So it’s common knowledge now that I’ve joined the Bracknell Bees and that gives me the opportunity to get a few things out in the open.
First, I received a call from John Neville on a Saturday evening asking me to draft something to announce that Doug Sheppard wasn’t returning to the Bison and that made the decision I was already contemplating even tougher.
In the early summer of 2017 the PR announcements starting coming out that the EPIHL was finished as we all suspected would be the case but instead of the much mentioned PIHL league being introduced to replace it the EPL teams would be applying to NIHL1 with the NIHL1 import rules showing no sign of budging. I was hesitant about continuing in hockey at that moment but I received a call from Doug asking me to remain involved. We had a long chat and I decided that I would remain involved in the sport.
Last season was a good season. Three of the available trophies all won cannot be described any other way. Don’t get me wrong, and I won’t pull any punches, there were a handful of dire games in the season. Huge mismatches between teams or teams turning up under strength. These games were a tricky subject because true ice hockey supporters don’t want to see walk over, blow out results but equally they know that to avoid those the team can’t play at 100%! Thankfully those games were in fact less than a handful and there were some excellent games along the way as well.
Changes in work have meant for me that with Bison’s Saturday home draw I’d be missing half of the games! This left me with a dilemma as I felt it unfair to be in charge of media but attending potentially less than 50% of the fixtures. I knew I had some deciding to do and possibly some hard decisions to inform Doug and John of.
What made it tougher for me was the great time I’d had in Basingstoke over four seasons! By that I don’t just mean the winning team but the personal great times too.
Let’s go back to the beginning ….
The Slough years
I first became involved in ice hockey in 1992. It came two years after starting work at Slough Ice Arena where I’d always turned up for work with the game still in play. Those days the session time was way too early as the session started just two hours after the face off time. This meant I’d always be waiting around to start work but what it did do was allow me to discover ice hockey.
Over the years my involvement grew and the list of things I was doing grew as well. There were some great times and some great friendships made among players, off ice team and supporters. One of the highlights for me was 1998/99 when the Slough Jets won the BNL without dropping a single home game!
In the summer of 1999 it was touch and go whether or not the club would be continuing as the council who’d previously overseen and funded the team let the Jets go into private ownership. The Jets did continue carrying on until 2002 until it transpired that SJIHC Ltd’s accountant may have missed some pretty essential payments to the HMRC and instead diverting those payments elsewhere.
Thankfully Scott and Matthew Parsons stepped forward and continued running the team. By now it was decided that the team’s future lay in the EPL rather than the BNL but the team continued which was the all important thing.
After a few years of Teal & White ownership Zoran Kozic took over ownership of the team and formed his own operating company. Soon enough he’d also taken on the juniors from John and Pauline Rost and in my opinion the programme hasn’t been quite the same since.
Over the years things went wrong. I was aware of why Andy Hannah didn’t return after his season in charge despite a second place finish. I was aware of why Steve Moria didn’t return after a successful three years. I was aware of why Pete Russell didn’t return after a cup and play off win in his two years and I was aware of why Doug Sheppard left and headed to Basingstoke after a single season that saw the Slough Jets win another Play-offs.
In came Slava Koulikov as coach for 2012/13 which was seen by many as a controversial choice but as a player Slava gave the team a fifth player of import quality in a four import league and we’ve seen since in Peterborough that his coaching is actually quite good. Copied in on some emails in the summer of 2013 I understood the difficulties that Slava faced in recruiting players for the 2013/14 season.
Thing is thought this was still “my club”. It was the club I’d been a part of for 21 years by now and despite things I hadn’t agreed with I’d always thought, it’s still my club.
By now I was aware that there were long term Jets fans, some from day one, that were either turning their back on the team altogether or just supporting the team at away games only and not attending the Hangar. One even told me he and his family were watching away games only to continue to support the team but not the operating company by not paying admission at Slough games.
2013/14 was a horrible season for me. After being aware of the struggles facing Slava in building his team I was then writing press releases on what seemed to me to be the systematic dismantling of the team with Ryan Watt and Michael Wales both departing in close succession before the well publicised exodus that happened in November of 2013.
What happened in November was the last straw for me with the mass walk out including the coach departing too. I was ready to go then but a conversation with Craig Moran who’d been appointed as head coach saw him ask me to stay and see out his first season as coach with him.
I agreed to Craig’s request but knowing that this would be my last season. What had happened and what followed saw me fall out of love with the sport I’d fallen in love with in 1992 and come the end of 2013/14 and the last game of the season I had decided it would be my last game at Slough. I invited all the supporters on to the ice for a photo with the team following the loss to Swindon because in my head and my heart I knew it would be the last opportunity to do something like that.
Because I was setting up Jets TV cameras before games I often missed the start of the warm up. I’d line up the warm up playlist and Richard would start it for me. I remember on that last game making a point of saying to Richard when he asked if I wanted him to start the warm up, “No, I’ll do it as it’ll be my last time doing it!”
The inevitable end of Slough’s EPL team was announced after the end of the NIHL2 season, the team in which the owner was still playing in.
The Basingstoke years
Over the summer of 2014 I’d wondered what I’d do to fill my Saturday nights without hockey. My friend Ben had suggested we’d go to some local games and we did. We went to Basingstoke, Bracknell and Guildford but ultimately settled in Basingstoke. In 2014 I was asked to cover a few games DJing in Basingstoke for the Bison which I did. One thing I did notice as the season went on was I was beginning to fall back in love with the sport.
Fast forward one season and I was asked to take on the writing an article for the home match reports and to write for the programme, both of which I gladly accepted. Again I covered a few games too for Bavy. For last season I was asked to take on the media roll that Graham Bell had decided to vacate which I did also. I DJ’d the highest number of games in a season that I’d done since leaving as Slough’s announcer and the on ice success made it a perfect season.
For me a home game in Basingstoke is a 72 mile round trip every week. A change in work circumstances has now meant I’d be missing every other Bison home game by having to work every other Saturday. Another huge change for me personally was that early in 2018 following the split up of my relationship my two year son moved out to live with his mum. With work commitments I see my son as often as possible, and have him to stay where possible. Due to my 5.25am weekday alarm I cannot have my son stay Sunday – Thursday which leaves me just every other Friday and Saturday when I’m not working. This was another huge factor in the decision I knew I’d have to make, even before Doug left the club. I love my little nearly three year old boy to pieces and the thought of him only being able to stay so little was heartbreaking.
I was pretty certain that I’d have to walk away from the sport and I was agonising over that decision. A sport I’d loved for 20/21 years before then falling back in love with it during my four years in Basingstoke would be confined to a part of history in my life. That thought hurt but I had to make a decision that fitted with other work commitments and dedicating time for my young son to stay over with me.
Before I’d even reached that decision I was called to be informed that Doug had left Basingstoke Bison. That news did almost certainly weight my decision that involvement with ice hockey would become a happy part of history for me.
The following day I received a call from Doug Sheppard calling me to thank me for my support in Basingstoke and asking me if I’d consider joining him in Bracknell. I told Doug my thoughts that had been going round since the end of the previous season, I told him that he was well aware I’d stuck with the sport through the drop to NIHL following the phone call we’d had the previous summer but that I would feel bad letting John (Neville) down. He told me to take time and think about it.
I spoke to those close to me over my agonising now three way decision. Did I stay with the Bison but only make half a commitment, did I walk away altogether from the sport and attend some games here and there with no involvement or did I take up Doug’s offer to join him at the Bees.
I’ve never approached anything in my life personally nor professionally intending to give less than 100% so being half on board with the Bison I felt would be letting down a great club. The thought of walking away had been agonising and that was what was delaying my decision making too. But the offer from Doug to join him on board at Bracknell gave me an opportunity as with the majority of games being Sunday evenings these weren’t days where I’d have to choose between having my son staying over or going to hockey.
I spoke with John Neville and informed him of my decision. It was a sad phone call for me but we had a long conversation, I assured him it was a tough decision because him and I had first met through work but had become friends too but that my decision would either have been to walk away from the sport or to go with Doug. I did say to John that I was happy to help out where I could still if he needed help with anything until he’d got someone in place.
I called Doug and let him know I was in with his offer. This is an exciting challenge for the both of us. Doug is someone I’ve enjoyed working with in both Slough and Basingstoke. For 22 years Bracknell has been the local rival for both the clubs I’ve previously been involved in but now I have a chance to play my part in helping Doug bring his vision to life and to play a part in supporting the excellent people at the Bees return the name to powerhouse status within UK hockey. I’ve known Stuart for some time now, I’ve known Rob as a player, I’ve seen Richard around the Hive but finally got to meet him on Wednesday night.
I can only speak for myself but I thoroughly enjoyed my four years in Basingstoke. As I said it was in Hampshire that I re-discovered my love of a sport that’s been a part of my life for more than half my life! I’ve made some great memories and importantly some great friends in Basingstoke. Perhaps my decision may strain some of those friendships and maybe even cost some but I obviously hope not.
I had nothing but fun in Basingstoke. I made a tough decision that fits with my work and personal life and I received thanks from John Neville from my contribution over the years. I can’t have asked for anymore from those four years and I wish the club the best of luck rebuilding now for the future under a new coach. Hopefully whoever takes on the media will enjoy it as much have had both attending the games and writing about them and more. My offer of doing anything I can to help still stands as I leave with happy memories and as John is a friend of mine I’d be more than happy to help him out if needed.
So, can @BeesIceHockey confirm if their previous head of media (who was presumably a fan and volunteer) was consulted or whether the now serial team-jumping glory hunter simply used his existing relationship with the new coach to muscle in? #justasking #genuinequestion
— Thomas Graham (@Thomas_Graham92) May 30, 2018
If I owe anyone an explanation it’s John Neville and the Bison supporters who have become friends over the last few years but either of the above are also welcome to read this as well.
I left Slough disillusioned with the state the team I’d been involved with for 22 years was in and knowing the future was no longer at the highest possible level. I DJ’d a Saturday night session during last season in Slough when the Bison had a Saturday night off. The Hangar was once regularly packed to sell out capacity (then 1500) and by the end of the EPL the average attendance was at just 418. The session I did last season in Slough I was saddened to see less than 40 people attending a Slough Jets game.
I don’t however leave Basingstoke disillusioned. I leave with four years of happy memories, I leave with many friendships made. I enjoyed every minute of my time in Basingstoke and I’d like to thank John for the opportunity to be a part of Bison. My call to John was a tough phone call for me telling him I was heading with Doug but John in return thanked me for all I’d done for the club and wished me well for the future. I hope to get some cricket watching in this summer with John and just discuss life, families, pets or whatever with a man I call a friend.
I wish the Bison the best of luck for the future. There are some great people in Basingstoke and I’m sure John and now Ashley will work their hardest to reward the loyal Bison supporters.
As well as thanking John for the opportunity to be involved in the Bison I’d like to record my thanks to Doug for his request to join him in his new venture and work alongside him, Stuart, Rob and Richard and the rest of the team all playing a part in running the Bees. Simply, the Sunday home games in Bracknell make hockey possible again for me.
If we were friends let’s not fall out? If we weren’t friends let’s not hate? Let’s look forward to 2018/19, Bees with hope for a bright future and the Bison with a treble to defend.