The EPIHL becomes the PIHL – what does it all mean?

Yesterday the EPL teams announced unanimously their view of the future as follows

The owners of the current EPL teams met on Sunday. From the outset it is important to understand that all of the owners, as a collective, are driven to ensure that the league works as a viable competition for the long term future of the sport, that it has stability and also develops as an on ice product, providing a place to truly develop the best of British talent.

This was the basis which shaped the meeting on Sunday and it was the shared vision of all of the owners which helped it to be such a productive morning.

The key points to come out of the meeting are:

1. 7 teams have committed to participating next season, ensuring the future of the league.

2. There will be a name change to “Premier Ice Hockey League” to reflect a new beginning and growing opportunities for participation.

3. The non-British trained player level will drop to three, giving British talent the chance to develop, as well as trying to bring financial stability to the league.

4. In the season 2019-20 no non-British trained goalies can be signed, only British trained goalies will be allowed.

5. The bankruptcy ruling agreed at the last meeting will form part of the rules of competition from season 2017 / 18.

What can be instantly seen is the commitment to the league and a commitment to longevity which will, hopefully, develop an exciting breed of talented young players.

The structure of the league and cup competitions will largely remain the same, although there are some finer details to be worked out, and the owners will meet again at the end of March to finalise these.

Following this meeting there is a desire to have everything in place, and announced, by the Playoff Finals weekend so that owners, players, sponsors and fans have full confidence in the league as a viable and successful model.

This is an exciting time for the Premier Ice Hockey League, and the sport within the UK, after what has been a challenging year. There has been a recognition that our outlook has to evolve in order for our game to evolve, the only way to do this is to invest in our British players and provide them with the best environment in which to thrive and develop.

We are actively looking to expand as a league and are hoping that the changes, and commitments made, will encourage other clubs and teams to join us in providing a stable and exciting future.

We, as a league, are fully committed to making this a reality, we are driven to succeed and ask fans across the country to join and support us in our vision.

The genuine question as to whether or not this will be successful won’t be answered in the short term. Ice Hockey in recent times, and in particular, the country’s second tier has always been on a cycle. The BHL went, replaced by the BNL. The BNL died in 2005 as it became too expensive and too few teams remained to make a worthwhile league. The BNL wasn’t replaced and overnight the third tier, run by the amateur administration of the EIHA became the second tier.

While we are focusing primarily here on the second tier it’s important to point out that the top tier has also had its struggles. The Ice Hockey Superleague folded with just the prospect of a 3 team league owing a large debt to Ice Hockey UK, the country’s governing body. IHUK weren’t keen on a replacement league, instead encouraging the three remaining teams to play in the BNL but the Elite League was formed and just weeks ahead of the season received affiliation with the governing body. For 2017/18 the EIHL will have 12 member teams with Milton Keynes Lightning and Guildford Flames both leaving the EPL to step up.

Moving forward for the EPL there will be a drop in quality with 2 imports cut from each roster. Top Brits will likely be commanding more and the stock for British netminders wages has just gone through the roof. There will still be haves and have nots. Guildford and MK will jettison players as they step up, Manchester didn’t have much in the way of players worth signing that aren’t already signed elsewhere. The better of PIHL teams will be able to secure the best Brits and best goalie along with the best imports.

The question that can’t be answered for a few years is will this be enough to break the cycle that the second tier of ice hockey finds itself in? Or is it just another stop gap measure?

British ice hockey at second tier level has limped from collapse to collapse. The BNL model of 8 imports became unattractive and non cost effective so the majority of the teams dropped to the EPL. Now, 12 years on, we see the EPL on its knees. The major difference here is that rather than teams joining the NIHL the EPIHL has become the PIHL with lower import numbers as its main selling point to attract lower teams to step up.

Will this be enough to stop the cycle happening again in another decade or so or will a 3 import second tier become unaffordable in time?

The final nail in the EPL coffin probably was the most farcical season ever. The league champions went bust mid season reportedly owing six figure sums but reformed with minimal differences and went on to win a league they clearly actually couldn’t afford to win! At the other end of the table the Phoenix inevitably went bust after starting a season with no rink and seeing further reductions in their fan base while at the same time having no prospect of actually getting the rink. With the goodwill of fans exhausted a year earlier and share schemes and virtual brick sales been and gone (in the liquidated company) the inevitable happened and the Phoenix folded.

The new league initially starts as a seven team league which is the remaining members of the EPL. Are the proposals on the table sufficient to attract new member teams? A jump from Elite to 3 import hockey is unlikely to be attractive so we have to assume new membership would be anticipated to come from below rather than above.

The new PIHL is pretty similar to some of the plans put about by Grieveson for his IHUK Tier 2 proposals. There was no reported mass sign up from NIHL teams to that so it remains to be seen how many, if any, NIHL teams are ready to take a step up. The difference between PIHL and EPIHL is that NIHL teams now need to take a smaller step to join! Ultimately I feel if the PIHL is to have any hope at longevity it will need to entice more teams to join up.

Another question is whether clubs can sell the PIHL to their fan base? And at what ticket price can they sell this? The EPL had reached a high standard, fans enjoyed their hockey but then money seemed to be thrown around by some teams like it was going out of fashion and disruption became a (negative) buzz word. All of a sudden three years later the EPL finds itself on its knees and at an end!

In the summer of 2016 Manchester Phoenix and Bracknell Bees both went into administration. Later in 2016, in mid-competition, it became clear that the Tigers had built a business model that their income streams couldn’t afford. Not content with going into liquidation in 2016 the Phoenix ducked out of competition in 2017 and at the time of writing are organising events to pay off debts to players!

Bracknell Bees, along with Manchester Phoenix, found they were unable to build a competitive roster for 16/17 although there have been no reports of Bees owing money so while the hockey has been, mainly, frustratingly uncompetitive at least ownership has been responsible and hasn’t exceeded its spending powers.

From September 2017 the seven remaining teams will be founding members of the Premier Ice Hockey League. On paper it may give a more balanced playing field but within the seven teams some will no doubt have more spending clout than other teams.

In order for this league to be successful it will need more than seven teams. The question is whether it will be a seven team league for 2017/18 with other potential members waiting a season to see how it goes or whether any other team from NIHL1 or indeed the SIHA step up and bolster the founding
members? The EPL has certainly made a sacrifice in the quality of its on ice product in order to entice other members to join so let’s wait and see.

I read on THF someone suggesting that the owners had to be more about development and less about success. That almost goes against human nature! Most people are motivated by success. That could be monetary success and if I knew being a hockey club owner could make me a millionaire that’d be a good motivation for me to get involved. We all know that Ice hockey in the UK doesn’t generally make many owners richer people though! Success could also be something to boast of. If my ice hockey club had won back to back trebles I’d be very proud and I’d deem that success. On a week to week level if my hockey club had beaten my local rivals in a home and away derby weekend then that would be a successful weekend.

By the very nature of human beings we will always strive for success. That does mean clubs that can afford to spend more to have a better team probably will do. Even with two less imports the better financially able clubs will strive to replace those non EIHA trained players with two good Brits, perhaps making offers to Brits currently with other clubs that their clubs can’t match. That’s the survival of the fittest, it works that way all through nature!

Team owners will own teams for some form of gratification. That will mean they will want success of some sort.

In terms of costs saved what does cutting two imports actually cut? Not as much as you think I’d reckon. Top end Brits will still continue to command top end money so by cutting two imports you’ll slash two ITC fees (assuming the players aren’t unlimited ITC holders) and their flights in to and out of the country. It’s not unusual that teams may also have to house some of their Brits so any saving on housing an import may be cancelled by having to house a replacement Brit.

The reduction to three imports is without doubt dangling a carrot to the NIHL to say “come and play with us”. If no NIHL team wants the jump then the reduction is worthless. It’s probable that with four or five imports and a continuing EPL that one more team would have dropped so leaving a six team league but the difference between six and seven isn’t that great. To make the cutting of two imports worthwhile then the carrot has to be snapped up by at least some of the NIHL1 teams.

We did see a couple of seasons back the difference in quality between NIHL1 and EPIHL even though the Challenge cup meant the EPL teams were only allowed to dress two imports to match with the import levels in the lower league. The question is are the NIHL teams happy to stick with what they’ve got or are there any ready to test themselves against the quality opposition of the EPL in a restructured league for 2017/18.

The really sad thing is that the second tier of UK Ice Hockey has so far proven unsustainable. The BNL and now EPL have both collapsed or are about to collapse so far this millennium. Let’s not forget that the top level has also collapsed once too! Ice Hockey is a minority sport but why can it not sustain a decent level as the second tier? Why is it we’re six months away from a third league being the second tier since the turn of the century?

Lessons have to be learned. The PIHL cannot make the same mistakes that have been made historically otherwise by 2029 we’ll be here again at the cross roads needing a solution.

It’s highly unlikely that the second tier of ice hockey can command a show on TV but there are media things it could do better. A website is the shop window to a league and the EIHA website for the EPL isn’t a patch on where it should be. There’s no central league media officer, there’s no central league sponsorship officer. Arguably the BNL had these and still failed but the EPL didn’t have those and always struggled for coverage that could draw new fans in in significant enough numbers.

The PIHL is without doubt in need of new members but let’s hope lessons have been learned and there’s no repeat of last summer where a team run by a recently liquidated company was re-admitted under the same Director despite having no rink to play in!

The EPL have made the sacrifice in the quality of their current product, let’s hope sufficient NIHL teams will join and test themselves against quality opposition and that recent lessons serve as actions not to be repeated.

Maybe the PIHL will be a good thing for UK hockey but we’ll need to wait a good while to really know.