Even though BOTW has been away for a month, the Basingstoke Bison have kept themselves busy by adding a variety of depth pieces over the last few weeks.
Paul Petts and Ollie Stone were the first names out of the hat from Ashley Tait. Gosport born Petts returns to the Herd after a 10 point campaign, his highest with the Bison though one were it felt that Tait was never 100% sure how to use the 22 year old. A decent two-way player in junior hockey, Petts seemed to find himself either relegated to ice time on the 4th line where he would see 5-6 minutes a night or playing alongside Tait and Michal Klejna who at times seemed to not trust the young man to take a pass and make a play. Some, including this writer, wondered whether Petts was the odd man out; a defensive minded forward in a very attacking system.
Having been used somewhat sparingly by Doug Sheppard and then erratically by Tait, it’s hard to know exactly what Petts would need to do to have a break out year points wise. However perhaps this is the season where the two-way game is allowed to come more to the fore. Out of the bottom six forwards back with the Herd so far (and even including the departing Ingoldsby), none are particularly noted as defensive specialists. Yes they can forecheck and backcheck but not necessarily with the nuance of a Greg Owen or a Dan Davies. That would be the niche it feels that Petts could really carve out if given the chance. The question for the former Bison u20s captain is getting that consistency into his game to make the above achiveable.
Some would argue it lazy punditry to say that Ollie Stone is the replacement for Chris Cooke but here’s the thing, he’s arguably the replacement for Chris Cooke. The dimensions are obviously somewhat different (if you believe Elite Prospects, Cooke weighs over 200lbs and Stone weighs about 160lbs) but low points, low penalty minutes defenceman who will slot into the 4, 5 or 6 spot . A graduate of the Okanagen academy, the former GB u20 defenceman left Swindon last season for the MK Thunder and found himself in the tough situation of a Thunder side that nearly went to the wall during the campaign but toughed it out to make the playoffs before falling to Peterborough in a lopsided affair. Do not expect Stone to be adding tons of secondary scoring. Stone is the type of player who, if playing his role correctly, you won’t notice that much if at all. If you do, it’s because something went wrong. Given the departure of Cooke, I do wonder if Stone is used alongside King to allow the Scotsman to venture forward a bit more. Time will tell on that front.
June was rounded off with 4 familiar faces in two days. Presumably announced early due to the fact that he wasn’t at the club’s season ticket night, Alex Sampford returned to the Bison a very different player to the one who left it. After a very successful time on the Isle of Wight, Sampford had a couple of decent if not earth shattering years at Streatham under Jeremy Cornish. When he returned to Hampshire, it seemed that he would be battling it out for bottom six ice time. Instead he scored 19 goals and 33 points. Sampford was used across the top three lines at times; he had some peaks and troughs in his form that meant it wasn’t appropriate to play him on the top lines. However, like with George Norcliffe, perseverance paid off. For all the plaudits that Norcliffe got he was outscored by Sampford by 8 points and 3 goals.
Some will not take it this way but it’s meant as a compliment; there’s a bit of the Greg Chambers about Alex Sampford. At times Chambers was rightly criticised for being lazy but other times he took unwarranted criticism because what people thought was him not getting involved was him looking for that inch of space he needed to do something. That’s what Alex Sampford does. To his credit, Sampford is a much more physical and active player was than Chambers though Chambers also had a 70+ point EIHL season. I think it would be unfair to put such pressure on Sampford but given the shape of the top 6 at the moment with no real replacement currently named for Russ Cowley, it appears that the 22 year old former Slough junior is going to get a real chance to be that sniper and lead the goal scoring for the Herd heading into the start of the season.
Announced on the night itself was Hallam Wilson. I think I was guilty of reading Hallam Wilson wrong for a long time. When he went through a spell of not scoring in a home game I would joke with Hallam’s father, Ken that this week would be the week he scored. However having sat back and reflected on the season, the lack of goals and points actually didn’t matter to a point last season because we really did see what Hallam Wilson can do. He can agitate. Hallam Wilson can be a niggly, annoying little sod on the ice. Brilliant. The Bison have always made good use of such players. The Bison had lacked an Alan Lack style player since his move to Essex and Wilson has a chance to be that type of player. Part of me is fascinated to see what he’ll do against a fit and healthy Grant McPherson this season.
The trick for Wilson though is finding a way to up his attacking output whilst being a pest. If the former Bison junior can find a way to walk that line whilst putting up half decent numbers (and I mean pushing the high teens, low 20s in points) then he becomes a massive dual threat.
The Herd also added two on the back end in the form of Josh Kelly and Elliott Dewey. Kelly was something of a surprise to Bison fans because he’d been rarely seen in British senior hockey. Having gone through the junior system at Basingstoke and Guildford then into the Okanagen Academy in Swindon, Kelly found himself at the centre of an unfortunate storm when he was added to the bench for Swindon’s 2018 playoff quarter final first leg against Peterborough. The decision to put Kelly on the gamesheet saw the Cats’ forfeit the game as he hadn’t played the requisite number of games to be on the Swindon roster. Kelly went over to Sweden but returned after only 5 games and was quickly picked up by Ashley Tait.
Despite scoring 0 points all season and taking a while to warm up to his new surroundings, when he got comfortable he started to make a difference. Not the biggest player at 5’11, Kelly started to make smart defensive plays and found a knack for stepping up into the play and levelling people with open ice hits. Despite my near constant joking with Kelly about his lack of goalscoring (I’m convinced when he does score he’s going to hurl his stick at me), the Bison need Kelly to continue his solid defensive play and legal checking of people rather than getting 10 or even 5 points a year, nice though it would be.
When Elliott Dewey first made the Bison roster, he vanished off the face of the Earth without a trace. When he came back, he won a treble. The next season he was alternate captain under the Tait regime. He’s not 23 till next year.
Dewey, as was mentioned with Stone above, is relatively straight forward to describe. Low penalty minutes, low scoring (Dewey has scored 1 goal in the last two seasons), good at snuffing out the play. What I found a fascinating watch was just how vocal he became upon being made part of the leadership group. When you looked at the roster, you could have picked a variety of names but there was Dewey in amongst Russ Cowley (and you won’t find a more obvious choice for captain) and Tom Ralph (vocal guy, big personality) but then there was Dewey with his deep set eyes and quiet manner. Suddenly there he was yelling at guys and demanding more of his teammates.
At the season ticket night Ashley Tait admitted that he’d had a misunderstanding with Dewey, that they’d sorted it out and the former Invicta man ended up as the Coach’s player of the season at the end of season awards. I sometimes think Dewey gets a hard time, that too much is expected of him. He didn’t have a perfect season, he does get caught out from time to time but we forget that he has the time and the maturity to not only rebound in game but develop and get better from it.
With the Bison roster very close to completion, some feel that the Herd are still missing a big name piece. The loss of Russ Cowley feels like it has stacked the deck against the Herd in terms of who they announce in this regard. Cowley fell into their lap, much in the same way he’s fallen into Milton Keynes’ but it’s important for Tait not to blow up a roster’s make up for the sake of a big name. Peterborough, for as much ire as I feel I justifiably thrust on them for being a new age version of the 1994 New Jersey Devils, have always been more than the sum of their parts. If Tait can get a big name that fits then he should do that but getting a big name and throwing out his coaching philosophy to do so will not get this Bison team over the line to silverware. The Herd came very close last season. The plan was sound, the execution needs work. Tait has kept faith in the majority of the names from last year to prove that point from 2018/19. Whether there’s a blockbuster name to add remains to be seen.
#2 Adam Jones
Born: Birmingham, England
Announced as signed: Basingstoke Gazette, 6th June
Given his re-signing video, we could sit here and pontificate loads over the re-signing of the team’s number one defenceman and an all-star but instead, BOTW brings to you;
Adam Jones; a story of the Bison fans’ feelings in GIFs
(Yes, we know it was his hip. You get the point)
June and he re-signs for 2019/20
A picture says a thousand words.
Welcome back, Adam
#74 Liam Morris
Born: Gleann Rathais, Fìobha, Alba
Announced as signed: Bison website, 5th June
After a successful if unusual first season in British hockey, Liam Morris has agreed to return to Basingstoke for the 2019/20 campaign.
Morris, 24, son of popular former Fife Flyers forward Frank, joined the Bison after playing 3 games in the single A standard, Federal Hockey League for the Northern Federals which were put together to help flesh out the season after a club folded mid-season. Morris spent most of the 2017/18 campaign dealing with family issues before returning to hockey and to Britain after being offered the opportunity by Ashley Tait.
Despite being born in Glenrothes in Fife, Morris spent most of his formative hockey years back in Canada as park of the Ontario Hockey Academy setup. After finishing midget hockey, Morris moved to the Toronto Attack of the Greater Metro Hockey League.
Morris’ time in the GMHL and with the Attack worked well for him. The GMHL, sitting outside of Hockey Canada’s jurisdiction, has a reputation for not being the highest standard of junior hockey in Canada but Morris adapted well as he increased his points totals year on year and was named captain for his final season with the club where he played alongside former (briefly) Bison forward, Ralfs Circenis. Morris scored 152 points in 143 games wit the Attack and 13 points in 21 playoff games. During his time in Toronto, Morris also appeared for the GB under 20s in the division 1B championships where he scored 1 point in 5 games playing alongside familiar Bison names like Adam Jones, Zach Sullivan, Matt Selby and Vanya Antonov.
After his career with the Attack ended and his curtailed FHL season, Morris landed in Britain for an eventful 2018/19 campaign. Joining a team that had completely rebuilt its roster, Morris’ direct style of play became an instant hit with Bison fans as he drew comparisons to other Canadian favourites like Brad Cruikshank and Joe Rand for his tenacity and drive to the net.
In amongst that first season Morris got banned, injured, banned for headbutting in an altercation with Josh Martin where the later was lucky to not be suspended for judo throwing a linesman, played on defence for a number of games, played twice for the Manchester Storm in the EIHL and finished the season with 20 points in 25 league games with 117 penalty minutes. Morris tallied 3 points in 3 Autumn Cup games.
Like a lot of players from last season’s Bison roster, Liam Morris was a lot of fun to watch. One to one, Morris is actually a relatively softly spoken chap but in a crowd or on the ice, he’s like watching an energizer bunny. Some players are serious, some speak through their hockey and some are natural born entertainers. Morris is one of those.
However, as mentioned above, there was adapting that needed to be done and the Morris that started the season was not the one that finished it. Having come racing out of the gate and crashing into everything like a pinball, Morris’ style of play combined with a frustration at the officiating saw him fall foul of the officiating and he got hurt. A fan that I spoke to was convinced that he was a fantastic player but at one point was genuinely concerned if he would play the requisite amount of games to qualify for the playoffs.
Then Christmas came and Adam Harding joined seeing the two thrust together for a time. Harding and Morris took some time to gel but started working. Then the defence started having injury issues and Morris was dropped back on to the blueline. A few observers were confused as to why Russ Cowley didn’t move back but with the Bison’s more traditional utility option being the best puck distributor on the team and needed for scoring, if someone else was going to drop back then why not Morris over anyone else?
The promising thing for the Bison? Morris did well. Mostly lining up alongside his compatriot in Team Scotland, Jay King, Morris’ decent skating allowed him to be a solid depth defenceman and whilst he couldn’t use his size, he could hit, get in the way and pass the puck well out of the zone.
With that being said, I don’t think Morris should be a long term defensive option. As Tait mentioned in the press release, the versatility is really helpful in the pinch but Morris is a better forward and his ability to drive the net and forecheck is a much better asset to the Herd for my money. You wonder where he fits in and part of me wonders if, with the correct centre, you don’t try a line with Norcliffe on the left wing and Morris on the right. The paint in the creases would be worn away.
I also mentioned on Twitter that this is the year for Morris to step up. He’s learned how hockey works in Britain and whilst a new national league will offer different challenges to NIHL 1 South, the time has come for Morris to press on. We know that EIHL teams are watching him and now that he knows the waters he’s swimming in a bit better, he has a choice to be frustrated or to power through and dominate games. I’m not thinking that Morris is going to be the team’s top scorer but he can be that key piece, that agitator, that multilevel threat that can be used in any situation. He has that red mist in him that could make him ineffectual but there’s that spark that could make him an all star. It’s up to him which path he chooses.
Welcome back, Liam.
#77 Jay King
Born: Dùn Èideann, Alba
Announced as signed: Basingstoke Gazette, 23rd May
So it’s been nearly a week since the news broke in the local paper and the video was put out announcing the return of Jay King, I’ve been really busy. Work has been really busy, my son is nearly two and there’s been stuff on which delayed this piece but also there was a conversation playing back in my head, or at least part of a conversation.
It’s the Saturday of playoff weekend and I’m sat at the back of one of the blocks in a period break chatting to a group of players. I mention about my writing and one of the group pipes up. Jay King turns around from his seat, smiles and says “when I come back, I want 6 pages!” I know that this site sometimes has a reputation for being overly wordy but we may not make it to 6 pages.
23 year old King was an unknown quantity to a lot of hockey fans in the south of England. After coming through the junior system at Edinburgh, King made a 1 game appearance for the Capitals in the EIHL at the age of 17 in 2013 whilst he tore up the Scottish under 18 league with 40 points in 14 games.
The next couple of seasons saw King do a three way split between the Murrayfield under 20s side as well in the Capitals’ sides in the Elite and Scottish National Leagues. Between 2013 and 2016, King played 161 games across the 3 teams which saw his junior hockey career finish in 2015. Over that time, King became more and more a fixture of the Capitals’ side in the Elite League.
The problem for King? The Capitals became more and more uncompetitive. Whilst King got to train and play with some very good players including netminder Tyler Beskorowany who won the EIHL with Belfast last season, investment in the team was lacking and the bench was short. In 2017/18 the Capitals played a 56 game EIHL season and won just 5 games. The damn broke; Murrayfield Ice Rink took the ice time contract for senior hockey away from the Capitals and gave it to the Hands and the newly re-formed Murrayfield Racers. After the Racers were denied EIHL entry then NIHL entry, senior hockey in the rink moved to the SNL which left players like King, Tyler Plews and Harry Ferguson with a choice. Join the new order and arguably drop a level or seek out new pastures. Ferguson headed to Peterborough and eventually Milton Keynes, Plews headed to Swindon and King headed to Basingstoke.
Jay King is a club’s dream in a lot of ways. He’s charismatic, he smiles a lot, I’m told that the young ladies and gents find him attractive and of course he looks like he consistently having a ton of fun. We can all make jokes about the dancing and wanting the antics but the more I’ve sat here trying to write about that I’ve realised that all that flash is not the player that Jay King is and that’s OK.
Jay King the person and Jay King the hockey player are very different entities because Jay King the player is something that the Bison needed and the Bison have managed to keep. King is a high time on ice, low penalty minutes, solid and dependable defenceman. He’s not flashy, he’s not going to go rushing forward, he’s a stay at home guy. He’s a defenceman.
There’s something to be said for players on the back end who you don’t notice. If you don’t notice them, they’re doing their job. Elliott Dewey is one, Chris Cooke was one and so was King. 14 points isn’t a terrible return (3rd amongst defencemen and 11th on the team) for such a player but secondary scoring came from other avenues. King was sent out to stop the other team scoring and to clear the zone. He’d occasionally lead the breakout but more often then not it was left to Tom Ralph or Adam Jones to do that.
2018/19 was a success for the Bison and it was a success for King. His first season outside of Scotland saw his highest scoring season since his SNL days, his first ever post season appearances and endeared himself to a new fanbase a long way from home but most importantly he played well. There were games and days that were better than others but he had a decent year. It was certainly a year worthy of a new contract and he’s been rewarded as such. The Bison’s new trend of 2 year contracts for British players makes sense. Even if King earns himself an EIHL deal at some stage after this season, it makes another NIHL team getting him very difficult.
What do the Bison need out of King? More of the same. You don’t expect or even necessarily want your stay at home players to transform into 30-40 point scorers. He could be a bit tighter positionally on occasions (though that loss of concentration was not the sole preserve of King by any stretch) but for the most part, Jay King needs to do a repeat performance. Be solid, be secure, be Jay King. We know the fun side will shine through, Jay is not one to shy away from being himself. There are two sides to Jay King, we need and want them both. I remain optimistic that we’ll get both.
Welcome back, Kinger. Whilst we’re not ones for “Sunshine on Leith”, I hope you don’t get sick of the Macarena.
#26 Michal Klejna
Born: Skalica, Slovakia
Announced as signed: Basingstoke Gazette, 16th May
#61 Ryan Sutton
Born: Basingstoke, Hampshire
Announced as signed: Bison Website, 14th May
#4 Adam Harding
Born: Caerdydd, Cymru
Announced as signed: Basingstoke Gazette, 9th May
The Basingstoke Bison seem to be fully into their announcement season and added to their forward contingent with the signing of Adam Harding for the next two seasons.
Over in Swindon and with the Wildcats side playing inconsistently, Aaron Nell rang the changes. Despite being just over a point per game, Harding was released to make way for the return of Jonas Höög. It clearly worked for the Wildcats as they went on a run after Christmas losing only 1 league game after Christmas on their way to the league title. However the move also worked for 26 year old Harding. Harding’s scoring rate increased and he scored 31 points in 21 league and playoff games for the Herd.
Harding’s history has seen the young man travel across the country and North America to play his hockey. A product of the Cardiff junior system, Harding ended up in the junior system at Swindon for a while playing alongside Ciaran Long and Sam Waller before making his way to Calgary, Alberta, Canada to play for the SISEC Academy for a couple of seasons.
After time in Canada, Harding moved to the hockey hotbed of Simi Valley, California and the California Titans for a season (playing alongside the fantastically named Taylor Crunk) and making his GB under 18 debut before choosing to return home.
Heading back to Wales in 2011, Harding made appearances for the Cardiff Devils in the EIHL and ENL before moving to Swindon in the old EPIHL. After some impressive guest appearances for the Manchester Storm, the Lancashire side made the move permanent for 2016/17 before a move to Dundee Stars beckoned.
In the summer of 2018 with a deal not to be done in Dundee, Harding headed back to Swindon for their assault on NIHL 1 South. The rest is history.
The first question that this signing throws up is a question that hangs over the wider situation in Basingstoke hockey. The Bison now have two British forwards signed up to two year contracts. From a playing staff angle this is obviously promising to have guys who can be part of a solid core locked in for two season but the wider issues of the rink continue to loom large. The old joke is that contracts in British hockey are not worth the paper that they are written on but with the rink in its current condition, will the club be in a position to honour them? George Norcliffe and Adam Harding seem happy enough to have signed them so have likely been given some assurances. BOTW asked the Bison for comment. They have not given one at this time.
The return of Harding to the Bison is a decent response to the loss of Russ Cowley but also the departure of Cowley arguable bodes well for Harding. When the Welshman first joined the Bison it felt like it took a while to properly fit him into the line up. With the Bison facing the prospect of Liam Morris getting a lengthy suspension, the acquisition of a newly free Harding made sense for the Herd but with the two of them together on occasions just didn’t seem to fit, at least not to this writer. Lines got juggled and changed about to try and accommodate Harding and he played with a variety of people depending on the opposition and how they wanted him to play as a centre. Sometimes it was with Norcliffe and Sampford, others with Tait and Klejna, others with Morris and Wilson, others with Bordowski and Norcliffe. It was a real mix if you then include who he played with on special teams, he played on a line with pretty much everyone on the roster.
Whilst the departure of Cowley is an obvious blow, with Harding opting to return it means it becomes easier for Tait to fit Harding fully into the line up. Do not misunderstand us, Harding’s versatility is arguably his greatest attribute. Able to play across the lines and special teams, Harding can grind or crash and bang as he needs to but his game is better suited to being that top 6 centre. He can be responsible in his own end but also be able to set up the attack and put the puck on the stick of the winger or even score himself. A couple of times Harding scored good goals sneaking to the back post when the defence were occupied dealing with the wingers. With the opportunity to either set something up or even recruit other wingers suitable to play either side of Harding, there’s a chance to make a versatile and effective player even more effective depending on how Ashley Tait builds the roster.
Whilst it remains too early to guess at line combinations (we can do that with Peterborough given they’ve announced pretty much the entire roster today like they’re an Australian league side), it’s good to have a talented and multifaceted player committing to the project for the next two seasons. Big import names alone won’t win titles, it’s depth and combined ability. We await the addition of more pieces.
Welcome back, Adam.
#16 George Norcliffe
Born: Guildford, Surrey
Announced as signed: Basingstoke Gazette, Thursday 2nd May
Last Wednesday night when the news of the return of Richard Bordowski hit the public domain, fans of the Basingstoke Bison were excited enough. However they were treated to more good news the following day when the club announced the return to the club of George Norcliffe on a two year contract.
The 25 year old former Guildford junior made his senior hockey debut in a 1 game spell with Oxford before stepping into senior hockey fully in 2012 with Solent Devils. After 4 years in Gosport, Norcliffe moved to the Isle of Wight only to have the club closed down due to the closure of the rink. Norcliffe and others moved with Jeremy Cornish to South London and Streatham. The following summer, the EPL collapsed and Norcliffe was tempted away to Bracknell as the Bees moved into NIHL 1 South. In the summer of 2018 with all the changes at Bracknell, Norcliffe was not wanted in the new order in Berkshire and made his way to Hampshire and to Basingstoke where he had a comical start to his Bison career as the local newspaper accidentally credited him as Gordon.
Norcliffe responded by having arguably the best year of his hockey career. Whilst statistically not his best season, the NIHL that Norcliffe scored 43 points in back in 2015 was a thing of the past. Signed as depth, Norcliffe initially formed a promising combination with Danny Ingoldsby and Hallam Wilson before injuries and suspensions meant that Norcliffe had an opportunity higher up the lines and he grabbed it with both hands. He proved to be a useful foil creating space for the skilled players but also proving a goal threat himself either by driving to the net or by being the screen on the powerplay earning himself important goals against Bracknell and in the second leg of the Southern Cup final against Peterborough. His performances saw him named the BOTW Player of the Year for 2018/19.
I’ve taken a while to write this piece because I have to confess to having struggled for a while to gather my thoughts. Who doesn’t like George Norcliffe? Well, goalies he’s scored against and probably some grumpy bloke somewhere but he’s a guy that it’s really hard to dislike. Maybe sometimes guilty of the old adage on here of working hard rather than smart but he’s just one of those players that it’s fun to watch.
To say that George Norcliffe exceeded all expectations that everyone had for him, including himself would be something of an understatement. Word was put forward that the only reason the Surrey born forward ended up with the Bison was because when Doug Sheppard took over at Bracknell, he was advised not to keep him. Whether true or just folklore, it’s worked out well for the Bison and the man himself.
Last season in Basingstoke was good for a lot of players in a lot of ways. A team thrown together meant that whilst there was pressure, it was freer in some ways. Given all the fuss about the changes and the rink many were just happy that there was a team. Nobody was immune from criticism but there was little in the way of expectation from anyone. This site didn’t even predict what sort of player we were getting from Norcliffe, we wrote a letter asking him to turn up and care. We need not have asked something so trivial of him.
George’s performances were something that you needed from the British depth on the roster. When the player of the year panel from this site ended up with him as our player of the year, we were all pleased with it. In some ways it would have been easy to give it to a big name, someone who was arguably flashier in their style but the way we worked it all out, it hadn’t gone to arguably the shiniest piece but one of our workhorses. That he’s been given a two year deal is a reasonable reward for a stand out season and as a means of securing a key piece.
The crux of the matter now for Norcliffe is that he has to deliver on that promising first campaign in Basingstoke. Whilst I hope that sense of freedom remains within Basingstoke, that acceptance from the fanbase and the lack of unrealistic demands upon the roster, there is that bit of expectation now. In our season ending piece we talked about the fact that there was more to the story of this roster to come and Norcliffe as an individual could be a big part of that. He’s now got to step up and be that bit more of a leader, maybe not necessarily with a letter on his uniform but in his play. It’s keeping that level of consistency up where he remains a scoring threat if he’s asked to play first or second line, to convert on the powerplay and to build himself into a consistent 20 point or even 30 point scorer this season coming campaign.
The above comes with the caveat that this season will be different. Whilst NIHL 1 South was more competitive than the northern division last season, this is a step up in quality and without a doubt, the highest level of senior competition that Norcliffe will have played at.
In amongst all the threads woven in 2018/19, George Norcliffe was one of the more intriguing stories. Who he plays with as a line mate remains a mystery at the moment and we’ll work on those as the roster is revealed over the summer. However George has a massive chance to really step into the limelight in this coming season. He won’t lead the line, he’s not a player you sign to be a top scorer but last season showed just how well rounded a performer he can be and the Bison will need that trend to continue. If nothing else, he has two more attempts to secure the most drinkable trophy in sports.
Welcome back, Gordon.