UK Ice Hockey, Tier 2. What next?

So, here we are, April 20th and we have no idea what the way forward is! The 16/17 season is history and written into the record books. A fantastic Coventry weekend saw Milton Keynes Lightning crowned play off champions and then the hockey world turned its attention to 17/18.

There had, earlier in 2017, been an announcement of the Premier Ice Hockey League for 17/18 as the replacement for the English Premier Ice Hockey League. It was unclear from that release whether the new league would be an EIHA league or under the direct control of the UK governing body Ice Hockey UK but what was pointed out was that this new league would drop to a maximum of three imports meaning the EPL teams would have to drop two overseas players from their rosters. At the time of the initial announcement it was said that team owners hoped to have a further announcement made before the Coventry finals weekend. Sadly, this never came.

There had also been talk of a second tier proposal from Richard Grieveson, the chairman of Ice Hockey U.K. His proposal had not been well received as it was points based and penalised teams for signing veteran players. Hence why, at an EPL owners meeting, the PIHL was born.

In late 2013 Telford Tigers transferred from the ownership of a Supporters trust to Red Hockey. Former stick boy Wayne Scholes had returned with his money and taken ownership of the club he used to cart the sticks around for. A truly romantic fairytail story you may think. However with the new ownership under the leadership of someone who calls themselves a “disruptor” came a totally new ethos at Telford where it seemed the new found wealth was bandied around with mid season approaches to other teams’ players making often significantly larger offers than their current deals to lure them to transfer mid season to Telford. Along with these larger weekly offers came talk of 52 week contracts meaning players would be paid their significantly larger weekly offers 20 extra weeks as most clubs employed players from the start of the first competitive game to the end of the last, 32/33 weeks.

Headline news happened as Slough, Guildford and Basingstoke lost out to this new Telford ethos with Dan Scott, Rick Plant and Joe Miller approached and offered deals while under contract with their respective teams. I apportion now blame to the players for being approached and taking up very generous offers. Later in the same season when a depleted Slough travelled to Telford and won Slough’s import netminder told team management on the trip back that he’d been made an offer to leave Slough immediately and sign for Telford. He asked for that offer to be met to stay and the club were forced to do this to retain him. Indeed, the club breathed a sigh of relief when the transfer window closed!

The following season Telford had had a summer to sign the roster they wanted and went on to win the league. The owner had given many interviews talking of paying players what they were worth and the 52 week contract was also a huge signing bonus too. Slough, spurred on by the cost increase that Telford’s new found wealth had caused, left the EPIHL in the closed season of 2014. The Tigers went on to win the league and the ridiculous replica Stanley Cup trophy they’d supplied too for the Crossover Cup (or Carnage Cup as it was commonly referred to in the stands around the league) but not the play-offs, having lost out in the semi-final. All of a sudden the traditional Coventry DVD box set was missing a DVD as the Tigers organisation refused to alow their game to be shown over an apparent dispute over commercial rights.

Now, as is natural, given the increase in wages the Tigers had brought to their players other players sought an increase in their own wages. All coaches were faced with increasing demands on their budgets. For some this was absorbable, for others we’ll go on to see it wasn’t.

Tigers dominance of the EPL stalled the in 15/16 as despite their expensive looking roster it would be the Basingstoke Bison who went on to sew up the most prestigious prize of the season and win the EPL.

The summer that followed was the biggest indication to date of what was to come. First let’s back track and recap the building of the Red Empire as Red Hockey took partial ownership interests in both Manchester and Bracknell the previous season but both of those secondary interests came to abrupt ends. In the summer of 2016 Manchester Phoenix and Bracknell Bees both went into liquidation. New owners stepped for for the Bees with the same owner continuing with another operating company for the Phoenix. This was a huge guide to the trouble ahead but, outwardly at least, it seemed the EIHA didn’t react. (It turns out from the lack of penalties in the EPL rules of competition when Telford capitulated mid season they didn’t do anything!)

The Phoenixed Phoenix and the new Bees returned to the league for 16/17 and the EPL was once again complete at 10. Over the conclusion of the previous season and the early part of the summer the teams had mooted discussion of allowing an extra import. The increased cost of top Brits following the events above had led some of the lesser wealthy EPL clubs to feel they were automatically out of competition because they weren’t able to attract the top Brits that’s needed to be competitive. The fifth import would allow teams to add an extra game changing player at a reasonable cost.

The Tigers strengthened their roster over the summer and raced off into an early lead but it then transpired the club couldn’t afford the team it had built and pre-Christmas a new consortium was needed to take over as the previous company couldn’t meet its liabilities.

After Christmas the league’s financial disaster got even worse when Manchester Phoenix, by now exiled via Deeside and Fylde to Widnes, announced they were pulling out as they no longer had a commercially viable business. While Telford had kept themselves in the league the “Phexit” had seen the EPL drop to 9 teams.

With 9 remaining teams the EPL faced an issue. Milton Keynes Lightning had announced the previous summer that they had applied to, and been accepted by the Elite Ice Hockey League. With the problems with Telford publicly unfolding and rumours surrounding the stability of some other clubs Guildford Flames applied to, and were accepted by, the EIHL. This then left 9 teams to complete the 16/17 season and 7 to continue working forward.

And that’s the problem situation we now find ourselves in. Grieveson tabled his own tier 2 proposals which would see the EPL replacement come under IHUK. Nobody around that table seemed interested so then EPL teams held their own meeting and the PIHL idea was announced. It made significant concessions from the EPL model to attract the better NIHL teams looking to up their level without the huge cost increase that the jump to EPL would have been.

The seven EPL teams committed to this new model and invited interest from other teams too. The seven team league wouldn’t have been ideal but leagues have coped before.

On Tuesday, April 18th, Swindon Wildcats announce that they have applied to the NIHL under the direction of the EIHA Chairman. Other clubs then come forward and announce that they’ve done the same. Later an EIHA statement is issued saying they officially recommend all EPL clubs apply to NIHL for the coming season.

As a solution this is absolute rubbish! As governance by the EIHA, trusted with tier 2 down of the sport, this is absolute rubbish!

The suggestion that the NIHL should accommodate the EPL has created hostility. NIHL fans understandably aren’t happy at the thought their teams will no longer be the big fish in the small pond. Also, contacts of mine have spoken with contacts of theirs within the NIHL team ownership and they’re not happy at the thought of the bigger semi-professional clubs entering the league. One went as far as to describe the situation as “f##ked up”!

The semi-professional EPL has developed to a high standard both on and off the ice. EPL players commit to a home and away fixture each weekend and usually 2, at some clubs 3, training sessions. Conversely it’s not unheard of for NIHL teams to arrive for fixtures ridiculously under strength as players have other commitments or sometimes even forefeit games 5-0 and play them as exhibition games instead with borrowed players from the other team due to not being able to meet the minimum player strength required by their league rules of competition.

That is quite some difference in ethos and organization between the two leagues. The 7,000 plus regular weekly attendees at EPL matches would certainly get a shock but in truth it won’t be that many! EPL clubs will without doubt lose supporters if they drop to NIHL.

As an example I’ll use the Slough Jets. Under the Zoran Kozic era the EPL team, despite being relatively successful with 3 Play Offs and a Premier Cup win the attendance dwindled as supporters struggled to reconcile their views with that of the ownership. However with the announcement of the ending of EPL hockey in Slough and NIHL being the most senior hockey almost overnight the fan base that had dropped to 400 hard core supporters dropped further to about 50 meaning with the league and standard drop the club had just over 10% of it’s previous fan base remaining.

Derek Roehl, the league’s most skilled player, turns his hand to announcing on a rare night off

The EPL has some high quality players. Brits like Ciaran Long, Aaron Connolly, Aaron Nell, Stevie Lyle, Sam Oakford, Matty Davies were all plying their trade and entertaining thousands of fans weekly. The EPL could also boast of attracting imports of the quality such as Derek Roehl and Tomas Karpov.

It’s fair to assume the high quality Brits will want to stay involved in the sport. The ridiculous 14 import rule in the EIHL together with the training regime makes the top tier an unattractive proposition for the majority of Brits so if they want to stay involved it’s logical to assume they’ll remain what becomes second tier or just retire. This in itself will instantly create a two tier NIHL if that’s the way forward. There straight away will be the have and have not teams as the EPL teams would look to retain the majority of their Brits and the NIHL would have theirs. While former EPL vs former EPL would probably produce ok hockey, former EPL vs NIHL would result in easy wins!

Talking of quality what of the imports? Firstly, the EPIHL played 5 imports, the PIHL offered 3 imports and the NIHL play just 2. It’s logical to think that as EPIHL transitioned to PIHL the imports currently involved would remain (up to the new maximum per team) and new recruitment could call from the same sources as the EPIHL had. NIHL have 2 imports in division 1 and 1 import in division 2. Despite NIHL’s 2 imports only being 1 less than PIHL 3 the effect is more than that. Look at the quality of imports in NIHL1 and compare them to the benchmark of the EPL import and you can see not only the difference in numbers on the roster but also the vast difference in quality of the imports between the two leagues.

As more and more EPL teams come out and confirm they’ve applied for NIHL it makes a decent level second tier look less and less likely. The animosity from NIHL1 teams and fans isn’t without foundation as there’s going to be big swings in the table from last year to this year if NIHL accommodates the EPIHL. Fans that are used to watching winning NIHL teams will all of a sudden find that there’s bigger fish in the small pond.

The PIHL is, in my opinion, a now or never opportunity. The EPL needs a replacement and, again in my opinion, NIHL isn’t it! The huge gulf between NIHL and EPIHL was exposed in the ill fated 2014/15 Cross Over Cup (remember that awful Stanley Cup replica?) which ended up more aptly referred to by the fans as the “Carnage Cup”. For this competition EPL teams had to drop two imports to bring them down to the same roster conditions as NIHL teams but despite this games between the EPL and NIHL often ended up in one sided blow out scores (save for the Bees results!) As I’ve already mentioned while the EPL Brits don’t want to retire it’s likely they’ll remain at their current clubs if they drop to NIHL and those results from the “Carnage Cup” could end up in league games!

Results such as those will do nothing to attract or retain supporters. EPL supporters won’t want to watch walk over wins, NIHL fans won’t want to watch thrashings. A lessening of supporters then jeopardises all the clubs as ticket income, either season ticket or walk up ticket, is a huge portion of the income around which their budget is based. Let’s also think of the EPL clubs who will have to reduce their ticket prices too.

Given the inevitable loss of supporters from the EPL clubs when they are forced into the vastly inferior (and by that I mean no disrespect) standard hockey of NIHL will club sponsors who are currently involved wish to continue their involvement? Will sponsorship have the same commercial value when the league is lower and the potential exposure of their investment is smaller? Will brand association have the same value for those valuable sponsors either? So with lower ticket prices, inevitable lesser attendances and a risk of lesser sponsorship income this solution doesn’t look good at all for balancing the books!

Of course some may say if EPL teams had better balanced their books in the first place this situation wouldn’t have arisen. That’s true. Manchester ran out of credit in the summer of 2016 and ran out money twice in a year, Bracknell ran out of credit in the summer of 2016 and Telford ran out of credit mid season. Ironically the one thing in common in all of those situations is that at some point in time Wayne Scholes via Red Hockey had ownership / part ownership.

Given their nomadic existence in Deeside in 2015/16 which led to the liquidation it’s not a far fetched thought that Manchester, still with no home base, were wrong to re-enter for 2016/17. The fact they played in the non-suitable Fylde Coast Arena, at some points in the season were even encouraging away fans NOT to travel, makes that even more unbelievable they thought that was a sustainable plan. Then when SilverBlades extended the arm of friendship and welcomed them into Widnes giving them a chance to succeed they finally admitted defeat for the second time in less than 12 calendar months.

Under new ownership Bracknell Bees budgeted carefully and ran the team with no dramas that we know of. They crossed the finish line, missing the play-offs, but with dignity and admiration for the way they turned around a debt ridden club.

The biggest irony of all came mid season when Telford liquidated. Rumours started circulating of Tigers players going unpaid, later to be confirmed by Tom Watkins in an interview. It wasn’t just players going unpaid and it became apparent that the club, handed into new ownership just a few months earlier by Wayne Scholes was insolvent. Scholes had made a big thing about how his new man was the right man for the job, the right man to build on the success Scholes himself thought he’d achieved, and to take the club forward. From the figures bandied about the sums were very wrong and the actual money war that Telford Tigers had started in late 2013 became their own undoing in late 2016 just 3 years later.

In conversation with my game crew at Slough on the first game after Scholes announced his take over of Telford I said I feared the new Tigers would have a maximum life span of 5 years. I was 2 years too generous. Once it became apparent how the new club was being run I also aired my views on the damage this would end up doing to the EPL. Sadly, I wasn’t wrong on that either. I wonder if Scholes now thinks he did the right thing for the club and league he claimed to care about?

Queue Tigers fans jumping up to defend their team now. That’s understandable, they’ve enjoyed two league wins in three years even if the second win is hugely tainted. Ultimately, and no disrespect to the Tigers players here, we learned at Coventry that the Tigers team that was affordable this season wasn’t the best team in the league, MK were. Had Telford iced a team they could afford and run at costs they could afford for the whole season it’s not unreasonable to assume that MK would have finished their EPL membership as league champions but instead the Tigers benefitted from the huge lead they ran up before changing hands mid-season.

So why is the PIHL a now or never opportunity?

The EPIHL has just finished. There are 7 teams currently in limbo over where to go. The PIHL would be a drop in standard from the EPIHL but would retain a lot of the EPIHL good things while making the outgoings less and therefore more attractive to existing and other teams. The quality of import would remain high even if the number reduced by 2 per team. The quality of Brit would remain high and with the inevitable jettison of Brits from the two Elite league bound former EPL clubs as they got ready for their new journey maybe supply and demand would have reduced the average cost of Brit players!

If the PIHL isn’t forged ahead with now it won’t be ever. If teams are forced out of a semi-professional set up into a more amateur set up then this will damage their fan bases, their sponsorship, their partnerships. Like with anything it’s easier to attract new people than it is re-attract people who’ve been put off. If fans dessert their teams over the summer they are unlikely to return. If they do decide to start the season and “see what it’s like” it’s likely they won’t commit to a season ticket (a valuable source of early season revenue for all clubs) and consequently if they don’t like the standard of hockey, which I’m certain a lot won’t, they have nothing tying them to continuing to watch it. If that happens and supporters, sponsors and partners, fade away then they are more than likely lost to the sport. Those clubs that once ran as proud semi-professional teams may find themselves lacking the fan base and commercial sponsorship and partnership base to ever make the transition back to semi-professional hockey.

Decisions taken now will affect hockey for many years to come. Wrong decisions taken now and incorrect recommendations could cause permanent damage to UK Ice Hockey.

Richard Grieveson was all for a revised tier 2. When his point based proposal was rejected where is he now? He’s the chairman of the National Governing Body, he has a responsibility and duty to protect the sport in this country.

The teams’ decision to apply to NIHL is based upon recommendation from the EIHA chairman. Why? Is that the best that the Governing Body of the sport beneath Elite League can come up with? The 7 team PIHL isn’t ideal. Is it feasible? Is it a gamble? Of course it’s a gamble but so too is the hope of a one size fits all NIHL1 idea.

There’s two gambles here, one is the PIHL gamble buying the time to evaluate and sort out the second tier, the other is the knee-jerk NIHL gamble, a short term solution which almost definitely relegates a high skilled second tier to the history books.

Given both are a gamble but one has a future life line attached to it why is the EIHA recommending the one that doesn’t? If the PIHL gamble still doesn’t bring about a solution for second tier by the end of next season then NIHL is the only option and that’s the way “forward” for 18/19 but why are we taking the gamble with the obviously lesser reward without even exploring the gamble with the actual worthwhile reward? If we take the NIHL gamble what happens of EPL clubs that have NIHL1 teams already playing at their rinks?

Think of the long term damage a wrong NIHL1 fits all decision will do not only to the local clubs we know and love but also the national programme. The gap between NIHL and EPL was huge. The gap between NIHL and EIHL is almost like two totally different sports. Talented players will almost certainly be forced to look to playing abroad if they want to ever be ready to make the step into the EIHL to advance their development past NIHL standard. Team GB will suffer as well as the already not insignificant virtual block between EPL and EIHL for a lot of talented Brits is likely to become even bigger and as the current GB squad retire where will the replacements come from.

Many years ago some clubs were too big for the structure. They grouped together, found enough other clubs to go with them and started the Ice Hockey Superleague. We know how that ended up and yet still we didn’t rectify the damage the high import limit did when the Elite League was founded. Today we have a similar situation. There are clubs that don’t fit the NIHL solution now touted by the EIHA but it seems both the IHUK and EIHA powers that be are just forcing clubs into the NIHL “solution” rather than encouraging the PIHL off the ground to buy time to find a workable solution for the former EPL clubs and the current NIHL clubs that sees happiness across the board.

Anyone from IHUK or the EIHA care to confirm if they’re even still working on PIHL? Or confirm they’ve given up and written off hockey beneath EIHL level?

Given the EIHL seems stable, even if the 14 import limit is damaging the rest of the sport, there’s a place for it in the structure. Recent attendance levels back that up too. There’s a place for development like the NIHL1 and nobody, myself included, wants to see that ruined. If I’m being honest, perhaps the ice time currently used by NIHL2 would be better invested in Under 20 rather than NIHL2? The huge issue, and elephant in the room is that the sport simply needs a level in between amateur, pay to play / play when available NIHL1 ice hockey and fully professional EIHL hockey. IHUK and the EIHA owe the teams that were that level and their fans a workable solution now, before irreparable damage is done to the former EPIHL and the current NIHL.

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