EIHL Preview 16/17: Coventry Blaze: Hustle, Loyalty, New Respect?

“I built a time machine to escape from
All the pain in the back of my car
Living’s a problem because everything dies babe
Save yourself you’re not too far away”

Biffy Clyro – “Living Is A Problem Because Everything Dies

The Coventry Blaze, however they sold making the playoff finals, had the worst season they’ve ever had last year. Bottom of the league for the first time ever during the season, barely scraping into the playoffs, and being quietly outclassed by Nottingham in the playoff finals as they fought desperately for redemption after a massively underwhelming season, the Chuck Weber era ended with a whimper. And that whimper was “but there’s much to be proud of this season”.

This is a new Coventry Blaze season, though. This year, they’ve gone backwards to come forwards, hiring Blaze legend Danny Stewart as the new head coach. Stewart is exactly the type of coach a team that has almost unashamedly betrayed its oft-trumpeted claim that “OK is not good enough”…it’s been more than sufficient for the Blaze for about five years now, in fact. Whatever the claims may be.

Can Danny Stewart succeed where so many others have failed and deliver the raze-and-rebuild this team needs? Can he finally light the raging fire  under the Blaze which has long since gone out?


#41 Brian Stewart, #30 Renny Marr

It’s the same goalie pairing as last year…which means you can almost copy-and-paste what we said last season. Brian Stewart has often been seemingly carrying the Blaze single handed on his broad shoulders during his time at the Skydome, and has proved time and again that he can be a bona-fide matchwinner…he is, in fact, arguably the greatest reason Coventry have any titles since 2012. Renny Marr, meanwhile, is a young British talent given the chance to spend another year learning behind arguably the best starter in the league this season.


#7 Jordan Stokes (2-way with Hull, EPL) #11 Jim Jorgensen, #15 Josh Godfrey, #26 Marc Cantin, #27 Shawn Boutin, #56 Kevin Noble, #58 David Clements, #64 Matt Selby

The key thing with this defensive unit is that Danny Stewart has kept the lynchpin (in Jim Jorgensen) and the great new hope (David Clements) while adding around it. In Josh Godfrey Stewart has given a second chance to a player who was to some degree a victim of his own hype last year – he was trumpeted as an elite offensive D with a huge shot but his 13 points were a disappointing return indeed from a player who was supposed to drive the team forward. As for playmaking – only Clements had fewer assists than Godfrey, and his six goals were eclipsed by his supposedly more defensive partner Jorgensen comfortably.

Kevin Noble will be his usual playing-on-the-ragged-edge self on defence – although it will be interesting to see how teams deal with him now they’re aware of his “wind-up-at-any-cost” style and if they allow him to take penalties without giving the many retaliation penalties he drew so well last year.

The new additions to this unit are the most valuable. The Quebec pairing of Shawn Boutin and Marc Cantin are both sold as calm, minute-munching two way players equally at home anywhere on the ice and in any situation. Add them to Jorgensen and the Blaze have a very strong top two pairs indeed, along with the delightful-to-watch Clements and pugnacious and brutally effective Matt Selby to fill the gaps.

This is a very well-put-together unit on paper, and will provide the Blaze with a nice mix of speed, skill and defensive power in front of Stewart – a much more well-balanced one than last season.


#9 Darcy Zajac, #16 Jordan Pietrus, #17 Russ Cowley, #18 Bjorn Bombis, #19 Garrett Klotz, #21 Ashley Tait, #23 Brett Robinson, #28 Matt Marquardt, #59 Ross Venus, #74 Liam Stewart, #88 Robin Bergman

Danny Stewart’s first forward crop is built to do everything. It has the pure muscle (Klotz, at 6’5 and 233lbs, is among the most imposing figures on EIHL ice this season), the PR star power (Liam Stewart – yes, he is Rod and Rachel’s son, but he’s also a useful checking forward coming off a solid if unspectacular junior career) the European flair (Swede Robin Bergman and German Bjorn Bombis are both skilled players, although their skillsets lie in different areas with Bergman being the shooter and Bombis the setup man)  and the power and two-way ability (Matt Marquardt is a very astute signing indeed – one of the sleeper stars of this roster and indeed the EIHL season, while Brett Robinson, Darcy Zajac, and Jordan Pietrus can be relied upon to contribute either a goal or an assist exactly when the Blaze may need it – Pietrus in particular made a habit of scoring massively important goals almost at will last season). There’s also the experienced Brits in Russ Cowley and Ash Tait, and the massively underrated two-way winger that is Ross Venus.

This is a forward group light-yeats ahead of that assembled the past two years. More importantly, it’s one assembled with an actual purpose in mind.

That makes it potentially very dangerous indeed. If Danny Stewart can do what Chuck Weber, Marc Lefebvre and even Paul Thompson have failed to do the past five years or so and get a forward group playing as a cohesive unit every single night, then this is a very good group indeed.

COACH – Danny Stewart (1st season)

Stewie is just what the Coventry Blaze have been crying out for since about 2013 – a coach fully committed to the idea that his team lives and dies by the example the coach sets. He has served his apprenticeship with distinction in Newcastle and Fife, and now is his chance to bring the club he served so well as a player back to the heights they reached while he was doing so. He is a passionate, thinking man’s coach who will work night and day to solve problems and more importantly, can treat people with respect while having absolutely no time for politics, bullshit or impressing anybody by stroking their ego-two qualities the Coventry organisation sorely needs. He just wants to win. Anything else is a failure.


Matt Marquardt – Brett Robinson  – Jordan Pietrus

Bjorn Bombis – Darcy Zajac – Robin Bergman

Ashley Tait – Russ Cowley – Ross Venus

Garrett Klotz – Liam Stewart


Jim Jorgensen – Marc Cantin

Shawn Boutin – Josh Godfrey

Kevin Noble – David Clements

Matt Selby


Brian Stewart

Renny Marr


Danny Stewart’s first Blaze team could be the team Blaze fans have been promised and not delivered for several years – one that’s just as comfortably winning games the hard way as it is the easy way. With a defence much-improved from last season, Brian Stewart should be able to use his talent with repeated tough saves only when necessary as opposed to on every single opposition foray into the zone, and that top line in particular looks like it has a lot of potential goals in it. This is the best-looking Coventry team in some years-one that looks capable of a far better season display than that delivered by peaking for a four game lottery in late March and early April.

The Blaze media and fans have love to talk about how they’re delivering a “bigger and better” team than years past, and promise that it’ll be a challenger for trophies.

This year, Danny Stewart may have done what previous coaches have failed to and delivered a team that’s actually worthy of that rhetoric.

By drawing upon one of the shining stars of their past, the Blaze have finally given themselves a believable promise of a much brighter future in 16/17


EIHL Season Preview 16/17: Belfast Giants: “…And You Can’t Teach That”

Let’s break out our old machines now
It sure is good to see them run again
Oh gentlemen, start your engines”

Sleater-Kinney: “Combat Rock”

The Belfast Giants have retooled this summer, and they are going with the mantra “tried and trusted” this season. Derrick Walser has decided that the best way to respond to accusations of a team that didn’t perform as well as it could have hoped for is to build a team who’ve been there and done that. This is the oldest team in the EIHL, and the only one with an average age over 30. But have these old dogs got new tricks?

Let’s take a look at them.


#31 Stephen Murphy, #35 Andrew Dickson, #1 Jackson Whistle

The Giants have gone with what they know in net yet again with Stephen Murphy – arguably the best British netminder of his generation…but in an interesting twist they’ve gone with a young ex-WHL player with Giants connections in Jackson Whistle, former Kelowna Rocket and son of British hockey legend Dave Whistle in what looks like being a 1A/1B netminding pairing rather than the traditional “starter/backup” used by most EIHL teams. Whistle counts as British due to time in the Bracknell junior system while his dad was coach there, thanks to British import rules. Ballymoney’s proudest export Andrew Dickson provides clear depth at the netminding position, ready to step in wherever necessary…but it is Whistle who is the real unknown and potential X-Factor here…he provides constant pressure on Murphy and allows for a new young wrinkle in the Giants goaltending battle in his first pro season. It’ll be interesting to see how he’s used.


#3 Jeff Mason, #7 Mark Garside, #9 Jim Vandermeer, #43 Derrick Walser, #50 Matt Nickerson, #88 Ryan Martinelli

This is a defense just like last year for the Giants – it has one of the finest offensive brains the EIHL has ever seen in Derrick Walser to lead the charge forward, now backed up by the imposing, strong-at-both-ends Ryan Martinelli, who spent last year with Szekeskfehervar in the EBEL and has consistently played among Europe’s best.Behind him, the pure muscle is provided by another two familar faces – the hulking Jim Vandermeer and the unmistakable mohawked destroyer that is Matt Nickerson. The third pairing of Mark Garside and Jeff Mason are a quietly solid and beautifully composed pairing who can be relied upon to munch minutes and rarely make a wrong step.

As a unit, this is a balanced one that’s a) capable at every level and b) knows exactly what’s required. They’re not by any means the most flamboyant (although Derrick Walser in particular is an absolute joy to watch) but they are going to be an effective one.


#12 Steve Saviano, #14 Mike Forney, #19 Colin Shields, #23 Alex Foster, #25 Blair Riley, #26 Brandon Benedict, #47 Adam Keefe, #68 Chris Higgins, #79 James Desmarais, #89 Jonathan Boxill, #91 David Rutherford

The forward group built by Derrick Walser this year is one that’s built in the same template as last – a mix of speed and grit with moments of both blinding skill and power. It is a forward line that’s had to adjust slightly to the loss of one of its most effective members in pest extraordinaire Daryl Lloyd, but it’s still one that will come at you relentlessly and test your defence in myriad ways. Steve Saviano and Alex Foster are the headliners among the new additions, along with very capable power forward Blair Riley. James Desmarais is a silky-smooth joy of a playmaking center, Mike Forney and Chris Higgins provide the skill and scoring nous, but it is Foster who’s the player to watch – he is a superb up-and-down centre who is equally comfortable in his own zone or the oppositions, while Saviano is jet-fuelled and wily as a linemate.

The bulldog known as Adam Keefe will once again anchor the third line, too, while Brandon Benedict is among the top defensive forwards in the league and Jonathan Boxill, too, is arguably the ideal replacement for Daryl Lloyd.

This is a team that isn’t the prettiest – it may not be the most hyped…but it is quietly very, very good. One that’s battle-tested and ready to go.

COACH: Derrick Walser (2nd season)

Walser is looking to learn his lessons from a sometimes disappointing, other times underwhelming first season (at least by the high expectations in Belfast) – he is a coach who knows how he wants to play and has built a team that is in his own image – intelligent, highly experienced and ready to learn its lessons. Now with a season of coaching experience under his belt, he’ll be expecting to be much better this time around.


Steve Saviano – Alex Foster – Chris Higgins

Mike Forney – James Desmarais – David Rutherford

Blair Riley – Adam Keefe – Colin Shields

Jonathan Boxill – Brandon Benedict


Derrick Walser – Jim Vandermeer

Matt Nickerson – Ryan Martinelli

Jeff Mason – Mark Garside


Stephen Murphy

Jackson Whistle

Andrew Dickson


The Giants are the oldest team in the Elite League this season, and the only team with an average age over thirty. They’re a team very much built around the philosophy of “old dogs with new tricks” – this is a team that has travelled far, seen much, and learned lessons the hard way in rinks from Vancouver to Vienna and Budapest to Bakersfield. It has the one thing that you simply can’t teach – experience. There is probably nothing you can throw at this team that someone on it hasn’t seen before – and used properly, that will be worth its weight in gold, particularly when things are going wrong on a rainy midwinter night far from home.

The Giants will be hoping that that veteran mindset will carry them a long way this season, and that the combined hive mind of the Giants roster will be able to out-think any danger it comes across.

It’s not a bad strategy at all. A very solid one, in fact.

But only more time passing will tell if it’s a winning one.

EIHL Season Preview 2016/17: Cardiff Devils: Redesign, Rebuild, Reclaim

I’m coming up on infra-red – no more running, I will find you.”

Placebo: “Infra-Red”


The Cardiff Devils have one thing on their mind this season, one driving force that forces them forward in their 30th season in existence.


It’s been fascinating to watch Andrew Lord evolve as a coach over the past two seasons, and work his way through the growing pains of being a player coach. In his third season, he’s once again showing that he’s willing to make changes and aim higher still to capture the league title that has so far eluded him. The ownership group at the Devils has once again come through with support above and beyond, including arranging an extensive preseason preparation against, amongst others, KHL opposition in Medvescak Zagreb. The Devils will arguably be the best prepared team this season as they go on their revenge mission. Let’s take a look at them.


#33 Ben Bowns, #30 Tom Murdy

The Devils are going with what they know in net – and when what they know is Ben Bowns, a starting goalie who is now also the undisputed Great Britain starter and has overtaken long-time incumbent “best British goalie” Stephen Murphy in both positions, that is a very good strategy indeed. Bowns is a match-winner by himself – big, agile and a star in his own right. He’ll be backed up by Tom Murdy, who has been around the game so long it’s easy to forget he’s still only 25…Murdy will be more than capable in spot duty if needed and will push Bowns hard to keep his performance up, in a very strong British tandem in net.


#4 Mark Louis, #17 Mark Richardson, #20 Gleason Fournier, #24 Andrew Hotham, #41 Josh Batch, #79 Scott Hotham

The Devils have gone with what they know on defence this offseason. Andrew Hotham has proved himself to be one of the best defencemen in the EIHL, if not the best. Mark Richardson will consistently rival Ben O’Connor for top British defenceman, Josh Batch has become a truly solid contributor, and Gleason Fournier impressed in his late-season audition with the Devils last year as a defenceman equally good in his own zone or someone else’s.

The most intriguing part of the group, though, is in their new additions. Scott Hotham, Andrew’s brother, is more of an offensive-minded player than his brother, which has led to criticisms from previous coaches in higher-level leagues than the EIHL for being a little defensively weak. He is undoubtedly talented offensively with a truly vicious slapshot, which may see him given a key role on the PP in a Hotham one-two punch that will see his brother expected to play much more of a two-way role…something Andrew is more than capable of doing.

The last new addition is Mark Louis. This former Orlando Solar Bear may well become one of the unsung heroes of the EIHL season. He’s big, powerful and superb at winning physical battles as well as getting the puck out of the zone by hook or by crook –  a smart, unassuming defender who does his job simply and consistently superbly well.

This is a Devils unit that is arguably improved upon even more than last season by its new additions, and can leave Cardiff confident that whoever is in front of Ben Bowns, they’ll be exactly who Bowns will want to see in front of him at any one time. That’s the mark of a very good defence indeed.


#8 Matthew Myers, #11 David Brine, #12 Guillaume Doucet, #16 Chris Jones, #18 Layne Ulmer, #21 Luke Piggott, #23 Patrick Asselin, #27 Joey Haddad, #47 Jake Morissette, #57 Chris Culligan. #71 Andrew Lord, #85 Sean Bentivoglio, #88 Joey Martin

This is a forward group that looks considerably different to last season – while many of the names are the same, it’s the changes that are most telling. Andrew Lord has added teeth to his team in every department and this is a group that is built with the new surroundings of Ice Arena Wales very much in mind. While it still contains the grind and grit of players like Jake Morissette, Matt Myers (returning from Nottingham) and Chris Culligan, there is more of a focus on pure skill – Joey Martin and Sean Bentivoglio will cut through teams with speed and guile  and Patrick Asselin, Layne Ulmer and Guillaume Doucet are pure goalscorers who will be only too willing to exploit the openings they’re given-Ulmer having been Bentivoglio’s linemate for many years will make this easier. David Brine, meanwhile, has been singled out by some experts as a player who won’t last in Cardiff. That is because that “expert” doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Brine will be the latest in big, solid, two-way players, who will allow the likes of Martin to shine while chipping in with points themselves.

Returning to Ulmer, though-he in particular is the best signpost of the way Cardiff are changing-he will be a clever, cunning player who will enjoy out-thinking opposition defenders rather than simply smashing his way through them, which will be an education and probably even confuse some EIHL fans stuck in their “hit things” ways.

It’s another sign that Andrew Lord is very much evolving as a coach, though, as the trend in hockey has been overwhelmingly towards skill over pure muscle – it’s encouraging to see an EIHL coach embrace the new way so cheerfully in a league traditionally resistant to change.

This is a very exciting forward group indeed.

COACH – Andrew Lord (3rd Season)/Neil Francis (sixth season), 

Yes, Andrew Lord is the head coach and very much the “visible” face of the Devils, but you can’t discuss the Devils coaching team and its efforts without including Director Of Hockey and bench coach Neil Francis – the two men together give the Devils, in my opinion, the best coaching team in the Elite League, and it’s not really that close. Both truly passionate students of the game who’ve probably forgotten more than many of their rivals in the EIHL know, Lord and Francis as a team are a two-headed monster of coaching excellence.

These may seem like hyperbolic words, but you only have to look at what the pair of them have achieved together – turning the Devils into an EIHL powerhouse who are consistently among the contenders for any trophy going. Indeed, there are many who will say they should have won it last season – and there won’t be any person who feels that more than these two.  They will combine together this season with a team they’ve made even better this season, with an extensive pre-season preparation. There will unlikely be a team this season with more thought and discussion put into it than this one. And that – the sheer amount of thinking, planning and consideration that will go into this team from two of the best hockey brains in the EIHL – is arguably one of the Devils’ best weapons.


Sean Bentivoglio – Layne Ulmer – Joey Martin

Patrick Asselin – David Brine – Guillaume Doucet

Jake Morissette – Andrew Lord – Joey Haddad

Chris Culligan – Matt Myers – Chris Jones


Mark Louis – Andrew Hotham

Mark Richardson – Scott Hotham

Josh Batch – Gleason Fournier

GOALIES – Ben Bowns/Tom Murdy


If the last Cardiff Devils team was built like a battering ram and a heavy bomber, this is a team built like a Flying Fortress – firepower absolutely everywhere. It’s one that will contain a goal threat in any situation. But it’s also a team built in a way not seen that often in the EIHL – a team built as much with an eye towards guile and out-thinking an opponent as one to smash its way through.

Andrew Lord and Neil Francis have built an EIHL team that mirrors the current trend elsewhere in the hockey world to emphasise skill over pure muscle – an approach that isn’t seen massively often in the EIHL. It’s going to be a joy to watch.

Is it a title winning team? Certainly it’s one that carries a very strong hope indeed of being one. It’s a very strong formula redesigned, rebuilt, and ready to reclaim a title for Cardiff.

End Of The Beginning: Is Coventry’s Season Turning Around?

It is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is perhaps the end of the beginning”

Winston Churchill, to the House Of Commons after British victory at El Alamein, 10th November 1942.

A fulcrum is defined in Webster’s Dictionary as “a point about which a lever or thing turns” . Every hockey game has one – that pivotal moment which decides the outcome of the game. They’re even measured, statistically…why do you think hockey counts “game tying” and “game winning” goals as a key statistic?

Seasons, however, are a little more difficult to quantify. It’s a lot harder to look back on a 54-game EIHL season and point to a game, a decision or a moment upon which you can hang the statement “that decided what our season was going to be”.

But the turning points are there, always.

We may have seen such a turning point in Coventry on Sunday night, as the Coventry Blaze – a team which have left their fanbase well-acquainted with the emotions of disappointment and anger over the past few seasons as well as brief moments of joy – produced what was by far their best performance of the season to demolish a lacklustre Cardiff Devils side 4-1.

Taken purely as one game, it is easy to claim this game was an isolated outlier for a team that have only won 5 EIHL games so far this season – the exception rather than the rule. It is also easy to look at the league table – one that still shows the Blaze bottom of the EIHL by three points (although with a large number of games in hand on the Manchester Storm above them) and wonder about just how important one flash of excellence among a whole pile of mediocrity will be-whether or not this game had all the unexpectedness of one stray diamond falling from a muck spreader.

But if you were inside the Skydome on Sunday night, you’d have noticed that there was something a little different in the air. The chill late-November wind blowing through the rink seemed to stir more than just stray hot-dog wrappers and discarded 50-50 tickets.

If you listened REALLY carefully during the Blaze game, you might have heard the dragon that lives in the Skydome turn over in its season-long slumber and stir a little.

The atmosphere seemed to anticipate this, for a start. There was an air of expectation around the Skydome even before the opening faceoff-but unlike previous occasions it was clearly visible in the players on the ice, too. As the players settled in for the opening faceoff, you could see it in the slow lean forward and intense stare of Boris Valabik, the nervous, twitching fingers of Carl Lauzon on his stick shaft, and the way Brian Stewart settled into his crouch.

Then the puck did drop, and the Coventry Blaze team that the Skydome crowd had been promised all year seemed to finally make its long-awaited arrival.

From the first minute, something was different. This Blaze team were the same players we saw outclassed by the Manchester Storm last weekend, but they also were not. They seemed faster, more agile. Harder-working. More like one organism than the disparate group of individuals that had tried to find a connection in rinks all over the country and indeed Europe up to this point and failed.

You could see it in Lauzon’s passing – always excellent, but on this night almost supernaturally good. You could see it in the Blaze defence, led by Jim Jorgensen, functioning in the way Chuck Weber had always intended, harrying the skilful Devils forwards and never giving them an inch of space. In the way Boris Valabik looked calm and assured both on the puck and in the way the Devils never seemed quite able to meet his eye in the general area of the Blaze net. Or the way that Brian Stewart almost contemptuously repelled any Devils effort, kicking out perfectly-directed rebounds with authority and rarely giving the Devils a second chance-including a fine save on a Chris Culligan penalty-shot.

But most of all you could see it in the way the Blaze flowed back and forth up the ice as a five man unit rather than individuals. The way that they appeared to work as a hive-mind to deny the dangerous Devils any truly threatening scoring chances.

This was a team that was performing in a way to give even its most vicious critics this season pause for thought. Including yours truly.

Then, eventually, this work and endeavour was justly rewarded by a Neil Trimm finish of supreme arrogance on a two-on-one – a finish that showed all the confidence he and other Blaze forwards have been accused of lacking so far this season – one that put the Blaze into the lead going into the final twenty minutes.

Remember we talked about fulcrums earlier? This game had now found its own. Previously, with a team like Cardiff, the Blaze would have somehow let the concentration slip and given the opposition a way back into the game. Had they done so here, this would be a very different article indeed.

But instead, a long hard clearance from Lauzon ricocheted off the boards, and was rifled into the net by Drew Fisher. The howl of joy from the Coventry public was a deafening banshee wail of euphoria rising to the heavens. And the lever began to turn.

Moments later, Lauzon found the net himself with a sweet shot, the roar of joy was louder still, and suddenly, the Blaze were 3-0 up – a lead that Cardiff never came close to challenging in the following 15 minutes or so.

Afterwards, the smiles round the rink told their own story. Wherever the Coventry team the Blaze management had been promising their public since the start of the season had been hidden, they had arrived.

Now, the Blaze have finally, unequivocally shown their public, and indeed the rest of the league, what they are capable of when awoken-and done so in fine style.

A third of the way through the EIHL regular season, as the calendars flip to December, this may have been the game that flips the Blaze season around. The fulcrum around which fortunes in Coventry can turn for the better.

Not the beginning of the end, but the end of the beginning.

The hockey gods clearly have a sense of humour, as the next chance Coventry will get to show that things are finally changing for the better comes with the added opportunity to pile more pressure still on a former Skydome hero. Sheffield visit the Skydome this Saturday as a team that has failed to hit the heights promised by management so far this season-promise that saw them confident enough to sack a league and playoff winning coach.

Now, Sheffield return to Coventry for the first time in league action facing a team that will be expected to show that last Sunday wasn’t the exception, but the start of a new rule in the West Midlands.

There have been several occasions already this season (four, in fact) when Blaze have had this opportunity-and invariably they have taken the first step and then simply failed to build upon it-the latest being the 6-3 win against Braehead which was followed by that abject performance against Manchester.

Against a Sheffield side struggling a little for consistency themselves, the Blaze have the perfect opportunity to show that this time the change is for real…to force the lever of their season around another notch and start the long climb back from the basement, while at the same time throwing a spanner into the cogs of Sheffield’s.

Opportunity, despite being turned away several times, is once again knocking loudly at the Skydome door.

Coventry need to answer it just like they did against Cardiff-for now, they’ve shown the ability that’s lurking, and the dragon has shown signs of waking. Do so, and their season will likely start to turn around faster still. Fail, and all the good work done on Sunday may well be lost.

It’s all about finding something and using it as the pivot to turn everything else around.

That’s what fulcrums are for. The question is – have Blaze finally found theirs?

And more importantly – will they use it?

Riley’s Roaring Lions: The Edinburgh Capitals Are This Year’s Feel-Good Team

“Now I feel the fear rising up
Climbing up, taking over my body
And I feel my pulse starting up
Waking me again”

Flyleaf: “Set Me On Fire”

There is, very quietly (although less quietly by the week) a revolution happening in one of Britain’s oldest, grandest cities.

The Edinburgh Capitals have long been a team who have tried to play hockey the “right way”, be it with the guile and graft of Tony Hand coupled with the power of his brother Paul way back in the guise of Murrayfield Racers, the joyful artistry and deadly finishing of the truly breathtaking Adrian Saul-Steven Kaye combination of the BNL years, the silky smooth play of stars like Mark Hurtubise, Colin Hemingway, Curtis Leinweber, Simon Lambert and the Edinburgh and British hockey legend that is Martin Cingel, or most recently under Richard Hartmann signing an artist who used his stick as a paintbrush and the ice as a canvas to create solo, unhurried genius in Rene Jarolin.

The trouble is, in this pragmatic era of budgets and business often being a key factor in how successful a team is, the Caps have found themselves languishing near the bottom of the EIHL table more often than not, and gained an (unfair) reputation as a “boring” team to watch, particularly among fans who preferred their hockey a little more “crash-and-bang North American” than Richard Hartmann’s mix of Slovak-influenced skill with the very North American left-wing lock offered.

However, this year, the Edinburgh Capitals are a team reborn. Under Riley Emmerson, the Caps have been described as “one of the most exciting teams in the league” by GM of Cardiff Todd Kelman, a man who should know a thing or two about excitement given the amount his work has caused in Cardiff recently (and Belfast before that). From a team that bubbled along barely noticed by the rest of the EIHL for long periods of time and rarely set the pulse of the “average” EIHL fan racing when seen on the fixture list, the Caps have become one of the hottest tickets in the EIHL under Emmerson’s completely new approach.

These Caps aren’t patient. They’re not subtle and looking to ease their way through opposition defences through patiently probing at picking at a lock. Their attacking ambition is about as subtle as a punch in the face, they hunt down offensive chances and attack with the hunger and reckless abandon of wolves chasing the last steak in town, and their skill and speed is combined with a healthy dose of good honest lunch-pail work ethic too.

The Caps have also been helped by some truly superb recruiting. In Ryan Hayes (21 goals in 23 games) Emmerson has found one of the most lethal snipers ever seen in the EIHL – the American has the kind of goalscoring killer instinct most teams would kill for. In case you’re wondering how good he is compared to the rest of the EIHL, his nearest challenger in the league has 12 goals. That’s only slightly more than half his scoring.

He’s backed up by Italian international Paul Zanette (11 goals), speedy sparkplug Craig McCallum (10 goals) and Emmerson’s former team-mate in Arizona David Rutherford (9 goals).

Those four players combined have 51 goals. For comparison, That’s two more this season than the entire Coventry Blaze squad. All eighteen of them. The Caps also have two of the top ten points scorers in the league (more than Sheffield, Nottingham, Belfast and Coventry-the only team who have more are Cardiff, with three). They also have Taylor Dickin sitting in 11th, and new signing Brandon Coccimiglio could potentially drive the red-light frequency up even further in Murrayfield…a tantalising prospect.

Defensively, Jacob Johnston has been one of the EIHL’s top sleeper signings. He sits 21st in EIHL scoring and 3rd among defencemen in points (only Cardiff’s Andrew Hotham and Belfast’s Derrick Walser, both of whom far more experienced in pro hockey, sit above him), and is the top goalscorer among blueliners with 8 already this season (again, as many as any Coventry Blaze player, defence or forward, has scored all year).

Last week the Capitals beat Sheffield 7-5 at home to take their eighth straight home win (a new team record in the EIHL) and currently sit comfortably 4th in the EIHL at the quarter mark of the season.

All of this is heady stuff for any team that’s struggled in the lower reaches of the league for the whole of its time in the EIHL, but it’s even more impressive when you remember that Edinburgh are comfortably outperforming many teams running with a far bigger budget at this point, with a rookie player-coach.

Back in August I argued that Emmerson was in the perfect position to potentially make the same sort of impact in Edinburgh this year as Andrew Lord made in Cardiff last year…but I have to admit I didn’t expect that impact to be made so hard and so spectacularly.

In just one summer the big boy from Burnaby has achieved a truly monumental turnaround-as mentioned earlier he’s already broken team records in the first few months of his tenure as coach. Under Emmerson’s influence the Caps have gone from a team derided as “boring” by many to an offensive juggernaut-only Belfast have scored more goals in the EIHL this season. They’ve beaten Sheffield away from home with only 4 defencemen and missing several other regulars, then put seven past a league powerhouse at home-a state of affairs unthinkable as recently as a few years ago when the Steelers were thumping them 18-1 in a game.

Most importantly, though, they’ve restored pride in Edinburgh, not in a slow, careful way but with an absolute vengeance. The team from the Scottish capital are now very much a force to be reckoned with both on and, slowly but increasingly surely, off the ice. Crowds are slowly growing in Murrayfield as word begins to spread about the team setting the old barn on fire weekend after weekend and the joyful abandon with which they play hockey.

Off-ice, the Caps have some of the best PR material in the EIHL and a league-leading website to sell this new, exciting brand to a waiting city, as well as some of the most beautiful jerseys in world hockey in which to show it off.

Whilst the change in Caps’ fortunes can’t solely be credited to Riley Emmerson’s efforts, every single iota of the change on ice is, in some way or another, down to him. Like Andrew Lord last year, he’s taken the club he’s been given to lead and made it his own in a way that few experienced coaches ever manage and settled into the drivers seat like he was born to it. I said before the season that Emmerson had started by making a strong attempt to impose his identity on the Capitals instantly, but now I’d go further and say that his work and that of the Caps are already standing as a shining example of how to do EIHL coaching right.

Where other coaches have struggled when given the chance to make a club their own (again, look at the situation in Coventry for an example), Emmerson has seized his chance with both hands and built a team fit for the Scottish capital…one to get it excited about hockey again after too many years where it was almost the forgotten sibling of Edinburgh sporting squads.

He’s done better than anybody gave him a chance to do – and in the process he’s turned Edinburgh into the biggest feel-good story of this season by some considerable way.

And you get the feeling, reading the interviews, looking at this Caps squad and seeing what it’s doing, that this is only the beginning.

Get excited, EIHL. Times are good right now in Murrayfield…and all the indications show that if Riley Emmerson and his team of swashbuckling warriors with lions on their chests have anything to do with it, this could only be the beginning.

The Caps are back from the shadows. And it’s Riley Emmerson who’s led them here.

Death, Taxes & The EIHL – A Chasing Dragons Guest Post

No matter how things change, they always stay the same.
I’m in self-imposed exile from the Elite League. Anyone who was aware of my acrimonious break-up with the Steelers will probably know I’m staying away from the product as much as possible, which is fairly hard when you’re a hockey fan in the UK with friends who still attend games.

I keep a passing interest in what happens, mostly because of said friends who follow teams and want the best for them, mostly. The thing is, I could write the script for the Elite League season and it would play out almost verbatim year after year.

Let’s have a look at it:

One team starts on fire, looks unstoppable, loses one game to unlikely conquerors and season starts to crumble. Check.

Nottingham stumble early on but somehow still keep getting results despite Cage forum members declaring this year’s squad the worst in living memory. Check.

Belfast fans think the walls are falling down but somehow are still a pretty decent hockey team. Check.

DoPS make some questionable decisions that bring claims of bias and favouritism, even if there isn’t. Check.

A top team really struggles early on. Check.

Coventry fans have unrealistic expectations and so are surprised when things don’t just fall into place. Check.

A Gardiner team makes waves early doors, prompting yet more conversations about the easier conference and scrapping the system. Check.

Edinburgh kick and claw but ultimately languish beh…oh. That’s new. That’s different.

The point I’m trying to make is, Edinburgh aside, the story of the EIHL is the same every year. You know, come March, the title will belong to one of Belfast, Cardiff, Nottingham or Sheffield. Coventry will sneak into the playoffs because they always bloody do, and Fife will just be there, happy to be invited, glad to be with the big boys at all (from a business standpoint at least).

Fans keep saying teams are improving year on year, but the teams all seem to be improving at the same level. If Sheffield have become 10% better, then so have Belfast, so have Nottingham, so have Dundee, so have Fife. So sure, the on-ice product might be a bit nicer to watch, but in terms of overall results, it just leads to the same old, same old.

There’s no chance of a Calgary-like charge up the league and into contention. Sure, a team could fluke their way into the playoffs, play well for four games and win that title, but with our obsession over here with “league title is everything”, that’ll be passed off as tinpot if it was ever to happen. Imagine the reaction if Hull had beaten the Steelers in the semi-final last year, then gone on to beat Coventry. “Well done little guys, but you won’t win the big one.”

The league is far too predictable, and far too stagnant, but nothing will change while people just accept it. I’d love to see Edinburgh finish top three, but if they did, the league would revert back to even fixtures and every barrier would be put in the way to stop it happening again.

Look at it another way. I’m covering the NHL now, and in another league where there’s supposedly the big boys and the rest, the goddamn Arizona Coyotes, of all teams, have been shocking people left, right and centre. Will they win the cup this year? Probably not, But it’ll be a hell of an exciting ride.

The same last year, with my Calgary Flames. People wrote them off at every opportunity but they still made the post-season dance. You just don’t get that over here.

“Aww look at Edinburgh, they’ve got a couple of wins. That’s cute. They won’t win the league.”

“Yeah but all they need is a few wi…”

“Let me stop you there. No.”

And they’re right. Edinburgh won’t win a 52-game league. They’re better than they were, but the big boys have too much. Now, put them into a playoff position. Maybe the league is shorter, over 40 games. All they have to do is finish top four in their conference, or top eight in the league? That’s doable.

Now, put them in a series of games against other teams. Maybe over the course of a season they wouldn’t beat Sheffield or Belfast to the league, but over 3-5 games? Any team can beat another on any night, and they’d only have to do that three times out of five, or twice out of three.

Ha, look at me. Wanting revolution when many people are happy with what already exists. Fair play, that’s your opinion. But to me, the league is too predictable. You know what’s going to be the ultimate outcome, and that just doesn’t appeal to me.

For those of you who have a passing interest in the NHL, I now write for Matchsticks and Gasoline, the Calgary Flames blog on SB Nation. Follow me on Twitter @LiamPMcCausland to watch me regularly melt down over Bob Hartley’s coaching.

Process Of Elimination: How The Coventry Blaze Have Destroyed Themselves From The Inside

Anything you ever did was strictly by design, but you got it wrong…”
CHVRCHES: “Leave A Trace”

There was a time the Coventry Blaze were one of the powerhouses of the EIHL. In the early to mid 2000’s, buoyed on a wave of optimism and aided by advantages like being one of the first teams in Britain to offer a university partnership-one that gave it a competitive advantage over the opposition, they rose to the top of British hockey like a meteor.

The scouting and ceaseless promotional efforts of the club and a fanbase that was joyful at every success and happy just to be a part of it combined to create a feel-good factor that was unparalleled – one that was replicated recently by the Braehead Clan and is being used again this season to great effect by the Manchester Storm franchise this season – if you treat fans like the most important resource a club has, constantly feed them information and give them a window into every part of the team, that tends to build one hell of a rapport together, and in Coventry, they did. A wave that carried the team to the EIHL Treble in 2004/05.

And that, in retrospect, was possibly the worst thing that could have happened to hockey in Coventry.

Over the following few years, the titles came and went, the ups were sill high but the noose began to squeeze as the rest of the EIHL began to look at what Coventry had done in the early years of the EIHL while successful, take the best bits from it, and add to them, while the Blaze stood still.

The decline was far from obvious. In fact, the mid-to-late 2000’s were just as successful. Combined with a combination of great recruitment from Paul Thompson and a parade of some of the greatest players the EIHL has ever seen through the doors of the Skydome, including those cherry-picked from other EIHL teams (names like Sylvain Cloutier, Trevor Koenig, Neal Martin, Dan Carlson,  Danny Stewart, and many more) the Blaze rode the wave of that treble title and the reputation built from it to success after success. Even when great players left, there was a production line to take their place, often plucked from EIHL adversaries. After Jody Lehman came Trevor Koenig. After the likes of Reid Simonton and Brian Lee came Jason Robinson.

The trouble is, that as the trophies and prizes got bigger, so did the egos. The sense of invulnerabilty. And most importantly, the detachment from all that had made the 2004/05 Coventry Blaze great in the first place.

The will to innovate and challenge simply disappeared as those off the ice bathed in the adulation and salad days of a team at the height of its powers. Victory no longer became something the fanbase hoped for, but something it demanded. And the ownership, for all their big talk of pushing forward and continuing to evolve, simply didn’t.

They believed the good times would never end, because, after all, this was the Coventry Blaze.

The slide began in 2010/11. That Blaze team, and the one following it, were the last gasp of the Paul Thompson era…two teams built by a coach in his comfort zone and overtaken by new blood. Even as other teams became better, overtook them, and the Blaze began to drop slowly, inexorably down the standings over the next few seasons the club ownership trumpeted that all was well, ruthlessly trying to (privately) suppress any disquiet or indeed anything that went against the message. Warning signs were ignored – criticism was greeted with anger and petulance from team staff (notably Thompson himself reacting to booing in one loss by telling fans they could “**** off and not watch it if they didn’t like it”).

Then Thompson left, and arguably the only thing holding up a crumbling ship simply caved in. In the two and a half seasons since his departure, the Blaze have had four coaches. Two, Matty Soderstrom and Marc Lefebvre, have been fired. One, Steven Goertzen was an interim head coach. The current head coach, Chuck Weber, has been in charge of the team for just under a year.

In those two and a half years, the Blaze have had to wait until the last day of the season to qualify for the playoffs (a state of affairs that was unthinkable only a few years before) and languished in the lower reaches of the EIHL table. They have seen coaches and players thrown under the bus in spectacular fashion (the most notable being Soderstrom, who as the man following one of the most successful coaches the EIHL has ever seen was always going to be a sacrificial lamb however his team performed, and Chris Lawrence, who was rounded upon as all that was wrong with Coventry’s team this season but has been productive in Sheffield since being cut – ironically under the returning Thompson).

They have also won a playoff title-a four-game winning streak at the end of the 14/15 season that may be the only reason Chuck Weber is still in a job right now after his much-vaunted team this season have won 5 games in 16 in the EIHL (their worst start in EIHL history), as well as throwing away a two-goal lead and qualification in 20 minutes in the Continental Cup.

The Blaze, a team that once looked down upon the EIHL from a lofty perennial perch at the top of the table, are now, for the first time in their history, looking up at it. They are bottom, and out of the Challenge Cup at the group stage after a must-win game against Manchester was greeted by one of the worst performances a Coventry team has ever produced at the Skydome.

The fall from grace is complete. There’s nowhere further to fall now.

This Storify perhaps sums up just how far the Blaze have fallen – it’s a set of tweets posted the other night by my fiancée, someone who’s watched British hockey for years, and came into the sport right when the Blaze are at their peak. It does a great job of summing up just how the fall has happened:

The Coventry Blaze right now are a shambles. They are an organisation where mediocrity isn’t just tolerated, it’s actively sought upon as an improvement right now. An organisation where a team going .500 is seen as “on the way up”.

It’s also an organisation that refuses to accept that this is no longer the organisation or the league which it dominated through the mid-to-late Noughties. It’s a group whose owners would rather make excuses for the position they find themselves in rather than build themselves out of it – where cronyism is encouraged, the fans are seen as walking wallets, players, coaches and employees are thrown under the bus and any suggestion of change is met with indecipherable business speak of “processes” and “execution”.

It’s an organisation that has disappeared so far into a protective self-repeating echo-chamber in which cronyism and SUPPORT THE TEAM-ism run rampant, that you now have situations like the BBC CWR Faceoff programme this week, which saw a wonderfully horrific moment where team owner Andy Buxton spent five minutes essentially saying that the team was tired followed by player Jordan Pietrus nervously disagreeing and a post-game interview with Chuck Weber that was almost Mourinho-esque in its disdain for the attitude of some of his own players and the press. It was a program in which ownership and playing staff were delivering two completely different messages, the ownership that “all is OK, it’s tiredness and injuries causing poor form” and a clearly frustrated coach basically saying that his players were skiving and that the message his OWN OWNER was pushing just 24 hours later was utter crap.

It’s a team in disarray. A month ago I wrote that the Blaze were running out of excuses. The slide has been slow and gradual as the team have rested on their laurels, stood still and gone to a point where even their much trumpeted mantra “OK is not good enough” is an absolute mockery – because it’s far better than they can hope for at the moment.

Now, they’re bottom of the EIHL (for the first time in their history) out of the Challenge Cup. And the team and their owners have nobody and nothing to blame but themselves.

The fans of people who run the Blaze, and whose efforts once brought them such success in the past, are now reaping the whirlwind of their refusal to adapt and change as the EIHL has – to choose to bury their heads in the sand, surround themselves with yes-men, and hope nobody would notice the world changing around them to a point where what they were doing simply isn’t enough.

The Blaze are now a walking corpse of the team they once were. The only “process” that has hit in Coventry is the process of decay – the only “execution” that of a legacy.

And the tragedy is, there was every warning. This is a self-inflicted destruction.

Whatever the team want you to believe.