Lions V The World: GB’s World Championship Preview

This Monday, Great Britain take on the rest of the world in their annual trip to the Ice Hockey World Championships, held this year in Eindhoven, Netherlands. Under new coach Pete Russell (their fourth in as many World Champs) the new young Lions will be taking on S.Korea, Lithuania, Estonia, Croatia and the host country the Netherlands in a bid to return to division 1A, the “second tier” of the World Championships. With a roster containing several new faces and a pair of warm-up wins against Poland giving the team heart, they’ll travel hopeful of returning back up to the second tier of world hockey. But there are five teams standing in their way. Here’s all you need to know about each team ahead of the tournament.

GREAT BRITAIN (ranked 22)

The Lions travel with one of their strongest squads in a while, and also one of their most fresh-faced. Pete Russell hasn’t been shy in ringing the changes in his first World Championships, cutting much of the stalwart older generation of the past few years in favour of youth and speed. Notable GB fixtures to miss out include Jason Hewitt and Ashley Tait as new names Joey Lewis and Jack Prince make the step up, along with Jonathan Boxill, who has been very impressive for Nottingham Panthers since returning from North American juniors two years ago. Josh Batch finally gets a much-deserved chance on defence, too.

This is still a team that will rely heavily on stars like Ben O’Connor on the blue-line and Colin Shields, Rob Dowd and Craig Peacock up front though. In net Ben Bowns goes into his first tournament as unquestioned starter after being one of the goalies of the tournament last year and following it up with a superb season for Cardiff this time round.

The new squad is travelling hopefully after two wins against Poland in the warm-up phase, but its opening game against Croatia is crucial and could set the tone for the tournament-it’ll show just how far they’ve come compared to a comparable hockey power who’ve gone all out to improve their international standing rather than following the “evolution” path favoured by the Brits.

The GB squad will be expecting at least a bronze from this tournament, but are aiming higher still..with a group of new young players beginning to be given their chances and the squad in a transitional phase, it’ll be interesting to see just how good they are.

KEY PLAYER: Ben O’Connor – The defenceman is a leader both in his own zone and going forward, and is the brightest star of this GB team having spent several years in Kazakhstan. Anything good offensively will likely go through him, particularly on the powerplay…he’ll provide most of the blueline impetus going forward and will be expected to be a major contributor on both ends of the ice in this World Championships.

ESTONIA (ranked 29)

The little nation from the Baltic Sea is very much the underdog in this tournament-the Estonians come to this group having been promoted and relegated twice each in the last five years, and are the expected basement team in this group…with only seven rinks in the country and a five-team domestic league, they’re not exactly one of the toughest powers GB will face.

They’re also one of the youngest countries in the entire World Championships, with many of their players under 25 – over half of them, in fact. There is experience, too, in 36-year-old defenceman Lauri Lahesalu and 35-year-old forward Andrei Makrov, but the player to watch is 21-year-old Robert Rooba, who already plays in Finland’s Liiga with Espoo Blues and was key in their promotion effort last year…he’s Estonia’s brightest prospect.

The Estonians won’t be seriously expecting promotion or even to run the big teams close (last time they played GB they were beaten 7-0), but they will hope to play spoiler and will not be underestimated by any opponent.)

KEY PLAYER – Robert Rooba – The young forward is Estonia’s crown jewel of hockey players at the moment, and his speed, energy and experience already at a level much higher than most GB players means he’ll provide a test for GB when they meet.

LITHUANIA (ranked 26)

Last year’s hosts will not, according to reports, have their country’s proudest hockey export Dainius Zubrus on their roster, as the NHLer’s season in New Jersey finishes only two days before this championship starts – but the Lithuanians, like Great Britain, are looking to transition from the old into the new this World Championships. The Lithuanian roster will have a whole bunch of names familiar to British fans – Mindaugas Kieras on defence and Darius Pliskauskas and Donatas Kumeliauskas up front have all spent time in the UK’s EPL, as has Egidijus Bauba, brother of UK cult figure and Lithuanian legend Dino Bauba.

Under a German coach, and with half their team also clubmates at Energija Elektrenai, the Lithuanians know each other well and are sure to be a well-drilled unit-they took bronze last year in their home arena in Vilnius and will have an eye on repeating that showing in Eindhoven. They’re not one of the best teams at the tournament but will likely be well in the mix for a potential medal with GB, and should be watched carefully. However, with the Brits losing 2-1 to them last time out, there’s little to choose between the countries on paper.

KEY PLAYER – Mantas Armalis: The young netminder plays his club hockey in Sweden for Djurgardens Stockholm – and coming from the SEL, you can bet he’ll be well used to facing the quality of shots he’ll face in this tournament. If the Lithuanians can frustrate the stronger attacking teams in this group, they have more than a chance, and Armalis will be key in their strategy.

SOUTH KOREA (ranked 23)

South Korea are an example of what can happen when a team commits fully to improving its domestic programme and puts all available resources into it-few teams have risen as far or as fast in the world rankings (with the possible exception of their opponents in this group, Croatia) and they travel to Eindhoven in clear hope of a gold medal. As well as strong domestic players, the South Koreans have also taken full advantage of the dual-nationality system, with Brock Radunske and Mike Swift being joined at this tournament by former AHLer Mike Testwuide – the 6’5 forward will carry a lot of the weight of expectation this time round after scoring 90 points in 120 games in the Asia league.

Also familiar to British eyes will be centre Woo-Sang Park – the former Coventry Blaze forward is a key contributor for his country. But perhaps the name that will most resonate with British fans is coach Jimmy Paek – a former Stanley Cup winner with Pittsburgh and a Nottingham Panthers legend who is a hockey god in his home country.

Like the Lithuanians, the majority of the Korea squad play for one club team – Anyang Halla, which will ensure that they know each other well. Radunske and Testwuide will likely lead the offensive charge, and the Koreans are a fast, skilled team that will put up a formidable obstacle as they challenge for gold and promotion. They’re also younger and hungrier than the team relegated from Div 1A last season, and with nine players 25 or under, they’re showing the junior investment begun five years ago is also bearing fruit. They, along with Croatia, are the main threats to GB.

KEY PLAYER – Mike Testwuide: Barely granted Korean citizenship in time for the tournament, the big former Adirondack Phantom has been prolific in Asia, scoring over 25 goals in all his seasons there. He has the pace and power to play the North American-style game the British players are used to and will be a force in front of the net, making space for those around him to weave their skills. He’s one of the most dangerous forwards in the tournament.

NETHERLANDS (ranked 25)

The Dutch are in a tricky position this tournament. With a domestic league full of struggles and having recently had support withdrawn from them by the Dutch Olympic committee, the Ijs-Oranje are in something of a downswing as they host this tournament. They’ve competed at Div 1B level since 2000, and have never really threatened either promotion or relegation until last year, where they only avoided it thanks to a 9-1 win over Romania on the final day.

This Dutch team warmed up with two friendlies against ice-hockey powerhouse…er…Belgium. They were unable to travel any further due to the aforementioned budget constraints. However, they hope that hosting the tournament will bring attention to the sport in the Netherlands that’s much needed after a tricky season.

As far as players go, the entire squad is domestic-based, with the exception of forward Nardo Nagtzaam. The majority come from two teams-Tilburg and Heereenveen – unsurprising since these are the teams that dominated the Dutch league by some way this season. In forwards Peter van Biezen and captain Diederick Hagemeijer, along with the aforementioned Nagtzaam, who plays his hockey in the US NCAA, they have a capable first line, but goalie Ian Meierdries is sometimes suspect and the defence is…well, anonymous. Kevin Bruijsten has had an excellent season in France’s Ligue Magnus and will be hoping to make some noise at this tournament, too.

The Dutch are hoping to put on a good show on home ice in Eindhoven, but will likely finish outside the medal places, unless the home crowd can lift them to unforeseen heights. They are more than capable of acting as spoilers to another team’s medal ambitions if caught on a good night, though.

Key Player: Diederick Hagemeijer (F) – The big Dutch captain is something of a talisman for his country in recent years, and along with Nagtzaam provides a dangerous combination of skill, speed and size. He’s the player the Dutch look to to set the tone and lead them going forward, and he’ll have to use all his leadership skills to carry his country beyond mediocrity in this tournament

CROATIA (ranked 28)

Ignore the world ranking – this could be the year that Croatian hockey really starts to make itself noticed. With the rise of Medvescak Zagreb in the KHL has come the rise of a Croatian team previously too good for Div II but not good enough for Div I. GBs first opponents this time round present an intimidating prospect thanks to the array of dual-national talent they can boast from the net out.

Mark Dekanich has been a top AHL goalie and was phenomenal for Zagreb in the KHL in his first season before struggling a little more this time out-he will share duties with team-mate Mate Tomljenovic between the pipes. In front of him a very North American-looking defence boasts quality from top to bottom in the likes of veteran Alan Letang, Andy Sertich and Kenny MacAulay.

However, it’s up front where the star power really hits – Ryan Kinasewich, Andrew Murray and Mike Glumac are all dangerous, with Murray having a resume few forwards at this level can boast – 221 NHL games. Kinasewich in particular is an offensive force when he gets going, having been prolific both in North America (103 points in his last ECHL season) and in Austria.

They’re a big team, too, and under coach Donald MacLean they joyfully play a gritty American style mixed with a little Eastern European skill. Their roster is built of players with impressive CVs, most of whom currently play at the top levels in Europe. They’re a very strong team indeed.

One ray of hope for the opposition – they’ll be missing Croatia’s first NHLer Borna Rendulic, who is nursing a broken foot, but GB’s first opponents are one of the favourites for gold along with South Korea. They’re the toughest possible test for the Lions in their opening game.

Key Player – Andrew Murray: This guy might be the best individual player in the tournament. Certainly he comes with arguably the most impressive CV – the big Manitoban has played 221 NHL games for the Columbus Blue Jackets and while he’s not a big scorer at all, he’s the player who’ll make the space and time for his linemates to do their thing. Hitting like a train and a demon forechecker at this level, he’ll relish hunting down opposition defencemen and making life hard for them.

So – that’s all you need to know about GB’s World Championships campaign. Don’t forget that if you’re in Britain, you can watch the GB games live on Premier Sports…I will be throughout the week.

Good luck, GB. Do your country proud.

EIHL 14/15 Review Part II: The Erhardt Conference

We’ve already looked back at the Gardiner Conference season. Now it’s time to look at the other five EIHL teams, in a conference that had angels passing, redemption songs and incredible turnarounds. It’s the Erhardt Conference.

NOTTINGHAM PANTHERS – TRAVEL SICKNESS 

“And after midnight we’re all the same
No glass shoe to bring us fame
Nobody to take the blame
We’re falling apart”

The Birthday Massacre: “Kill The Lights”

The Panthers this season were an endlessly frustrating team. When they were good, they were very good. When they were bad, they were awful. A season that saw the highs of Champions’ Hockey League competition and a memorable win against the DEL’s Hamburg Freezers coupled with the lows of failing to seriously be in the hunt for any trophies (not even making the playoff weekend at their own rink) means the Erhardt Conference trophy once scorned by the Panthers fans when they didn’t take it in more successful “Grand Slam winning” times is now being held up as consolation.

This offseason will be about reloading. It’ll also be about finding someone to take the blame for 14/15, and that responsibility will likely fall squarely on the shoulders of coach Corey Neilson. The Panthers have already begun signing players for the new season but have made no announcement on who will be behind the bench…admittedly it’s early, but the fact that they have already said that they’ll be “considering all the options” sounds ominous for the Panthers coach.

On the ice, the team simply never really settled. Craig Kowalski getting injured didn’t help the cause, but the roster turnover for the CHL competition, increased travelling and big-ticket players like David Clarke getting injured were killers early in the season. Later on, the team just wasn’t consistent enough, and suffered loss after loss to the supposedly “weaker” Gardiner Conference as early-season caustic comments about the Scottish teams came back to haunt them again and again. Bright spots were the play of Sam Oakford, Stevie Lee and young Brits Ollie Betteridge, Lewis Hook and Jordan Cownie, stepping up from the EPL…Cownie has already signed in Braehead and the Panthers will no doubt be after the other two. As far as imports went, Brandon Benedict was his usual dependable self, Chris Lawrence answered criticisms aplenty throughout the year, and Evan Mosey, unheralded at the beginning of the season, became a star and one of the Panthers most important players.

However, this will be an important offseason for the Panthers, as they decide whether or not to take the team in a different direction to the one it’s been for the past few years. A lot could hinge on the decision.

BELFAST GIANTS –  THANK YOU AND GOODNIGHT

I’m feeling stuck here, break it up, break it up.
A little low here, take it up, take it up.
I’m getting bored here,shake it up with me, now.”

Tonight Alive: “Thank You And Goodnight”

This was the same Giants team in large part as last season’s dominant run…but the result under Steve Thornton was very different. A team that saw much-heralded signing Kevin Westgarth simply fail to perform for large stretches of the year, Thornton hockey at times suck the life out of the joyful, enterprising squad who played last year under Paul Adey, and a team that fans never knew was going to turn up on any given night.

Some things in Belfast remained constant. Adam Keefe continued to be one of the best leaders if not THE best in the EIHL, causing havoc along with partner-in-crime Daryl Lloyd. Rob Sandrock’s swansong year saw him play as well as he ever has in the EIHL going forward and continue to terrorise goalies with his slapshot, and Carsen Chubak earned fan-favourite status with his performances in relief of Stephen Murphy when the latter was injured.

Ironically, we only saw the best of this Giants team in their penultimate game…a trip to Cardiff for the playoff quarter-final 2nd leg in which the Giants were imperious, unstoppable and looked more like the team that the Giants were last season. The loss on penalties in the playoff semi-final was a sad end to a season that held so much promise in August.

Players still performed well…Ray Sawada was a standout…but the Giants simply looked like this was an “after the Lord Mayor’s Show” season for this roster. This summer, like Nottingham, will see the Giants have to retool and rebuild…Giants fans will not accept another season like this one.

SHEFFIELD STEELERS – ANGELS PASSING

Mine is yours and yours is mine
There is no divide
In your honour”

Foo Fighters: “In Your Honour”

The Sheffield Steelers are once again EIHL league champions, streaking to the title thanks to riding a workhorse of a first line. In Colton Fretter, Michael Forney and EIHL Player of the Year Mathieu Roy they put together a terrifying first unit that could often win games by itself, backed up by an excellent season from Frank Doyle and his unheralded injury replacement Josh Unice and solid play in both zones from a blue-line led by Ben O’Connor and Darrell Hay throughout the season.

The Steelers also raliied behind the cause of Amy Usher, a fan and cancer sufferer, adopting her as a mascot and “guardian angel” throughout the season…the league title win against Cardiff barely days after she sadly succumbed to her illness was one of the most emotional title wins seen in many years. The Steelers worked their way throughout the season and were terrifyingly efficient at their best. Tyler Mosienko had his own quiet redemption story on the second line, and Jeff Legue’s return to EIHL action mid-season after moving to the EPL’s Sheffield Steeldogs ended in triumphant fashion with the league-winning goal.

However, it didn’t all run smoothly for Sheffield. A great comeback against Nottingham in the semi finals of the Challenge Cup was followed by a loss to Cardiff in their own arena in the Challenge Cup Final, followed by a loss to Coventry in the playoff finals to break any hope of a dominant season. However, they’ve already started to build for next season in the hope of carrying on the momentum – Mathieu Roy is already back in Sheffield for two more years, possibly the most important single player in the EIHL, and Gerad Adams is ready to build for further success.

The Steelers seem settled for a while yet, but there may be just a little thought of “it was a great season, but it could’ve been so much better” as they head into this summer.

CARDIFF DEVILS – REDEMPTION SONGS

Are we out of the woods yet, are we out of the woods yet, are we out of the woods?
Are we in the clear yet, are we in the clear yet, are we in the clear yet, in the clear, yes, good”

Taylor Swift: “Out Of The Woods”

There has been no better story this season than that of the Cardiff Devils, though those in Coventry will no doubt argue strongly for their case. Last season things in South Wales were as dark as they’d been in a while – then Todd Kelman and his ownership group turned things around in a way not even the most optimistic Devils fan could ever have foreseen.

Andrew Lord’s first coaching year was one for the ages-the Vancouverite player-coach put together a team that was not only ideal for the tight confines of the Big Blue Tent but equally capable of competing on the bigger ice surfaces elsewhere in the league. Backed by an off-ice team that made Devils fans fall in love with their team again and created a culture in which representing Wales and the Red Army was paramount and what the team valued above all else, and boy did it work.

Standout players were Joey Martin up front, EIHL Defenseman of the Year Andrew Hotham and Tyson Marsh on the blueline, and Ben Bowns finishing his ascension to true elite status among EIHL netminders. But it’s hard to pick out just a few players from a team that quickly became the most connected with its fanbase in the EIHL, with the possible exception of Fife and Braehead. Doug Clarkson proved any doubters at the beginning of the season wrong as he became a cult hero, Trevor Hendrikx made a season of smashing opposition players through the boards must-watch hockey and Chris Culligan was the personification of quiet competence.

The Devils were rewarded for their efforts with the Challenge Cup, and fought for the league title until passed by Sheffield, but the key thing about this season was that it brought the fun factor and belief back to Cardiff. Todd Kelman, Andrew Lord and his off-ice team have laid the foundations for a juggernaut to be built in South Wales to rival those of the Devils history over the next few years, and with a new ice arena to be opened at the end of this year if all goes to plan, things can only get better still.

The Devils aren’t just out of the woods – this season has put them back on the road to the mountain top.

COVENTRY BLAZE – THE WEBER REVOLUTION

these are my words that i’ve never said before
i think i’m doing okay
i’m so afraid of waking
please don’t shake me”

Staind: So Far Away

The Coventry Blaze’s season was turned around by one man this year. Chuck Weber, hired in December to replace Marc Lefebvre, who had assembled a talented roster on paper that looked disspirited, disconnected and clueless on the ice and divided into cliques and unhappy off it, performed a turn-around that nobody could reasonably have expected, not even those in the Blaze organisation who hired him to clear up the mess their “safe” appointment of Lefebvre had initially made in a desperate and last-ditch attempt to save a club coming apart at the seams.

Weber did what Lefebvre failed to – saw the roster’s biggest strength in Netminder Of The Year Brian Stewart and built upon his broad shoulders, instituting a system that was suffocating, lacked flair and creativity for the most part and was about as pretty to watch as an autopsy but by golly, was it effective. The Blaze became playoff champions despite having the lowest “goals for” average in the league by some margin, riding mainly on the stellar play of Stewart and the attacking efforts of Ryan O’Marra in a system built almost solely on hard work and simple defensive play.

Was Weber the “genius” Blaze fans like to portray him as? His system would suggest not – the entire ethos of it was based on playing “not to lose” rather than to win.

The genius was not in the system…any team can try to shut down a game and ride a hot goalie given a little luck…Montreal have gone to the top end of the NHL doing it this season, although they have the offensive flair to profit when the goalie has an off-night, which could have been Coventry’s Achilles heel.

The genius came in Weber realising that this was what his team was most capable of doing so quickly. With the exception of Ryan O’Marra, offensive flair was lacking…the team lost so many one-goal games it was untrue, and night after night, despite Blaze fans claiming otherwise, it was Brian Stewart who stood out as the star and probably the main reason for the team having a chance to win every night.

But what this Blaze team did have was the effort and workrate to shut down games if the coach used them right – and Weber got them to show it in a way they were either unable or unwilling to do for Lefebvre. By emphasising a system that focused on limiting the “harder” saves Stewart had to make over all else, the Blaze made his job easier, Weber played to the biggest strength his team had and negated the lack of offensive flair. Slowly, the results began to come.

There can be no better demonstration of Weber’s system working than the playoff semi-final v Belfast – a dull, dour game that Coventry squeezed the life out of, only attacking when they had to. It’s, ironically, the same system Blaze fans used to be so critical of used by Rick Strachan in Hull, or close to the dreaded “trap”. But it was the perfect system for this Blaze team, and they implemented it beautifully.

Against Sheffield in the playoff final, Weber finally let the leash off his players, and they used their freedome to blow the Steelers away as Sheffield simply didn’t turn up for large parts of the biggest game of the year.

Now, with Brian Stewart already signed up for two more years, the biggest question in Coventry is…can they keep their Messiah? Weber has a contract offer on the table, but bigger teams are sure to come calling. If they do, all the good work could be undone, which could make for a nervous summer in Coventry once the euphoria dies down.

However, if Weber returns, then the Blaze are well and truly capable of heating up once again. However ugly it may be to watch them do so. But the simple truth is…Coventry need him far more than he needs them.

That’s the end of the Erhardt Conference review, and the end of the 2014/15 EIHL season. On to the World Championships we go.

EIHL Season Review Part I: The Gardiner Conference

After eight months, several hundred games, controversy and arguments galore and some superbly exciting hockey, the EIHL season came to a close on Sunday with the presentation of the EIHL playoff trophy (in case you missed it, by the way, Coventry won it).

Focus now moves to the Great Britain team and their efforts in the World Championships in Eindhoven…and of course Chasing Dragons will be following that chase before it too, goes off on a summer break.

First of all, though, it’s time to bring the curtain down on the EIHL season with the season review. Today, the Gardiner Conference…tomorrow, the Erhardt Conference. Let’s take the teams one by one.

BRAEHEAD CLAN – WINNING WHILE LOSING

“.t’s not your fault,.
Oh, it’s not that you should care.
I just wanted you to know”

AWOLNATION: “Not Your Fault”

The Clan had everything in place this season for it to be a truly famous one. An excellent team, a passionate fanbase, and an organisation ready to take the step to title winners. And for most of the season, it looked like this could be a true dream season for the Clan, as they bulldozed through all comers and took a commanding lead at the top of the EIHL table. Then, slowly, they began to lose it, as losses against their title rivals, discipline problems to key players and the odd slightly-less-than-optimal performance in the second half of the season saw Sheffield overtake them in the league standings, a quarter-final exit in the Challenge Cup and a heartbreaking shock loss to Hull in the playoff quarter-finals. However, the Clan can’t be too disappointed. In five years they’ve gone from expansion franchise to 3,000+ attendances on a regular basis, sellouts aplenty and representing the Elite League in the Champions Hockey League, as well as unquestionably being the powerhouses of the Gardiner Conference. The Clan are here to stay, and there could well be more success ahead in the coming seasons, particularly with Coach Of the Year Ryan Finnerty signed up for another two years.

FIFE FLYERS – ONE STEP CLOSER

“I wanna walk up the side of the mountain
I wanna walk down the other side of the mountain…”

Granddaddy: “Nature Anthem”

Fife Flyers could be on the verge of something akin to what’s been achieved in Braehead. This season, once again under the careful stewardship of Todd Dutiaume and Danny Stewart, they’ve had a season that flirted with doing potentially great things but fell just short of ever really giving the “big boys” of the EIHL trouble. That’s not the fault of the team or the coaches, both of whom probably performed about to the expectations most in Kirkcaldy would expect from them. The question is, as UK hockey people like Dave Simms have already mentioned on Twitter to widespread agreement from Flyers fans, is that they could do more if the purse strings were loosened a little.

Certainly the foundations are there, with the fans regularly packing the FIA despite their team not really being in serious trophy contention this season. The question this offseason will be…is perennially finishing in the lower reaches of the playoffs and 2nd/3rd in the Conference enough, or do the Fife owners, having seen the rise of Braehead, want to commit to pushing their team over the mountain and into line with the big-budget EIHL teams?

HULL STINGRAYS – THE PLUCKY UNDERDOGS

And when you decked me
You left me knocked out on the floor
I came to bloodied up, but you weren’t around
I picked my teeth off the ground like they’d been there before”

Alkaline Trio: “Bloodied Up”

It’s been another season where the Stingrays have teased their fans, and gone from sublime to ridiculous and back again. Not expect to have much of a impact on the season as a whole as they adjusted under rookie coach Omar Pacha, the Jellyfish have instead come together as a group of young players full of speed and energy, proving that the fearlessness of youth can take you a long way.

They were, however, helped in this regard immeasurably by the silky skills of Carl Lauzon, who is fast becoming a Stingrays legend…the Montrealer led the team in scoring ahead of lightning bolt Jordan Mayer and Cory Tanaka, brother of Coventry’s Cale. The Stingrays went on a playoff run full of shocks, beating Braehead in overtime of the second leg of the quarter finals before playing a pulsating game against Sheffield in the semis that they lost in heartbreaking fashion with 3.8 seconds to go thanks to a disputed Mathieu Roy goal.

However, with Pacha and Lauzon already signed up for next season, there is more optimism in Hull than we’ve seen in a few seasons – the Stingrays will always be one of the “smaller” teams in the EIHL but are slowly and steadily carving themselves a solid position in the Gardiner Conference reckoning. It’s up to Pacha and Lauzon now to build on a pleasing first season’s effort in 2015/16.

EDINBURGH CAPITALS – ALL CHANGE

Josey, don’t you worry
It’s just a phase you’re going through
Some day you’ll know just what to do”

Hey Monday: “Josey”

The Richard Hartmann Euro Experiment has come to an end in Edinburgh this season, as the Caps took up their usual position in the “unlucky 9th” spot once again. The Caps are a team who could be so much more than they are given a little success – with the smallest crowds in the EIHL and a team that’s assembled on a relative shoestring despite the recruiting pull of the Scottish capital as a place to play, though, they’ll need one hell of a coach to get them towards it. In Richard Hartmann they had an accomplished player/coach and in Rene Jarolin they also had one of the most skilful and unfairly under-rated players in the league, but this year was the same song Caps fans had been used to for far too long…a team that showed flashes of competing and on its good nights was a joy to watch, but in the end simply didn’t have the depth or arguably the sustained quality to compete with the big boys.

This offseason, Hartmann has already paid with his job (although reading from the press release it seems maybe the man himself had decided it was time for someone else to take the problem of the sleeping giant in Murrayfield on to try and awaken it, and so next year will look very different in Edinburgh, at least in terms of the makeup of the roster and the men running it. But this year there’s a real need for the Caps to do something, anything to shake things up. The Edinburgh crowd don’t expect miracles, but they would like a little more competitiveness in their team – with the rest of the EIHL improving, the Caps could be in danger of undoing all the good work beginning to be done off-ice if this trend continues.

DUNDEE STARS – BEAUTIFUL DISASTER

“And this judgement day is growing near
And this confession is killing me again
This beautiful tragedy is crashing into me”

In This Moment: “Beautiful Tragedy”

Oh, Dundee. This is a season that Jeff Hutchins and everyone associated with the Stars will want to forget. A team that looked promising and capable of building on the success of last year simply didn’t, as Jeff Hutchins’ squad lurched from defeat to crisis to losing run in a 2014/15 campaign that never really got going in any shape or form. 14 points out of a playoff spot and 13 behind Edinburgh in 9th, with only 14 games won all season, the Stars fell from the sky pretty quickly and were further hampered by the loss of their top scorer John Mitchell and the fact that their top scorer, Chris Blight, only scored 42 points all season, while goalie Marc Cheverie had the worst save percentage in the league, and was only .01 behind Tomas Hiadlovsky for GAA.

In short, the Stars were awful. This was a season to forget, and probably the less said about it, the better for Dundee fans. Never was the phrase “there’s always next year” more apt than for this team.

And with that, we conclude the Gardiner Conference. 2014/15 was a year which saw steady improvement from four of the five teams, but also showed how far some of them still have to go.

Dance Of (Sudden) Death: Why Your Team Will Win The EIHL Playoffs…And Why It Won’t

So, after a long, long season, the UK Elite League comes to its all-singing, all-dancing conclusion this weekend with the traditional weekend knees-up in Nottingham known as the Playoff Finals. Two semis on Saturday, and a final on Sunday (there’s also the consolation “bronze medal game” for the semi-final losers, but we’ll treat that game like the irrelevance it is for the vast majority of EIHL fans and not even discuss it).

Nottingham’s National Ice Centre will once again be a truly neutral venue this year thanks to the Chuck Weber Revolution in Coventry knocking out the hometown Panthers. With unfancied Hull knocking out Braehead and Belfast knocking out Cardiff, only one of the top-four from the regular season makes it, but that one is league champions Sheffield, who are already positioned as favourites and have the high expectations of their fanbase riding on their shoulders as they look to complete a double season.

However, as we know in the playoffs, when you’re two games from success, anyone can win, and anyone can lose. On Saturday all four teams have 60 minutes to extend their season one more meaningful day and finish the year with playoff glory. Anything can happen.

So, let’s look at how all four teams in Nottingham can become playoff champions this weekend. And also how they can lose it.

SHEFFIELD STEELERS – THE UNCROWNED KINGS

Why they’ll win the title: That top line, for a start. The trio of Mike Forney, Colton Fretter and consensus Elite League Player Of The Year Mathieu Roy is one of, if not the most lethal unit in the league, bar none. Those three players should see Gerad Adams thanking the hockey gods for their chemistry, scoring ability and more to the point ability to produce in the (vast majority) of big games. Behind them, Josh Unice has been a revelation in net after being brought in as an unheralded “temporary” replacement for the injured Frank Doyle, and defensively the Steelers have been far stronger and more composed than this season with the likes of Ben O’Connor and Darrell Hay being valuable contributors at both ends of the ice.

But the main terror is up front. When they’re on their game, the Steelers can roll four strong lines that attack in waves and in Mathieu Roy they’ve got one of the most dangerous forwards the EIHL has ever seen. When on their game, Sheffield will just keep knocking on the door until they batter it down-and that’s what they’ll need to do against the opposition this weekend.

Why they’ll lose the title: Sometimes, Sheffield simply don’t turn up. Or if they do, they’re neutralised by a team that’s worked out the way they play and counters it perfectly. If they’re not given space and time and allowed to play their high-tempo, high-intensity game, then the Steelers can run riot, particularly if their special teams are firing (look at their 11-0 victory over title rivals Cardiff). However, if the other team is shutting that game down…there’s not much of a plan B (again, look at Sheffield v Cardiff-this time the Challenge Cup Final). The Steelers have all the talent, and sometimes all the workrate…but when one or the other decides not to be at full contribution, they have looked a very ordinary team – as shown by the fact that against their own conference they actually have a slightly lower win percentage than Nottingham, and relied on a near-100% record v Gardiner teams to carry them over the league line (funny, all that moaning about Braehead riding a weaker conference to a title seems to have stopped now).

They’re also the favourites, so are going out there with a massive target on their backs. It only takes one team to hit it over the weekend, or a hot goalie on the other team, and they might see their dream turn to a nightmare.

HULL STINGRAYS – THE MIRACLE-IN-WAITING

Why they’ll win: The Stingrays, simply put, have nothing to lose. They are the team who’ve already slain one titan in order to be here, coming from behind against Braehead to win in OT of the 2nd leg. They’re already above their season expectations, arguably, just by making it to the weekend.
But they’re not a team to discount. If you were designing a team to win an individual hockey game against more skilled and talented opponents, then Hull’s disruptive-yet-fearless style is one that you’d seriously consider emulating. They’ve got young players who’ve become stars this season in Jordan Mayer, Zach Hervato and the (unfortunately injured) Cory Tanaka, and have proven many times this season that, over 60 minutes, they are more than capable of beating more illustrious opponents. Add in a bit of local spice with the Yorkshire Derby in the semi final and anything can happen.

Why they won’t win: All of the benefits for Hull – that they’re coming in with an underdog spirit, can beat any team on any night, etc…are also, ironically, reasons why they may not. In David Brown the Stingrays have a useful netminder, but can he stand up to the onslaught of Sheffield in the semi final – a team that has won 15 games more than them?
A young squad with an average age of 25 is a factor here, too…all the other teams in the finals are far more experienced and come with far greater pedigree, so there is absolutely no margin for error whatsoever. Coach Omar Pacha knows his team will have to play smart and simple, restricting the scoring chances…can they do that consistently enough to stop not just the powerhouse Steelers, but whoever they face in the final?

COVENTRY BLAZE – THE SPOILERS

Why they’ll win: The Blaze have seen an incredible turnaround from a collection of individuals who barely seemed to know where many were on the ice under Marc Lefebvre to a cohesive, hard-working if uninspiring unit under Chuck Weber. But one thing has remained common under both coaches – their unstinting reliance on Brian Stewart in net. It’s amazing the Canadian hasn’t already needed extensive back surgery, since he’s been carrying 18 players in blue on it for practically all of the past 8 months, and Chuck Weber’s defence-first system has only exacerbated the strain. However, Stewart has responded admirably, and is arguably the biggest reason the Blaze are here at all, never mind why they’ll win the title.

However, the Blaze aren’t just a one-man team…they also rely equally heavily on offensive talisman Ryan O’Marra. Practically anything good this team does going forward involves the big centre…he’s their leader in goals, assists and points for a reason. If he doesn’t fire, the Blaze don’t. If he does, and the team commit to Weber’s defence first strategy, then they’re tough to break down and will always be in games. That could be crucial this weekend.

Why they won’t win: You can’t build a castle on foundations of sand, and you can’t build a consistently successful team that relies so heavily on so small a number of players. Brian Stewart HAS to be on his game for the Blaze. If he is even slightly less than excellent, then the low-scoring Blaze offence simply cannot be relied upon to bail him out, both due to the lack of true scorers and Weber’s defence-first, rigid system. If there’s the slightest chink in the armour, then the likes of Belfast and Sheffield will exploit it ruthlessly.

The Blaze are like Sheffield in the respect that they, too, can often simply decide not to turn up. Mentally, the team are capable of imploding at the worst possible moment into penalty trouble, too…something that could be disastrous in a “lose-and-go-home” situation against a team just hitting form like Belfast – we’ve seen what the Giants did to Cardiff when they had an off day. They have history of disappearing in several elimination games this season-see the Challenge Cup QF first leg and both games of the semi, for example. Can they handle the pressure now the Blaze fanbase actually think they can win?

The Blaze fanbase are currently positioning themselves as the desperate hard-working underdogs…which is ironic when they have one of the most expensive rosters in the EIHL. This weekend is when we see for sure whether Chuck Weber can make the team, and his defence-first system, worth the investment put into it all year.

BELFAST GIANTS – THE RISING TIDE

Why they’ll win The Giants are the momentum team. They come into the weekend having pulled off a superb victory against the fancied Cardiff Devils in the quarter-finals, demolishing the Red Army in their own rink last Sunday with a superb, balanced display of attacking hockey that finally saw the team reach the potential that Giants fans think it should have hit all year and not just in patches. In Keefe-Lloyd-Garside they have the best shutdown line in the league, one that’s an absolute nightmare to play against and built for tight, hard-checking playoff games against stubborn opponents. They also have the added emotional motivation of Giants hero and talisman Rob Sandrock retiring after this weekend, which could carry them through to greater feats when the chips are down, and an offensive unit that finally displayed its full power against Cardiff.
In facing Coventry they’re also being given an opponent that doesn’t really focus on exploiting their weaknesses…the Giants are more than capable of picking apart a defence-first system if necessary.
Then, of course, there’s the motivation of being losing playoff finalists last year…to Sheffield.That will have stung all year, and along with the loss of their league title, this is the perfect time for this Giants squad to show that it’s still hungry, still up for the fight, and to answer the criticisms it’s faced all year. That’s a powerful driving force.

Why they won’t win: For all the talk of the Giants dominance last year, this team is not that team. Others have improved and the league season showed that up in glaring fashion. Under a new coach, the Giants this year have not had the aura of invincibility they carried around last year.
Like Coventry and Sheffield, they’re also prone to off-nights…have one of those against the Blaze and their weekend could almost be over before it’s begun if Brian Stewart, as expected, is on form. The Giants also nearly sabotaged themselves against Cardiff last week thanks to penalty trouble…get into discipline problems this PO weekend and they’ll once again be asking for trouble.

So there we are. Four teams with an eye on the playoff trophy. All with a chance of winning it, and coverage live on Premier Sports.

It’s shaping up to be a hell of a weekend of hockey, whoever wins.

Good luck, gentlemen. May the best team win.

Judgement Weekend Update: The Final Picture

So, Sheffield beat Nottingham in overtime thanks to the vital-goal scoring machine and surely Steelers (and likely EIHL) Player of the Year Mathieu Roy. Here’s how the table looks now:

SHEFFIELD BEAT NOTTINGHAM (OT) GAMES PLAYED POINTS REG WINS WINS
Sheffield 51 72 29 34
Cardiff 50 70 28 33
Braehead 50 69 31 33

So…how does that affect the title race?

First, bear in mind that any scenario that sees Braehead level on points with another team means the Clan finish higher. But, the Clan need to take at least three points from the weekend to get in amongst the title race, so we’re looking at them either winning or losing in OT. Anything else on either night will see them out of the title race.

SCENARIO 1: Sheffield Win (in regulation or OT)

Any Sheffield win will give them the title tomorrow night. It’s that simple.

So…we know that Cardiff have to win tomorrow to prevent the Steelers winning it, and Braehead also have to take at least a point on Saturday to even have a chance. Let’s take a look at the possible scenarios .

SCENARIO 2a: Cardiff win in Regulation, Braehead win:

Team GAMES PLAYED POINTS REG WINS WINS
Cardiff 51 72 29 34
Sheffield 52 72 29 34
Braehead 51 71 32 34

Cardiff go above Sheffield on the tiebreaker here (it’ll go past wins, regulation wins, AND record between the two teams all the way down to better away record) which means that they only need to match Braehead’s result on the Sunday to win the title. Braehead need to get a better result against Fife than Cardiff do v Nottingham on Sunday night.

SCENARIO 2b: Cardiff win in regulation, Braehead lose in OT

Team GAMES PLAYED POINTS REG WINS WINS
Cardiff 51 72 29 34
Sheffield 52 72 29 34
Braehead 51 70 31 33

In this situation, anything other than a Cardiff loss in regulation against Nottingham AND a Braehead win will give the Devils the title.

SCENARIO 2c: Cardiff win in OT, Braehead win

SHEFFIELD BEAT NOTTINGHAM (OT) GAMES PLAYED POINTS REG WINS WINS
Sheffield 51 72 29 34
Cardiff 52 72 28 34
Braehead 51 71 31/32 34

This time round the scenario actually benefits Braehead the most. An OT for Cardiff and Braehead will mean that Sheffield stay above both on the tiebreaker. Assuming that doesn’t happen, the Devils have to get an equal or better result than that of the Clan on Sunday-the Clan, logically, then need a better result than the Devils on Sunday to win the title.

Another wrinkle here-in this situation the Clan only need an OT loss to leap into 2nd whatever the result of the title race-even if Cardiff take the title, to take the “other” CHL spot-which means that the Clan COULD potentially be in the position of winning the title on an OT loss in Fife.

That’s a little clearer than it was earlier this evening as far as the title goes, isn’t it? :)

Bring on the weekend.

Judgement Weekend: Every Way The EIHL Title Race Can Be Decided, In One Easy Lesson

So, here we are. 50 games played already, and with two to go any one of three teams (Sheffield, Cardiff and Braehead) can still lift the EIHL league title this weekend. A weekend of high drama, tension and frantic mathematics lies ahead as fans try to work out how every goal and situation will affect the EIHL league table.

Well, now you don’t have to. Because Chasing Dragons does it for you. Get ready to have your brain hurt…it’s the EIHL title race, explained, with every possible result catered for!

PART ONE: THE EASY BIT.

If Sheffield or Cardiff win both their games this weekend, they are champions. That’s perhaps the only certainty within this group, and it’s brought to us by the wonders of the EIHL fixture list, which has one title rival finishing their season against another, at home, on a Saturday night.

If Sheffield win both their games this weekend, here’s how the table will look, assuming Braehead win both theirs also.

SHEFF WIN BOTH GAMES
TEAM GAMES PLAYED POINTS
Sheffield 52 74
Braehead 52 73
Cardiff 52 72

That’s so easy, we don’t even need to look into regulation wins and tiebreakers, do we?

Let’s say, however, that Cardiff win both. Then the result is that Cardiff win the title, but they do so by the narrowest of margins…either by one point from Braehead or by either one or two points from Sheffield.

CARDIFF WIN BOTH GAMES
TEAM GAMES PLAYED POINTS
Cardiff 52 74
Braehead 52 73
Sheffield 52 72

By the same token, if Cardiff and Sheffield both only win one game, and lose the other in regulation or OT this weekend, and Braehead win both, then the Clan win the title, although in this case it’s by one point. Tiebreakers will then come into play to decide which team gets the CHL spot-more than likely regulation wins or wins:

BRAEHEAD WIN BOTH GAMES, C/S BOTH LOSE ONE
TEAM GAMES PLAYED POINTS
Braehead 52 73
Cardiff 52 72
Sheffield 52 72

Whether or not the win in regulation is in the Sheffield/Cardiff game or not will determine who takes the 2nd spot in this scenario, as it’ll come down to results between the two clubs. But Braehead will be champions.

Let’s also bear in mind that as far as regulation wins (the first tiebreaker) goes, Braehead already have four more than both Sheffield and Cardiff, so, in ANY tiebreaker situation involving Clan, they will have the advantage, irrespective of any other results over the weekend).

That, ladies and gents, is the easy bit. Now, let’s work forward from tonight, using all four possible outcomes of the Sheffield/Nottingham clash as a starting point. NOTE: ANY Sheffield win v Nottingham tonight will mean Braehead need to win both games to have a chance at the title, so to save space going forward, we are assuming that if Sheffield beat Nottingham, Braehead will win on Saturday also in all scenarios.

We already know that any Sheffield win v Cardiff on Saturday will ensure them the title, whatever happens. We also know that a Cardiff win in regulation will open the door to both Braehead and the Devils on Sunday.

So, let’s look at the table situations based on tonight’s results.

SCENARIO 1: SHEFFIELD BEAT NOTTINGHAM IN REGULATION

Here is how the top three will look if Sheffield beat Nottingham in regulation tonight:

SHEFFIELD BEAT NOTTINGHAM (regulation) GAMES PLAYED POINTS REG WINS WINS
Sheffield 51 72 30 34
Cardiff 50 70 28 33
Braehead 50 69 33 31

Scenario 1a) CARDIFF WIN IN REGULATION ON SATURDAY

TEAMS GAMES PLAYED POINTS REG WINS WINS
Sheffield 52 72 30 34
Cardiff 51 72 29 34
Braehead 51 71 31/32 34

Scenario 1b) CARDIFF WIN IN OT 

TEAMS GAMES PLAYED POINTS REG WINS WINS
Sheffield 52 73 30 34
Cardiff 51 72 28 34
Braehead 51 71 31/32 34

From this point, Cardiff are in an incredibly strong position. A win v Nottingham of any type means the title goes to South Wales. For Braehead to win the title, they will need to win on Saturday, then better Cardiff’s result on Sunday. Sheffield now need both teams to lose in regulation on Sunday in order to claim the title. However the one wrinkle here-if Sheffield claim a point on Saturday night, then they finish above Cardiff in the table, and take a CHL place, again on tiebreakers.

SCENARIO 2: SHEFFIELD BEAT NOTTINGHAM IN OT/PS

Here’s how that changes the top three:

SHEFFIELD BEAT NOTTINGHAM (OT) GAMES PLAYED POINTS REG WINS WINS
Sheffield 51 72 29 34
Cardiff 50 70 28 33
Braehead 50 69 31 33

So again, we move to Saturday’s scenarios if Cardiff win. Again, for the purposes of brevity, we are assuming Braehead win on Saturday night. If they don’t, they’re out of the race for top.

Scenario 2a: Cardiff win in regulation:

TEAMS GAMES PLAYED POINTS REG WINS WINS
Cardiff 51 72 29 34
Sheffield 51 72 29 34
Braehead 52 71 31 33

This scenario is a convoluted one, thanks to the possible permutations. Simple things first…if Braehead better Cardiff’s result on Sunday, then they take the title. If Cardiff win, they take the title. However, if Cardiff and Braehead both lose on Sunday in this scenario, it starts to get REALLY convoluted. Sheffield and Cardiff are now level on points, regulation wins, league wins AND league record (4-4). They’re also dead level in all the criteria taken from those…which means we’re down to the EIGHTH possible criteria…who has the better away record. It’s Cardiff. So – in this scenario, it will be the closest EIHL finish ever, and the Devils will take the title. However, if Cardiff win in OT on Saturday night, then they will need at least a point on Sunday v Nottingham – a regulation loss will give Sheffield the title on regulation wins.

SCENARIO 3: SHEFFIELD LOSE TO NOTTINGHAM IN OT

SHEFFIELD LOSE TO NOTTINGHAM (OT) GAMES PLAYED POINTS REG WINS WINS
Sheffield 51 71 29 33
Cardiff 50 70 28 33
Braehead 50 69 31 33

This one is where things really start to get fun.

A Cardiff win on Saturday of any kind in this scenario means they only need to equal or better Braehead’s result on Sunday to win the title. It also means that Cardiff can win the title on Saturday night if they win and Braehead lose. However, it also means that even if Cardiff lose to Sheffield in OT on Saturday, they can still win the title on Sunday with a win of any kind, or in fact a better result that Braehead. The Clan, meanwhile, will have to win and hope Cardiff lose in regulation v Nottingham to take the title.

SCENARIO 4: SHEFFIELD LOSE TO NOTTINGHAM IN REGULATION.

SHEFFIELD LOSE TO NOTTINGHAM (REG) GAMES PLAYED POINTS REG WINS WINS
Sheffield 51 70 29 33
Cardiff 50 70 28 33
Braehead 50 69 31 33

This one is easy. Cardiff simply need 3 points to win the title (a win and an OT loss will do the job, whichever order they come in) unless Braehead win both games over the weekend. The Clan will need to better both the Devils’ and Steelers results at least once to finish top.

That’s all the title scenarios worked out…Now, here is who holds the tiebreaker in any tie…

Braehead hold the advantage over either Sheffield or Cardiff in any tiebreaker

STEELERS/DEVILS – STEELERS (unless Cardiff beat the Steelers in regulation on Saturday-then Devils hold the advantage).

To add to this-if Nottingham beat Sheffield they win the Erhardt Conference and thus the 2nd seed in the playoffs. The team that finishes 2nd will take the 2nd CHL place. If that team is Sheffield or Cardiff, however, they will be seeded third for the playoffs if Nottingham beat Sheffield.

Does your head hurt yet?

It’s only the beginning of a title-deciding EIHL weekend, but at least now, you know all the possible ways it can play out.

Buckle up. It’s gonna be a wild one.

A Legend Says Farewell: Sir Tony Hand Announces His Retirement.

“Talent hits a target no-one else can hit. Genius hits a target no-one else can see”

Arthur Schopenhauer
Today is a sad day in British ice-hockey. It’s a day that sees the greatest Briton ever to take up a pair of hockey skates and use them in anger decide to pack his Bauer Supremes away for the last time.
It’s a day that sees one of the hidden greats of world ice hockey finally step aside from the frozen stage for the last time.
Today, via the Manchester Phoenix facebook page, we learned that the man known as the “British Gretzky” and Edinburgh’s favourite hockey son, Tony Hand, is retiring from playing:

It is impossible to explain to anyone outside British hockey just how important to the sport in the UK Tony Hand has been. He’s been a leader, a linchpin, a golden boy, a crutch, and an inspiration to everyone who’s been involved in British hockey at any level-and continues to be so. If it could be done in hockey…if it could be won…he’s probably done it. And won it.
Born in Edinburgh in 1967, Tony started his pro career aged 14-a career that’s taken him all over Britain and the world via Edinburgh, Victoria BC, Edmonton, Sheffield, Ayr, Dundee, Belfast, Edinburgh, and for the last nine years, Manchester. He’s been a pro hockey player for 33 of his 47 years on this earth, all but a few months of it spent playing for British teams.
He’s won countless titles. He’s been a legend at more than one club and for his country, representing every team he’s played for with quiet pride and the kind of skill that takes your breath away.
The sheer numbers alone are incredible.
34 seasons played. Over 1500 games. 3,770 points (and counting). More assists in his career than Gretzky. 10 league and playoff titles. Innumerable individual awards.
Oh yes, and also this one line that makes him almost unique among native-born British players, tucked away at the bottom of the 1986 NHL draft list:
#252 Edmonton Oilers  Tony Hand (C)
Yup. Tony Hand is, to this day, one of only two native-born British players ever drafted by an NHL team (the other, Colin Shields, is also still playing in the EIHL, and at 35 is a young buck compared to Hand’s 47).
The sheer numbers and facts don’t convey just what it was and is like watching Tony Hand play for a British hockey fan, though.
Hand is not and never was a rough-and-tumble player. He could handle himself where necessary (he is Scottish, after all) but his game has not and never will rely on pure brute strength. It relies instead on skating, on guile, and on a hockey brain that ticks along like the finest of Swiss watches while rarely missing a beat.
To watch Hand play, even to this day, is to watch an artist work, using the ice as his canvas and his stick as the paintbrush. His skill with the puck has been matched by few, if any players he’s played with or against in his career.
A typical Hand play is to skate almost lazily into the zone, head up and puck on stick, before either placing a killer pass for a scoring opportunity or starting a move that led to him or a team-mate putting the puck in the net…and if you watch him you always notice that even away from the puck, his head and eyes are always moving, watching, processing the situation around him and reacting to it at a speed that seems almost unearthly. At times you’d watch Hand receive the puck, slow up just a little and the entire arena seem to pause to take a breath and slow around him before beginning to bend itself to the shape he wanted.
Tony had a gift that very few hockey players have ever had-the ability to remain unhurried and unruffled like an oasis of serenity in the madhouse that is pro hockey. He had the ability to make the game seem to go at his pace, so seamlessly did he constantly adjust his pace to fit the game. Passing isn’t a mundane skill in his hands-it is a mean to eviscerate an opposition defence, prompt an attack, relieve pressure…a many splendoured thing.
To watch Hand prompt and subtly probe an opposition defence for weaknesses was like watching a surgeon at work, or an engineer methodically testing the workings of a machine for weaknesses…patient, thorough, unerringly accurate.
Precise.
If you were on the opposition side of the ice in any capacity, watching the Scottish master work was terrifying in its quiet relentlessness…it brought to mind waves eroding away at a cliff or the quiet concentration and dogged persistence of a mathematician working out a problem. He rarely misplaced a pass or got caught out of position. At times he almost seemed to take joy in playing with opposition defences, using his team-mates as rebounding boards to pull them apart, sending them this way and that in an attempt to keep up with both him and the puck.
The only word appropriate for someone like Hand when he was on form was “mesmerizing.”
As a coach, he’s already won several titles while still remaining among the leading playmakers on his team despite reaching the age of 47.
Men of 47 simply don’t play a high-speed, contact sport like ice-hockey to the level he does.
Even when not at work, Hand has an aura of greatness around him for British hockey people of any description. I once had the chance to play on a line with him in a training session when he came along to coach the rec team I played…and it was an experience akin to a footballer sharing the pitch with Pele. The constant thought of “good god…I just took a pass in a drill from the greatest British player ever…” or “I HAVE to get stuff right…he’s watching” was prevalent.
And as for a word of praise, even for a pass that connected…that was like praise from the top of Olympus itself.
As of the end of this season Hand will no longer play-just take a full-time off-ice coaching role. He will no longer take the ice as a player, but he leaves a legacy of British hockey that it’s likely very few if any will ever match.
The most-loved British player of several generations. Career points totals that will likely never, ever be matched in British hockey again. 30 years of bewitching the rinks of Britain with his skills. Countless hockey fans who will remember watching him play the way Canadians remember Gretzky, Russians remember Tretiak or Americans remember the “Miracle On Ice” team. Already there are calls for him to be given the highest possible tribute the sport can give, and for his number 9 to be unilaterally retired across UK hockey.
It would be a fitting tribute to British hockey’s greatest native son. But it still wouldn’t all the gifts that the 5’10, 181lb proud Scot has given to British hockey.
Farewell and thank you, Sir Tony. If anyone has earned a rest from playing, you have.
Bidh mi ‘gad fhaicinn and Sealbh math dhuit, GB’s number nine.