Home ice: Peterborough Arena
Last season: EPL 4th place, cup finalists, playoff group stages
We saw them at the weekend but that was a snapshot. What does the season as a whole hold for the Peterborough Phantoms?
Neither the Bison nor the Phantoms could repeat the successes of 2015/16 in 2016/17. All teams in the EPL were blown away by Telford’s on ice strength but it was still a more than respectable season from the Cambridgeshire side. A decent run at the start of the season and results going their way saw them beat the Bison to the cup semi-finals. The new cup format of scrapping aggregate saw them beat Telford at home and rebound from the 7-2 on ice loss in the 60 minutes of the second leg to take their spot in the finals on penalties. The final against long time rivals MK Lightning again saw a split in the legs and a penalty shootout in MK where Adam Carr beat Janis Auzins to keep the cup in Buckinghamshire.
In the league, it was a solid performance across the season from the Phantoms who finished 11 points clear of 5th placed Guildford. The Bison and the Phantoms would battle for third for most of the later stages of the season before the Bison squeaked third place sending Peterborough into a playoff group with Guildford, Telford and Sheffield.
Where Guildford finally woke up and Sheffield were swept away, it was a mixed bag for the Phantoms who finished with a 3-3 record in their 6 games and missed out on a trip to Coventry.
How they got here:
The Phantoms are one of the EPL 4 who have joined NIHL 1 South for this season, joining on the advice of EIHA chairman Ken Taggart as the EPL crumbled away like a good cheese.
There are few better defencemen in the entire NIHL than Tom Norton on his day. The fact the former Nottingham Panthers defender isn’t in the EIHL somewhere is a matter of confusion for many, certainly this writer, but Slava Koulikov and the Phantoms won’t mind that one bit. Whilst many will argue the toss on this one, any discussion on who the best blueliner was in the final two years of the EPL has to include Norton. Positionally sound, adds to the attack from the back end, few penalty minutes, rarely makes mistakes; Norton would walk into any NIHL roster. With a decent amount of experience for a 27 year old, Norton leads the Phantoms from the back and isn’t afraid to jump into the play when needed.
The new boy:
This one is based somewhat off of the game the other night but if Nathan Salem plays like he did in Basingstoke on Saturday then this is going to be an exciting season to watch for the former Telford and Hull forward.
Salem spent the entire game racing around like a rabbit at the greyhound track turned up to 11 and was my pick for man of the match on the night. Salem can score though it appears, or at least it did on Saturday, that Koulikov will want Salem to be a physical player. Certainly his forechecking caused the Bison some issues as he put pressure on players immediately with his speed and tenacity.
How will it go?
We got a snapshot of the Phantoms over the weekend. It certainly was a weekend of two halves for the Phantoms who woke up on Sunday after getting a lesson on the Saturday night. 2 games, 10 goals conceded and shut out on one night isn’t an auspicious pre-season.
However as mentioned above, it’s a snapshot. The team has not had that many training sessions and things will still be a work in progress for them. The changes to what league they’re in have taken an effect on the focus of this Phantoms roster.
Talismanic/utterly barking mad netminder Janis Auzins was a casualty of the drop in imports and only being allowed one import on the ice meaning that Adam Long is the go to netminder this season. Did Long have a bad night on Saturday? Yes. Does he have the ability to last the season and start in this league? Also yes. Long showed in numerous EPL games that he can do the business and that ability won’t have magically vanished in the summer. The difference for Long is the mentality he’ll have to adopt. He is now the man between the pipes. Being understudy for Auzins likely saw him learn well but he’s now centre stage and Phantoms fans are hopeful that he will rise to the challenge.
Otherwise I think this is a pretty decent roster that the Phantoms have put together. Blueline wise alongside Norton there’s the ample talents of Ben Russell, Rob Ferrara, Scott Robson and Ed Knaggs who looked particularly strong at points during the season. Greg Pick isn’t someone I would sign if I was building a side but he works in Koulikov’s systems. Either way, that’s a pretty good top 6 defenders to be heading into the season with.
Up front the additions of Salem and Leigh Jamieson to a strong Brit core and import forwards Ales Padelek and Darius Pliskauskas see there be some good balance in the forward lines. The question will be whether Padelek and Pliskauskas have the legs for the whole season but the reduced game load should help in that market.
The one other forward I’m interested to see progress over the season is Glenn Billing. After a productive season at MK, the 20 year old sees himself on a two-way deal with the Lightning so I am intrigued to see how he is used by Koulikov and how much time he sees, if any, at EIHL level.
Obviously the inconsistency of this past weekend will not be something that the Phantoms want to repeat but understandably this roster will easily contend for all the trophies this season. Good netminding, solid defence, solid attack; provided the Phantoms settle as a roster than there’s no reason that they won’t do a lot of damage. This won’t stop me saying they play unentertaining hockey if I don’t like how they play stylistically (something that copped me a lot of flak last season) but you can’t deny that Peterborough are in contention for all the silverware. Does a repeat of 2008/09’s success lie in the cards?
Billy Glover Memorial Trophy
Basingstoke Bison 5-0 Peterborough Phantoms
An early, quiet statement:
Before we get too far into this piece, we need to remind ourselves not to get too carried away with a pre-season win however it is. It is not set in stone that the Bison will be this good all season. However it was a nice indicator of how the Herd plan to operate across the campaign.
The game was physical in the right way. The first saw a finely balanced period that could have gone either way before the Herd blew the doors off in the second then shut everything down in the third. Once the third goal went in, Doug Sheppard’s team didn’t look like losing.
The scoreline doesn’t flatter the hosts on the balance of the 60 minutes and in the face of an early set back thanks to Antonov’s ejection, the lines were shuffled and the Bison didn’t look back.
Antonov was unlucky to find himself ejected. Whilst the letter of the law was upheld, I find it unfathomable that the EIHA has retained the utterly ludicrous match penalty in the moment for an accidental high stick that draws blood. Yes, it’s a penalty and rightly deserves a sit on the box but if we’re asking the referee to judge intent on the play the rest of the time, why not on high sticking calls as well? An accidental high stick that saw James White return shortly afterwards, blood or no, shouldn’t see any player thrown out of the game. The rule is stupid.
Antonov looked bright to start the game and his original line mates also had a pretty decent performance into the bargain. Dan Davies looked as sharp as ever but one of the revelations on the night was Jaroslav Cesky. To say that some people had been surprised at the Czech forward’s return to Basingstoke would be an understatement but the effort and imagination were there with the former EPL player of the year taking his goal very well, drawing Long down and across his crease before sliding the puck over the line.
For many people, the man of the night was Dean Skinns. The local boy’s return for another spell at the Bison couldn’t have started in better fashion. The entire Bison defensive unit looked sharp all night though in the first pre-season game obviously had its moments of unfamiliarity. Where the odd mistake was evident, Skinns looked dialled in all night and made a string of decent stops in crucial moments. He held firm in the scramble and was picking pucks out through traffic. Hopefully that’s a sign of things to come.
Aaron Connolly took man of the match for going 1+2 on the night for what can only be described as an Aaron Connolly performance. The captain was high energy and was leading from the front. He also took his goal well, being right on the doorstep to beat Adam Long to open the scoring. It was a timely goal coming as it did shortly after the expiry of the 5 minute penalty from Antonov’s removal from proceedings.
We should also mention Paul Petts’ first Bison goal. It wasn’t pretty but they all count and Jaroslav Cesky was on hand to scoop the puck up for the young man.
The first period lead saw the Bison set up their game and as they blew the game open in the second, the swagger that the Bison have when everyone is confident came flooding with it. People were prepared to try making plays, people were shooting more, the confidence was palpable. The only issue that came from it was people being so confident meant that when the Phantoms gave up multiple 2 on 1 opportunities, the pass was never taken when it might have been the better option. However you can’t fault guys too much in pre-season for wanting to get that shooting practice in during the live setting.
The second leg of the Billy Glover Memorial Trophy will be a different ask however the Bison can take a lot of positives from the encounter. It doesn’t count on the scoreboard but it is an early message to the other teams in the league; the Bison are not coming to mess about.
A word on our opponents:
I have deliberately left doing our “Standing in the Way” preview of the Phantoms until after seeing this game. I figured “why not take the opportunity to see them then preview them better?” Then the Phantoms turned up and played a really confusing game of hockey.
In the last couple of years I’ve been critical of how the Phantoms have played when I’ve watched them. I found their style of play dull, uninspiring and I struggled to understand why teams lost to it. I took a lot of flack for it. However the one thing that it always did have was a lot of structure to it. The Phantoms would clog the centre lane and were experts in frustrating their opponents without resorting to rough house tactics. There was none of this from Peterborough this time out and I do have to wonder why.
The first was well balanced as both teams tried to get their footing and whilst their lack of conversion on their extended powerplay (mostly due to a couple of penalties that they took themselves) wouldn’t have been too concerning. However the second period saw them look lost at times and on the back foot as the Bison poured on the pressure. By the time the third period started, it was too late.
Scott Robson got the man of the match and on reflection, he didn’t have a terrible game. I thought Ed Knaggs had a better game on the Phantoms’ blueline. Knaggs looks like he will have a prominent role in the Peterborough defensive unit this season and I am sure he will continue to improve with the extended minutes.
It was not Adam Long’s greatest night between the pipes. Whilst he didn’t get tons of help from his outskaters, there were a couple of goals that Long will want back especially Petts’ marker which seemed to go in slow motion past the length of his right pad before nestling in the bottom corner. I think Long is a decent netminder and he proved that last season when called upon. Slava Koulikov will be hope that this really was Long’s warm up to being a full time starter.
Otherwise, I think the Phantoms have to chalk this up to a bad night at the office as the new roster gets to know each other. Shots were wide, wild or generally easy for Dean Skinns, Pliskauskas and Padelek were quiet most of the night, nothing seems to work and when they put themselves into the hole, there was no way out. One person said to me that the Phantoms were their favourites for the league. They won’t be if they play like that but nobody wins the league on day 1.
Lowlight of the night: See above, the match penalty for high sticks is, again, stupid.
Highlight of the night: Cesky’s goal was the prettiest but Paul Petts’ clearly meant a lot to the young man.
Home Ice: Milton Keynes Arena
Last season: 7th NIHL 1 South, playoff quarter finalists, NIHL South BBO Cup winners
Since the Bison’s entry into the EPIHL in 2009 the club had many exciting battles with the MK Lightning. With the change in structure and the Lighting heading to the EIHL, the Bison will still be heading to Buckinghamshire this season but this time their opponents will be the MK Thunder.
Bar the change of coach from Paul Gore to Nicky Chinn after the Welshman was relieved of his duties at Streatham, it was an industrious but somewhat frustrating season for the Thunder in the league. Whilst the focus for the organisation has been more of a development pathway club for the MK junior system than challenging at the top end of the league, 9 wins and 2 draws from 28 games was not a return that the Thunder were ecstatic with by any means.
However the roster gave solid performances on a nightly basis with former Chelmsford import Jakub Klima along with MK stalwarts Ross Bowers and Jamie Line leading the way on the points scoring front and David Wride keeping watch in net. The Thunder even got 1 game out of long time Lightning forward Nick Poole during the campaign. The club also secured its first ever trophy by winning the BBO Cup competition which helped give the fans and players more games.
Playoff wise, it was always going to be an uphill struggle against Invicta and whilst the Thunder lost 3-1 and 6-5 in the respective legs, they certainly didn’t make it easy for the eventual playoff winners.
How they got here:
The club have literally been a one league team, having joined what was the ENL and have remained with it into the NIHL. The club’s best finish was 3rd in 2003/04 and come into the new look NIHL 1 South off the back of consecutive 7th placed campaigns.
“Who’s that skating through your legs?”
Jamie Line feels like he’s been around forever and the 27 year old Luton born forward has been part of the Thunder’s backbone for the last few seasons as the captain. Whilst his points total last year wasn’t his best (26 compared to 64 the previous season), Line can and will be relied on to help lead this Thunder roster. A veteran of the EPL with Bracknell, Slough, Basingstoke and the Lightning, it’s that sort of veteran presence and experience that will be valuable not just for the younger players but also the older players into getting into the Thunder’s ethos of doing things.
The new boy:
There’s a plethora of new faces for the Thunder this season as the Lightning’s move to the Elite League and the summer of madness have taken their toll all over. We could pick any number of the bigger name players who have come in but one who will need to be on his game quickly is Rupert Quiney.
With Oliver Lord on a two-way deal with the Coventry Blaze junior sides, the Thunder effectively go into the season with 5 defencemen. On his day, Quiney is a solid defencemen with a lot of size who will be a reassuring stay at home presence on the big ice at MK. The issue is Quiney has had injury issues the last couple of seasons, a recurring shoulder injury limiting his game time to 27 games between Guildford and Bracknell last term. It’s a risky move but Thunder coach Lewis Clifford sees the risk as one worth taking. In a league that has a lot of good attacking talent in it, a fit Quiney could be the difference for the Thunder between a solid defensive unit that helps them win games or sadly seeing the former Streatham junior in the stands and the Thunder needing re-enforcements.
How will it go?
As with London, I have a rough idea of how things will go but can’t quite get an exact handle as there’s a lot of different factors that will play into the Thunder being successful or not. If nothing else, they’ll certainly be the best dressed as their jerseys for this season look amazing.
More so than other rosters in the league the Thunder are a mix of last season’s roster with other decent NIHL signings and a mix of former EPL players. However make no mistake, this is an MK team. With the Lightning moving to import based hockey, new head coach Lewis Clifford has moved the ethos that the Lightning had in the EPL and that of trying to keep a core together into this new Thunder roster. Whether it’s veteran netminder Mark Woolf (a man who the club’s social media jokes is old enough to have backed up Gerry Cheevers), Connor or Harrison Goode, the above mentioned Line or Ross Bowers or Greg Randall, this is a team that has an identity. This team will play a brand of hockey that is skilful and physical. They will play Milton Keynes hockey.
However with this move sees some really handy additions. Tom Annetts in goal brings a wealth of experience alongside Lewis Christie coming in on defence. Christie has experience of winning and that will be invaluable for this new group.
Up front there’s added extra experience at the EPL level from Tom Carlon, Gareth O’Flaherty and Grant McPherson whilst Ryan Handisides adds good depth. I’m also excited to see how the exciting Rio-Grinell-Parke does in his new surroundings.
If asked to stick my neck out, I think that the Thunder end up in the middle of the pack with a chance to break the top 4 if their top end players really make an impact. It’s going to be a challenging season for Lewis Clifford as a head coach but I’m interested to see what sort of systems he plays with this roster. He has seemingly built what many would call a “Lightning-esque” roster for the Thunder’s first crack at second tier hockey. Rosters of that style generally will do well. If it comes together, they could be dark horses.
Home Ice: The Link Centre
Last season: EPL 6th, playoff group stages
We’ve done a couple of the newer Bison opponents for this season so let’s look an older foe in the form of the Swindon Wildcats.
The 2016/17 campaign felt like many recent campaigns for Swindon as it was a case of “good but not quite” for the Wiltshire side. Having assembled another really good roster, the Wildcats had something of an injury hit campaign as they rarely played at full strength throughout the season for one reason or another; the biggest of those reasons being the loss of player/coach Aaron Nell to a shoulder injury that he sustained in an altercation with Bison captain Aaron Connolly.
Nell stepped behind the bench and the Wildcats continued to add big name attacking players when Telford’s issues allowed them to sign Phil Hill and Manchester’s demise allowed them to capture Robin Kovar. However despite playing an entertaining brand of hockey, the Wildcats lacked consistency and it bore out in the end of season results. Guildford snatched 5th place in the league table and the Wildcats couldn’t match up to the Bison and the MK Lightning when the playoffs rolled around leaving Nell to go back to the drawing board until the league changes came.
How they got here:
A constant in the EPIHL since the late 90s (albeit with the occasional different name), the Wildcats were one of the first sides to announce their intention to apply for the NIHL following EIHA chairman Ken Taggart’s recommendation that clubs do so.
Whilst a fair few players have returned to the Wildcats from the final EPL season, there is arguably no bigger returnee than Nell himself. Nell was the highest British scorer in the later years of the EPL and with the correct linemates could score for fun. Arguably never given a fair crack at EIHL level, Nell’s scoring numbers before his injury were game winning on their own let alone without playing alongside imports the quality of Jonas Höög and Tomasz Malasinski.
If Nell is recovered from his injury then there is no reason not to believe that the 27 year old won’t be the top scorer in the NIHL nationally, let alone in the south. The question becomes who Nell’s linemates will be this season and what sort of service he will get. Nell is good but he can’t do everything on his own.
The new boy:
The talk will be about the signing of Sam Zajac to bolster the defence is a big talking point but a lot is going to fall onto the shoulders of new starting netminder Renny Marr. Stepping into the shoes of a popular and talented netminder like Stevie Lyle is a big step for any player, let alone a 19 year old with only 51 senior games under his belt.
However Marr is no shrinking violet. Aside from the fact that surely the point of a development league is to give players like Marr, last season’s backup for the Coventry Blaze, a place to play the current GB u20 netminder will be expected to hit the ground running which is what a young netminder would surely be wanting. After waiting for his chance at Coventry as the backup to Brian Stewart, the weight is now firmly on Marr’s shoulders. He will have assistance from Matt Smital but Marr will be shouldering the majority of the load to begin with whilst still training with the Blaze on a regular basis. He has a alright defence in front of him so let’s see what magic Marr can bring to the Link Centre.
How will it go?
I can hear all of my Swindon supporting friends sighing and rolling their eyes already guessing what I am going to say. It’s because I’ve ended up having to say close to the same thing for the last few years, pretty much as long as I’ve been doing this preview series. There’s a really good reason for that; it’s because that whoever’s in charge since I’ve watched the EPL, be it Pete Russell, Ryan Aldridge, Stevie Lyle and now Aaron Nell, the rosters have all been built in a similar way. Up front it’s generally been firepower upon firepower with questionable depth and a slightly questionable backend. The thing this season is that they’ve almost done it again but not quite.
I like Swindon as an organisation; they’re not perfect but they try to do things in the right way and play entertaining hockey with it. I can appreciate that. As a fanbase, I’ll be really pleased for them when they finally break their silverware drought because it’ll be nice for a good club and some good people to be able to celebrate. Whilst I think there are weaknesses to this Wildcats roster that can and should be exploited, if the Wildcats don’t win a trophy this season then it won’t simply be a disappointment. It will be an abject failure.
The questions about the defence still remain for me; the big name of Stevie Lyle in goal transfers to having Sam Zajac on the blueline but for me it’s a blueline with a number 1 defencemen but no number 2 and then decent rather than good depth. I like Renny Marr but there’s a lot of pressure on a young netminder with a defence that is good rather than great in front of him. If Marr falters or gets injured then Matt Smital goes in and Smital is a capable backup but he’s not at the level to be starting yet based on what we saw of him last season.
However up front, I think the Wildcats have this close to spot on. The biggest issue that the Wildcats have had for years with their forward depth was not having true depth. They had a top line then a large drop off to their depth players. This year, in a 2 import league I think Nell has constructed his set of forwards brilliantly. If he uses Jan Kostal and Max Birbraer well then Nell has enough British quality through the lines to blow games wide open and teams out of the water.
The Wildcats look like they’ll be winning games 5-4 and 6-5 rather than 2-1 or 1-0 to me. I’m more than prepared for the defence to prove me wrong though. Ultimately at the end of this coming campaign, I’m predicting a trophy of some description finally being paraded at the Link Centre. If it doesn’t then something’s gone wrong and owner Steve Nell will need to ask some very big questions of the on ice performances.
The EPIHL is gone, the NIHL becomes our focus. One of the teams most affected by the recent changes was the Nottingham Lions who step into NIHL 1 North. We speak to head coach Matt Bradbury about the Lions’ summer, their chances and future.
We also chat to Mike Newton and Pete Hagan from Victory Hockey UK about hockey in Manchester, the relaunch of VHUK and more details of their partnership with the BOTW Podcast
The BOTW Podcast in association with Victory Hockey UK; the news, action and views from the NIHL and all levels above, below and in between.
Founded: 1987 as Romford Raiders
Home rink: Lee Valley Ice Centre
Last season: 5th in NIHL 1 South, playoff semi-finalists, cup semi-finalists
It’s been a while since the Bison did battle with this particular organisation; so much so that since we last played then they left the EPL, moved to Lee Valley and changed their name. However there’s excitement bubbling on the horizon for the London Raiders.
The 2016/17 campaign was the Raiders’ 4th away from Romford and saw an improved set of results. After two consecutive 8th placed finishes, the Raiders were certainly more in the mix. Whilst Chelmsford utterly steamrollered the league, the rest of the chasing pack were much closer together. With draws still part of the league format last season (they have been removed for 2017/18), the Raiders went 11-4-13 so whilst they technically finished with a negative record in the league, there’s 16 games that they didn’t lose and showed a steady progression. The Raiders ended up in the middle of the pack, able to challenge teams above them on the night but not over the course of the season as they finished 8 points behind 2nd place Invicta and 6 points above 7th placed MK. They quite literally ended up in the middle.
Finishing 5th meant a tough playoff first round against Oxford but the Raiders blew the Stars out of the water in the second leg as they clocked up a 7-1 win and an 11-3 aggregate win. The semi-finals however saw a reverse of fortunes as they came up against Chelmsford, who had already dispatched them in the cup, and were handed 5-1 and 11-3 losses to end the season.
How they got here:
There’s no big shuffling around of leagues as there was for the Fire. The Raiders have been in NIHL 1 South since the transfer from the ENL. They entered what was the third tier after leaving the EPL in 2010.
We could only really talk about one guy here, couldn’t we? Alan Lack is loved by the fans of who he plays for and loathed by those that he plays against. A player that I once called “King Rat” because of his agitating ways but then if you’re going to sign a rat, sign the best one that you can?
It was something of a shock to Bison fans when Lack stepped away from hockey just 10 games into the new season. When he resurfaced with the Raiders it was not. Lack had originally left the Raiders to come to the Bison and with the 25 year old being based on that side of London with his wife and kids, when the chance to play again came up it was good for both parties.
Lack gives the Raiders that player who has performed at a higher level against the newer teams but he also knows how to win. That will be invaluable for the Raiders whose fans love Lack’s rough and tumble style.
The new boy:
One player that I’m really excited to get to see again is Brandon Ayliffe. A former Romford junior, Ayliffe moved to Chelmsford and caused a variety of waves in the Chieftains junior system, making his debut for the senior side in the British Challenge Cup in 2014. Whilst all the NIHL sides were handily beaten for the most part, Ayliffe’s appearance in Basingstoke certainly turned the heads of the crowd that night and now he’s fully in senior hockey, the hope is that he will push on. Given the issues at Chelmsford, the fact that a coach that knows him is giving him a chance at the 2nd tier is not a big surprise. Ayliffe has a ton of potential though it remains to be seen how he will do week in, week out against the bigger sides.
How will it go?
Just after the 16/17 season ended and before the madness began, London pulled off one of the bigger signings of the summer in persuading Sean Easton to become the coach of the Raiders. Easton had been the all-conquering head coach at Chelmsford and arguably the ramifications of that move combined with the changes in league structure have seen the side that won the last 5 consecutive titles leave for NIHL 2.
Make no mistake; Easton is a good coach though he will face a tougher challenge to turn the Raiders into serious title contenders.
With the budget that they have, the Raiders have put together a team that would certainly cause some damage if the NIHL hadn’t suddenly found itself the second tier. Now there are some different names in there, the Raiders become more of a wildcard than they were previously. It’s not difficult to say “the ex-EPL sides will do well” or to say the legacy NIHL sides “will struggle” but the Raiders have a number of factors in play that make them hard to pin down; new coach with a history of putting together good teams and winning lots combined with a young roster (the average age is 24) that has injections of experience in it makes for a combination that I certainly want to see on the ice.
Easton has brought in no less than 6 players from Chelmsford with Ayliffe being joined by the likes of Matt Turner and Sean Barry who were part of the Chieftains dynasty. They’re also joined by Olegs Lasckenko who finished last season at Bracknell having originally signed for Easton at Chelmsford.
However the new coach has made a point to keep the character of the Raiders together. Yes, Chieftains players have been brought in but this is a Raiders roster with 12 returnees including players like Lack and other good veterans like John Connolly, Andy Munroe and import forward Marek Nahlik.
I’m not about to say that the Raiders are going to pull off some sort of movie like run to the title with a team of misfits. That’s not fair to the Raiders because this is not a team of misfits and because like last season I think they can challenge on the night but might fall short in the long run. The cup and the playoffs however will be anyone’s game and that’s where the London Raiders might strike.
Home rink: Ice Arena Wales
Last season: NIHL 2 South West winners, playoff semi-finalists, cup finalists
A change of league and a change of format for Standing in the Way for Banners On The Wall’s first full season of covering NIHL 1 South. We start in South Wales with the Cardiff Fire.
Last season, NIHL 2 South was split into western and eastern conferences. Along with the Basingstoke Buffalo, the Cardiff Fire were in the western conference. The Buffalo had a modest season with 3 wins, 2 draws and 9 defeats in their 14 games. The Cardiff Fire on the other hand subsequently won all of their 14 games; a perfect record that was added to with a +67 goal difference.
However the dominance in league play sadly didn’t quite translate into more trophies. The Fire lost the NIHL 2 South cup final to the Peterborough Islanders and then were knocked out in the playoffs by Chelmsford Warriors.
How they got here:
With all the changes, the Fire applied for promotion to division 1 and were accepted which has allowed the club to add a second team into the new, single division NIHL 2 South. The club also announced a formal linking up with the Cardiff Devils, guaranteeing a pathway for young hockey players in Cardiff from u10s through juniors to NIHL and into the EIHL. Defenceman Callum Buglass will be on a two way deal with the Devils this season.
Hungarian born forward Tamás Éliás, trained in both the Swindon and Cardiff junior systems and has been an industrious scorer wherever he’s played. A low penalty minutes, low maintenance forward, Éliás scored at an impressive goal per game rate in the Fire’s dominant season last year on his way to 23 points in 14 games. A player I’ve never seen before, there’s a chance for Éliás to really break out this year if given the opportunity to put the puck on net. He’s up against superior netminders and defencemen this time out so there’s a real sink or swim element to how his season will run. At 21 years old and suddenly thrust into the second tier, I’m intrigued to see how Fire coach Mark Cuddihy plans to use the Miskolc born forward.
The new boy:
This is a total cheat because he’s not really new to Cardiff or any of us but he is new to the Fire. After a brief spell coaching Streatham before finishing last season coaching the MK Thunder, 2016/17 was an eventful year for Nicky Chinn. It certainly wasn’t the most productive for him on the scoreboard and at 45 he will readily admit that he is no spring chicken.
The advantage of Nicky Chinn is adding a hockey brain that is arguably unsurpassable. It’s a big step for the Fire to go from a 14 game season to suddenly playing sides that last year were playing EPIHL hockey and a player of Chinn’s stature, experience and savvy will be invaluable whoever he plays with.
How will it go?
I won’t lie; I stuck the names in a hat and picked out who I would do first. I pulled out Cardiff which was nice because I’ve quietly been appreciating what the Fire have been doing as an organisation for a while. I then realised that on Elite Prospects they’ve only announced 6 forwards, 2 defenceman and one goalie to the roster and the website hasn’t been updated. However I decided to stick to my own rules because even with that minimally announced roster, we can make an attempt as the start is there.
It’s a bare bones roster at the moment but the Fire coach Mark Cuddihy will generally go down the line of getting local players (read Cardiff juniors and extending to Swindon if needed) though he’s shown a talent of drawing those players who have left to come back to their home ice. Alex Symonds is back into the sport and when fit can be a massive asset on the back end. A couple of years ago is was Sam Smith, a former Devils, Blaze and Wildcats forward whom work took the UAE. (Smith also played for the fantastically named Dubai Mighty Camels) He’s now convinced Nicky Chinn to have one more go around the block. Couple this with the depth of talent in the Cardiff junior system and whilst it might not be a roster of blockbuster names, it will be a team with work ethic and determination.
At the moment, with so few players announced, it is somewhat difficult to see where the real attacking threats will be up front. The addition of Brad Watchorn after an on/off ice hockey and MMA career in recent years is an interesting signing to say the least. I expect Watchorn to be more of a grinder and physical threat than an out and out scorer of points.
Ultimately I’ve fallen victim to my own rules of writing this year, though it’s no harder than trying to preview the Phoenix’s roster last year. We know that the Fire will announce more players and many of last year’s roster may well reappear to have a crack at NIHL 1.
I don’t envisage the Cardiff Fire making a huge dent in the league title race. Some will arguably say that they are likely wooden spoon contenders and might be wondering why they didn’t stay in division 2 to chase a third back to back title. However if you’re going to have a go at playing, play at the highest level that you can should be the motto of the best sportsmen and organisations. The Fire are well structured and organised and if they believe they can make a crack at this then let’s allow them to step up to the table and try. In years gone by it was the Bison and the Devils going to battle at the old WNIR and now it’ll be down in Cardiff Bay with the Fire. Let’s hope these games are played in the same spirit.