My 2016/17 Stampede Sign Off

Reproduced below is my final article from Stampede, the Basingstoke Bison match night programme, for the 16/17 season

Good evening and welcome to the final home game of the season. I remember, many years ago as a hockey newbie, when seasons seemed to last forever but now that view has swung around and I can’t believe how quick they go.

Another season has almost been and gone now, after this weekend there’s the one final jolly to Coventry left then that’s it for 2016/17. It’s fair to say it’s been a season full of controversy across the league. We had a “homeless” team that lasted until January, a league winning team that went into liquidation before Christmas then, in a cost cutting measure, went on a huge unbeaten streak!

Here in Basingstoke we finished a respectable third in the final ever EPL. It took a little while to get the season going but the addition of Derek Roehl added skill, toughness and spark to the team and the whole team came together and showed, once again, that they’re more than the sum of their individual parts. It’s been a standout year for Ciaran Long, he continues to improve at a scary level every year. Many netminders and many defenceman have been embarrassed by his play this year! Equally Dan Davies has had a brilliant year, often going under the radar. My point though is that the success of the Bison this year has come about as a team. In games when some players haven’t performed to their best (it happens, we’re all human) others have stepped up and that’s the sign of a good team.

It is sad that we’re here for the final time not only this season but the final time under the EPL banner. As I’ve written over the last couple of weeks I’m sad to see the EPL’s demise. In 2013/14 Telford started a bidding war that ultimately even they couldn’t afford to compete in and now we are where we are! A league with long term stability just 3-4 seasons back is about to head to its final finals weekend.

Milton Keynes announced last summer that they were heading to the Elite League, Guildford Flames joined them announcing the same mid-season. MK finished second in the league, Guildford Flames finished 5th, quite some way back on 4th, in their final EPL season but I guess fans of both those teams know that their 2017/18 squads will look nothing like their 16/17 squads and they’ll be saying goodbye to a great number of fan favourites this summer.

Of course we also lost Manchester as they entered a team into the league, it seems to me, without a home base to work from meaning that the EPL or PIHL would have just 7 members to start the next season.

Through this season we’ve read of proposals for a second tier from Richard Grieveson, Chairman of Ice Hockey UK. Those seemed to be unattractive to both the EPL and NIHL teams that would have been needed to make it work and I’m certain would have been unattractive to the quality but older players we enjoy watching week on week due to them being “expensive” on the points system. Instead the PIHL has been born which does sadly see each team lose two of its non EIHA trained players but hopefully will see much needed stability reintroduced to the second tier that the EPL had up until 13/14.

Interestingly I’ve not read anywhere in Richard Grieveson’s proposals anything to address the top league in the country. While it may be ticking along ok at present after having its fair share of troubles over the years a lot of issues in the sport can be traced back to the inception of the ISL. The ISL, which itself as a league governing body went bust, was replaced by the EIHL which kept the top level of the sport afloat but did nothing to sort the issues facing sport as a whole.

Having such low Brit participation and high import numbers the EIHL puts an artificial ceiling on the hopes and aspirations of upcoming Brit players. Rightly so, the EPL, isn’t a full time job for the players within it meaning that a number of EPL players also have careers outside of hockey. That, added to the import dominance of the EIHL, adds a block on how high some very talented players can actually get in the UK sport.

Now, those within the EIHL probably will say all is well but across the sport in the UK we’ve seen it is actually not! You only need to look at the ever rising average age of Team GB to see that the EIHL has put a block on upcoming talent reaching their full potential. Elite League fans and owners are happy, their little league is chugging along ok but what of the rest of the sport? Since the ISL/EIHL the BNL has gone under and now the EPL too! As mentioned Team GB average age continues to increase too so is the current top league good for the sport or just itself?

Strong IHUK governance may have noticed this and acted upon it with a graduated import level drop to give Brit players a better hope of aspiring to get to the top league! This would open up a world of opportunity for players and reduce the burden on the EPL or PIHL as being the effective top league for the majority of UK Brit players and the costs that ceiling add to competing in the second tier!

I’m not anti-import. I like having non British trained players in the game and what they bring. I like the balance the EPL has now of 5 imports as long as there are 3 Brits on the ice at all times. That’s BALANCED unlike the EIHL which is totally unbalanced! In my opinion it’s not the imports in the second tier that are causing the issues to the second tier, it’s the excessive number in the top tier and the false ceiling that creates!

It’s an often used phrase but what will finally sort out UK Ice Hockey once and for all is connected thinking. The Elite League, EPL/PIHL, NIHL all working together to produce a workable senior structure. Within each league all of the owners need to respect the structure within which they play rather than “disrupt” that structure – we’ve seen what the leads to. Until that’s a reality then this roller coaster ride could easily continue and maybe in 10-15 years time somebody will be thinking of a new tier 2?

Moving further down the chain junior development needs looking at! We have some excellent coaches in the country, they are generally employed by EPL or EIHL teams so obviously wouldn’t be available to coach junior games at weekends. What we do have though are players who retire from the sport having played under those coaches. Those players could give back to the sport that’s given them so much in coaching / mentoring local junior teams. Junior hockey has a lot of parent coaches who are classroom taught. Without them the sport would collapse but with them are juniors getting the best coaching / mentoring that they could? Add in a former player from EPL or EIHL in to the coaching mix and you have the skill and experience they’ve learned and gained being passed on to players first hand. As I’ve written previously, nowhere is that more evident than netminders which is why the EPL has seen the increase in import netminders it has over the last few years! The crazy rule banning import netminders in the EPL in 2019 will further highlight this issue and in itself create a bidding war for Brit goalies.

I know it’s radical but imagine a truly connected sport, governed by ONE strong body with all the leagues forming a path and true opportunities for talented youngsters to aspire to get to the top. A connected thinking path would be the answer but do we have strong enough governance at IHUK to make that happen. The EPL as a second tier was perhaps an easy target but I’d like to see them address the important issue that’s often overlooked! If they’re looking to bring EIHA and SIHA direct under the IHUK umbrella then EIHL needs to come to along as well and play its part by reducing to a reasonable import level and offering opportunities to Brits!

As the season winds down time to take a look at some highlights for me. There have been many on the ice but I wanted to focus on some off the ice.

Moving! Over the summer seating at the rink was reallocated meaning the “virtual box” by the Booster Club stand was no longer available. We relocated to the other end which is a cosy corner and now named in honour of Bison Media stalwart Graham Bell!

Pizza gate conversely was a bit of a personal low and for that I do apologise! Must book an eye test ahead of next season in case that particular feature returns!

Announcing the NIHL Select game with Derek Roehl was fun. He turned up with a microphone for the third period, I don’t think he actually thought I’d plug it in and connect him up but it was fun! He proved he’s not only good on the ice but off it too.

As we finish our home season today I look at the things I’ll miss over the summer. I think, for me and a lot of people too, the main thing we’ll all miss is the social side. Hockey is a place where many good friendships are made and obviously over the closed season we see those friends less as we don’t have those meeting times and that meeting place centred around the fixture list.

For me, every home game is a 75 mile round trip. I can’t emphasise how welcome I’ve always been made to feel here since the demise of Slough as an EPL team. I love the sport of ice hockey but I can honestly say I wouldn’t make a 75 mile journey every week if it wasn’t for the social side of the sport too.

It’s a long summer but there’s always the interest of watching teams rebuild and now for the remaining EPL teams joining the PIHL to see which of their imports are retained. It’ll also be interesting to see if any of the NIHL teams take the step up to the big league and make it an even number of teams. As I wrote, a couple of weeks back, a CBA would go a long way to protecting the viability of the second tier as the talent jettisoned by both MK and Guildford will all enter the pool for signing in the PIHL next year and possibly start a bidding war as the 7 teams look to replace their 2 imports they’ve had to lose!

In concluding it’s a big thanks to the players and coaching staff for the entertainment they’ve given all through the season. Thanks of course go to the officials who give up their weekends travelling the length of the country (or within their allocated range of just outside Bracknell!) to ensure the games go ahead. And of course the dedicated army of people at every club behind the scenes ensuring things get done. Media releases, club administration, off ice duties and without those people there wouldn’t be games.

Let’s finish at home on a high tonight.

Enjoy this weekend.

Enjoy Coventry

And finally have a good summer.