemoaning the EIHL too much but this lack of foresight on such things is one of the league’s biggest issues and then owners have the gall to complain about the lack of talent coming through when they don’t participate in the process to get the players that they want.

There’s lots of details still to come out and we learned what happened the last time the EIHA announced a new structure. We’ll believe nothing until teams hit the ice.

The remaining leagues also had their proposed membership approved at the meeting.

South Division 1: Invicta Dynamos, MK Thunder, Streatham, Chelmsford Chieftains, Solent Devils, Slough Jets, Oxford City Stars, Bracknell Hornets, Raiders Juniors. A tenth team is to be confirmed.

North Division 1: Solway Sharks, Whitley Warriors, Solihull Barons, Sutton Sting, Blackburn Hawks, Billingham Stars, Nottingham Lions. An eighth team is to be confirmed.

A separate North Cup competition will also take place featuring Murrayfield Racers and Dundee Comets from the Scottish National League. Full details of this competition will be confirmed in due course.

Many of the classic NIHL teams have chosen to remain in the regional structure. This is certainly good news for Invicta and MK Thunder who likely can have a much easier time of it in 2019/20. In the South it also sees Bracknell Hornets, Chelmsford, Oxford, Slough and Solent return to Division 1.

In the North all the 7 teams not joining the national league stay where they are and, like the South, there’s a team to be confirmed in the league. In the north there’s the potential for perhaps a second team in Leeds or newly crowned North 2 champions Widnes but who joins as the 10th team in the South is one that I’m left scratching my head over though Cardiff Fire seem the likely candidates.

South Division 2: Guildford Phoenix, Bristol Pitbulls, Cardiff Fire, Peterborough Phantoms 2, Haringey Huskies, Invicta Mustangs, Basingstoke Buffalo, Swindon Wildcats 2, Lee Valley Lions, Solent 2, Streatham 2.

North Division 2: Widnes Wild, Hull Jets, Sheffield Senators, Bradford Bulldogs, Coventry Blaze, Dragons, Altrincham Aces, Blackburn Hawks 2, Telford Tigers 2.

There are no massive surprises there though some interesting additions in the south being a second team in Solent and Streatham that weren’t there before.

The director of the EIHA Senior Leagues, Paul Hayes, said: “Today was a very positive meeting and the conclusion of several weeks of consultation and dialogue between the league management and our clubs.

The structure agreed today is something of a step back to move forward, but it will be a sustainable model at all three levels with competitive games in all divisions.

Myself and the NLMG are grateful to the clubs for their patience, support and input into the process and we look forward to an exciting end to our current NIHL season and starting work towards 19/20.”

The league will release more details about the respective divisions as well as hearing from some of the clubs involved over the next few days.

The step back to move forward mentioned is something of an understatement but here we are. We all know full well that these plans have been talked about for a while. Whether the EIHA or the clubs forced the issue seems to depend on who you speak to but the change was there to be made and felt like, in the main, that it was needed.

We are at the very early stages and the collapse of the EPL/NIHL reshuffle in the summer of 2017 told us that we were going to have two conferences in South 1.

So what do we think? Comment below, tweet us or join us live on Wednesday on Twitter for the What’s Current Stream.

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