The EPL, imports, Brits and where it went wrong

Copied below is my programme write up for Stampede, the Basingstoke Bison Programme for the game against Swindon Wildcats, 19th March 2017

Good evening and welcome to the final home game of the 16/17 regular season. Tonight we celebrate the achievements of the 15/16 Bison as the league winner’s banner gets raised this evening. Arguably, in my humble opinion, with the EPL being replaced next season with the PIHL it’s the last title earned fairly and squarely with no mid-season reformation after assembling a squad that was unaffordable!

This weekend we’re locked in a 3rd/4th place battle with Peterborough. They went into the weekend with 3rd place but we have the game in hand so it’ll be an interesting weekend as the sun sets on the EPL years. Next it’s the Play-offs with all but Bracknell (and obviously Manchester) taking part in the return of group stages ahead of the Coventry finals weekend.

So as we head to the ending of the EPL and the new beginning of the PIHL I still question why it is the second tier of the sport found itself unable to afford itself?

There’s no doubt the EPL changed when money was first thrown around in 13/14 in Telford. Players all of a sudden found themselves in the enviable position of receiving big money offers to play in Shropshire. What this then did was create a ripple around the league causing a cost upturn at all teams. I remember a depleted Slough Jets team in the final throws of their tenure as an EPL club going to Telford and beating them only for goaltender Andrej Vasiljevic to reveal to team management he’d received a healthy offer to join the Tigers! While that behaviour was great for the lucky players’ bank balances it’s a huge part of where the EPL now is!

Further insult I guess is then rubbed in when the 16/17 Tigers win the final EPL by assembling a team that their financial records clearly indicate they could never afford which saw them build a pretty big lead in the EPL before the operating company called in administrators. Having left behind creditors they then go on to add one final piece to their puzzle with the signing of Jon Baston which gives them a strong enough squad to run with the lead they couldn’t afford to build and close out the league win.

What of the future? Well the obvious suggestion made by many is cut imports. I don’t think that’s necessarily the solution though. The ISL, formed by the Arena teams, has a lot to answer for. The ISL took away the aim to get to the top for the majority of British players as the league was import laden. These days though the Elite League has done little to improve that. The Elite League has a high import limit also meaning Brit participation is relatively low again for most players placing an artificial ceiling on their aspirations at EPL or whatever the second level of the sport will be in the future.

If we step sideways for one moment and look at the GB Team you can see the average age of the GB team is going up as players are drawn primarily from the Elite League which as we’ve just mentioned isn’t accessible to all Brits. That’s a combination of the high import limit and the fact that a lot of the top EPL Brits who would have the best chance of succeeding in the Elite League have other commitments that preclude them from being available for the training commitments of the Elite League. What happens to Team GB when the current members retire from international hockey?

Laying the blame for where we are in terms of second league ice hockey in the UK at the door of imports is unfair! It’s a 5 import league, meaning the majority of the players aren’t imports. To therefore blame the non-affordability of the league on a minority of players is totally unfair. The only difference between an import and a top Brit could well be the cost of a flight here and back and an ITC (unless the import has an unlimited ITC). Imports would need to be housed but it’s no secret that a lot of British players around the league have negotiated themselves accommodation as part of their deal too.

Traditionally every coach will have a budget for players. This will be £x per week and each team will set the budget for their coach to spend based on their own calculations of what’s affordable. The coach will then decide how he spends his budget. Does he recruit all 5 imports? Does he spend on a backup goaltender or use a local option? Does he go with high salary Brits or spread the responsibility over more lines rather than build 2 top lines and a grind line? There are many variables in how a coach spends his £x so to blame it solely on imports is very unfair.

For the second tier of UK Ice Hockey to succeed it has balance attractiveness and affordability. Supporters have to have something they want to watch at a price they’re willing to pay and clubs have to provide that at a cost that they can afford. That sounds simple but as we’ve seen with Manchester and Bracknell liquidating last summer, Telford liquidating before Christmas and Manchester pulling out the league post Christmas that’s not always the case!

Rather than drastically rolling back import numbers perhaps the answer is something else altogether? Now while it may sound drastic perhaps we’re looking at something similar to the NHL Collective Bargaining Agreement. Obviously the NHL system is very different to the UK system with players’ right effectively owned in the NHL until players reach free agency. This therefore means players can, and do, get traded and end up having to relocate often at short notice. Going that far would not work in the UK as ice hockey players mostly have second jobs which provide their majority incomes so being traded from Southern England to Northern England or to Scotland just clearly wouldn’t work! However the one thing we could look at finding some way to implement into the UK game is the CBA. The CBA (in the NHL) is an agreement between the NHL owners and the NHL Players Association (NHLPA) which brings about labour management through collective bargaining. It’s not a fail safe system as we’ve seen the 94/95, 04/05 and 12/13 seasons all affected by lockouts when new CBA’s couldn’t be negotiated in time but what it does is simplify the pay structure.

Players will want to earn as well as they can from the sport, that’s fair enough. However club owners won’t want to be running at a loss. That has to be balanced at a level where the supporters are happy to pay the price charged for a ticket.

Ideally it’s time for the National Governing Body, Ice Hockey UK to govern the sport. Richard Grieveson has come up with plans for tier 2 which work on a player points system but he’s yet to announce anything to do with the Elite League. Is a player points system the right way forward? Seems not as the current second tier clubs are looking to move forward with the PIHL rather than the IHUK tabled second tier proposals.

Here in the UK the Players Association long ago disappeared so obviously the first thing needed for a CBA would be a Players Association to negotiate on behalf of the players. The team owners could then sit around a table with the Players Association and agree what’s affordable and reasonable in terms of their player expenditure and an affordable deal to keep the players we enjoy watching both for and against our team playing those roles in a league of a standard that’s fitting to be called the second tier of British Ice Hockey.

Of course for this to work it has be implemented and stuck to. There’s no way it’ll work if it’s sidestepped by offering a player £50 per week to play ice hockey and £1000 per week to do a fictitious job somewhere else within the team owner’s business empire! For the EPL replacement to succeed there’s needs to be understanding, honesty and integrity.

Maybe with a CBA in place and an open commitment to adhere to it then the NIHL teams might be prepared to come up and make a meaningful second tier again? In fact, take it one step further, and put a CBA in place for the PIHL and NIHL and maybe you can then have a connected path way through the EIHA run leagues?

Perhaps if the governing body really wants to govern the sport it could force the Elite League into a plan to reduce import numbers over a certain number of seasons so Brits can finally get a chance to crack the top tier in the sport. Not only will this benefit the lower leagues but it will also obviously give more of the best Brits the chance to play top level UK Hockey and put them in a better place should they ever get an international call up to represent GB!

Second tier import levels at 4 or 5 with a must have 3 EIHA trained players on the ice at all times doesn’t cause the sport a problem. The high import participation in the Elite League and the ceiling that then puts on the majority of British players aspirations does cause the sport a problem.

While Richard Grieveson is happy to dip his toe in the water and throw out his Tier 2 proposals is he happy to address the inaccessibility of the Elite League to the average British player and create a truly recognisable path from NIHL2 to EIHL if a player is actually good enough?

Enjoy tonight’s game and feel the pride of seeing that 15/16 League Winner’s Banner lifted.